Survey finds North Bay arts community hard hit by October 2017 wildfires

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Fire Coverage

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Since last year’s wildfires, more than half of the North Bay’s arts organizations have lost income, nearly two thirds of the artists affected by the fires saw their studios completely destroyed and nearly of quarter of those artists lost not only studios, but their homes as well.

A report issued this month by Northern California Grantmakers — a San Francisco-based organization that coordinates funding for nonprofits, government and business to address regional social issues — concludes that the North Bay arts community has been profoundly and disproportionately impacted by the fires.

“It was difficult — no doubt about it. I shed tears,” said Sonoma County painter Bill Gittins, whose home and studio near Paradise Ridge Winery were burned to the ground, destroying his catalog of 146 oil paintings, some dating back 30 years.

“My studio was in my home,” he said. “In business terms, in put me out of work for 6 to 8 weeks, but there are people who haven’t even started yet.”

Since February, Gittins has been using a studio space at the Fulton Crossing artisan center. The 32-page report, titled “North Bay Fires and the Arts: One Year Later,” is based on a survey of 39 arts organizations in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties and 98 individual artists, including Gittins, who suffered losses in the fires, as well as focus groups in all three counties.

Visual artists with home studios and musicians with garage practice spaces lost not only their houses but their workplaces, said Kristen Madsen, director of Creative Sonoma, a division of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, which helped connect the study researchers with local artists and agencies.

“An artist who returned to her neighborhood after the fires to discover that both her home and studio were destroyed, told us she said to herself, ‘Well, I guess I’m not an artist anymore,’’’ Madsen said. “Her loss was not only of her physical home, her physical studio, the tools of her trade, all her finished and in-progress work – but more importantly, the touchstones of her identity.”

The Northern California Grantmakers study was conceived and funded by the Hewlett Foundation of Menlo Park, a major source of grants to the arts and a variety of other causes. In turn, Northern California Grantmakers commissioned the research nonprofit Learning by Action to conduct the actual surveys.

Visual artists and musicians were not the only segments of the arts community affected by the fires. The east wing of the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts was destroyed by the blaze.

The findings will help the Hewlett Foundation determine what support North Bay communities and other areas by natural disasters will need in the future.

The impact of the fires on artists deserves to be taken seriously because of the arts community’s contribution to local tourism and the overall economy, Madsen explained.

Creative Sonoma estimates that nonprofit arts and culture-related businesses generate more than $80 million in annual economic activity in Sonoma County alone, according to a study released earlier this year. Every dollar of local government support for the arts generates an average $3 in increased local tax revenues.

Less tangible, but still important is the social and emotional support provided by the arts community, Madsen said.

“Artists were among the first in our community to raise their hand to help after the fires, regardless of the loss they had also experienced,” she explained. “They participated in benefit concerts and art sales. They went into the evacuation centers to play music and do art to bring some level of peace to the folks who were there. We consider them our second responders.”

(This story has been changed to correct the amount of economic activity in Sonoma County generated by the arts.)

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or On Twitter @danarts.

Fire Coverage

To read all of the PD's fire anniversary coverage, click here.

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