Art in the time of COVID

Sierra arts foundation supported artists, created galleries in 2020

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Reno artist Kelsey Sweet, on left in gold makeup, and her "Golden Unikorn" at a Sierra Arts Foundation art sale on the Pioneer Plaza March 21. The sculpture helps draw attention to Sweet's SITAS (Sex in the Art Scene) effort, aimed at bringing attention to sexual assault and formulating solutions for prevention.

Art springs anew in Reno, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A powerful force in area arts, Sierra Arts Foundation has grown stronger in the last year. The foundation not only survived the crisis, but also worked to deepen and refocus Sierra Art’s support of individual local artists, said Tracey Oliver, executive director..

 “It gave us an opportunity to walk the walk, not just talk the talk,” she said.

 Artists are the “root system” of Reno-Sparks’ economic growth, Oliver said, because they makes the community attractive to both residents and visitors.

Grants to local artists

Within weeks of the pandemic being declared in March 2020, the foundation launched an artist relief fund, which awarded eligible artists $1,000 each. The checks went to adult practicing artists in financial hardship living within 100 miles of Reno.  

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: Tracey Oliver, executive director of Sierra Arts Foundation.


Initial funding came from a grassroots campaign that raised about $30,000, Oliver said.  Then, “the city (of Reno) gave us $50,000, and later another $100,000,” increasing the fund’s total to $180,000.  The money was especially welcome, because  safety concerns forced Sierra Arts to cancel its largest fundraising event, the annual Brew HaHa.

The direct financial relief encouraged artists: “They felt that there is somebody looking out for us, somebody that thinks ‘my work is important,’” she said.  Artist membership in the organization has since doubled.

‘No place to go’

Reno painter Tracy Kimmons is grateful for the financial support from Sierra Arts.  “I felt it was recognition and validation for my work,” she said.  She found herself in need of help after her art residency in Portugal for the month of March 2020 was cut off after only 15 days when the country locked down at the start of the pandemic. 

Tracy Kimmons, Reno artist.

“I had to leave but I had no place to go,” Kimmons said.  “We couldn’t get back home; the flights were being cancelled.”  She had to spend the residency money on hard-to-find housing in Portugal until she was finally able to fly to the U.S., causing her financial hardship.

To help boost artists’ income, Sierra Arts hosted outdoor public art sales this spring in downtown Reno, and maintained  galleries where artists show work for sale. The venues include Sierra Arts Gallery in the Riverside Hotel next to the Washoe County Courthouse and the Sparks Depot Gallery in the heart of Victorian Square.  Private tours of the galleries have proved popular during the pandemic, Oliver said, and the Riverside Hotel gallery provided extra space for dining by Wild River Grill patrons.

Marketing artists’ work

PK Klein, Reno artist.

Artist PK Klein, who showed her paintings in an exhibition this April at the main Sierra Arts gallery, is enthusiastic about the organization’s outreach to artists and the community.  She moved to Northern Nevada from Illinois two years ago and has participated in several SAF activities, including the outdoor art sales.

“Sierra Arts provides many opportunities for artists to show their work,” Klein said.  “They also use social media to communicate to the public about what’s happening around town and in the galleries.”  For her April exhibition, Sierra Arts provided a virtual tour of her work and the work of the two other artists in the show.

Tracy Kimmons also showed her art, some of which she painted in Portugal, in a show in the Sierra Arts gallery in March 2020, part of her residency proposal, approved when she was finally able to return from Europe.

“Sierra Arts truly reaches out to artists; they really do care,” Kimmons said.  “It is outstanding to work with them.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Artist Lori Foster, center, at her table at the Sierra Arts Foundation’s art sale at Pioneer Plaza March 21.

In-person and virtual galleries

As well as providing direct financial help, Sierra Arts also invested in professional development for artists, teaching simple ways to use technology, such as mounting an I pad above a workspace to capture an artist’s hands at work.   

Sierra Arts has created virtual galleries at the main gallery on Virginia Street and the Sparks Depot Gallery, which was put together through a partnership with the City of Sparks. Another virtual gallery showcased the permanent gallery at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport which features art by artists across Nevada.  Access to the gallery is physically restricted to ticketed travelers, but online “anybody can see it,” Oliver said.

Businesses can show local artists’ work for sale in their workplaces through the Galleries at Work program. Participating businesses include Microsoft, Reno Orthopedic Clinic, the Reno Aces, NV Energy, Plumas Bank, Engine 8 Winery, Packs N Pints, Los Tres Hombres, O’skis Pub and Pinon Bottle Company.  In addition, local artwork is displayed in the Reno and Washington, D.C. offices of both Nevada senators.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Prints by Reno muralist Bryce Chisholm at the Sierra Arts Foundation’s sale at Pioneer Plaza.

Arts in Education online

By strengthening the artist community, the traditional programs of Arts in Education as well as the more recent initiatives of Teen Empowerment and Youthvantage were able to thrive even as public access to art was restricted. 

“We are back in school, virtually,” Oliver said. Teaching artists in the Arts in Education programs in schools as well as artists in residence have been operating live via virtual media.  Artists in residence serve middle and high schools, and artists also partner with elementary school teachers to enhance teaching of core subjects including math, English and science.

Teaching artists also work at the Arts Alternatives sites of Innovations Academy, Turning Point High School, Warm Springs Correctional Center and the Jan Evans Juvenile Detention Center, encouraging youth with alternatives to drug and gang activities.

Documentaries and poetry

Pan Pantoja served as a teaching artist at the Jan Evans Center and Turning Point High School until 2012. He used his skills in poetry, creative writing and filmmaking to help students improve communication and stay away from at-risk activities.  He produced two documentaries with students about their lives.

Pantoja produced an online course in art and poetry for Sierra Arts.  “They have figured out how to keep art in the schools when we didn’t have school. Pretty clever,” he said.  He founded the Potentialist Workshop in Reno six years ago and was named Poet Laureate of the City of Reno for 2019-2021.

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: Pan Pantoja, artist, teacher and Reno’s Poet Laureate, at the Potentialist Workshop in Reno

 “There’s nothing the arts can’t make better,” Oliver said.  “If you watch a modern dance performance that portrays the germination of a seed, you remember it longer and it is a deeper learning.”  Modern educators are striving to turn out students who become problem solvers and who think outside the box, she said. Those skills are being developed and enhanced by artists and their work.

The “root system” of arts and artists pops up in unexpected but valuable places within the community.

Art supplies distributed

About 2,470 high-school freshmen enrolled in an Intro to Art class needed art supplies, but some students couldn’t afford them.  Sierra Arts raised $5,000 and with the help of Nevada Fine Arts, put together a $20 kit for each student, assembled by the Holland Project. The kits included sketchbooks or drawing pads, colored pencils, a watercolor set with a brush, and a pencil sharpener, eraser, a ruler and scissors.  The money came from an ongoing online campaign and in response to the foundations letters to supporters, Oliver said.

The arts are helping to heal patients in places like Renown Health, Hope Springs and counseling offices, Oliver said.

The Teen Empowerment program, for example, addresses the critical issue of teenage suicide and self-harm through arts activities as alternatives.  According to 2020 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nevada’s teen suicide rate is above the national average and Washoe County has one of the highest such rates in the nation. 

Music for memories

One in-person program that was on hold during the pandemic has been the Elder Care Concert Series. That series formerly brought live music performances to residents at assisted living, skilled nursing and senior living facilities.  The artists get training in how to interact with seniors with age-related diseases. During the pandemic, the concert series morphed into an online offering, producing recorded performances designed to tug at memories and set patients’ feet tapping. 

Sierra Arts is preparing for its in-person comeback.  “We are ready to throw the doors wide open and jump right back in,” Oliver said.  “We will be full steam ahead with events for Artown and all our programs. We hired eight more artists last week.”

Those who wish more information about Sierra Arts Foundation may call (775) 329-2787 or visit its website.

NOTE: This story was edited April 29, changing the amount raised for the NAF's student art supplies kits to $5,000 and adding that Nevada Fine Arts provided supplies for the kits (at a greatly reduced rate).

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