How the arts help communities heal after a disaster: Q&A with Kristen Madsen of Creative Sonoma

Since the fires cooled in November, members of the Sonoma community have been dropping off plastic bags, mason jars, and Tupperware containers of ash from their homes to artist Gregory Roberts’ front porch for use in his “Sonoma Ash Project.” The ash sample is processed for use in a ceramic glaze. Each person who has dropped off ash will receive a porcelain object made from the ashes of their home, in the likeness of the iconic round Barn which was also destroyed in the fires. Cover photo courtesy of the Museums of Sonoma County, The Fire Wall.

April 27, 2018 (Originally published by the William + Flora Hewlett Foundation)
The Hewlett Foundation announced today $1.2 million in grants to help local arts organizations affected by the wildfires that devastated communities across the North Bay in the fall of 2017. Among the eight organizations receiving grants from the fund is Creative Sonoma, a program of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board that supports the local creative community with training, consulting services, and other resources. In this interview, Kristen Madsen, director of Creative Sonoma, explains how the arts community in Sonoma and Napa was affected by the disaster, and how the work of artists is critical to addressing the deep emotional, economic, and social wounds felt by the broader community.

HEWLETT FOUNDATION (HF): It seems one of the hardest things about recovering from any disaster is what happens after the news media moves on. Six months after the fire, what’s happening in Sonoma County? How is the community recovering from the fire?

KRISTEN MADSEN (KM): Slowly, and in fits and starts. There are bright spots emerging with growing frequency alongside the conscious acceptance that recovery is a long and thorny journey. The return of spring’s green undergrowth beneath the charcoaled trees brings equal measures of heartbreak for what’s been lost and promise for what’s to come. While your breath may no longer be snatched from your throat as you drive through a fire zone for the third, or tenth or twentieth time, the pit in your stomach is worse from fear that you’re beginning to accept it as normal.

At six months in, we are still living with just the symbols of recovery. The first new house going up in Coffey Park. The re-opening of the Glen Ellen Inn. The summer concert season being announced at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. While each new example feeds our reservoir of hope and fuels our determination, we will welcome the day when they string together in a sense of meaningful momentum.

HF: Creative Sonoma has been a leader in helping the arts community recover from the fire. Where have the greatest impacts been on artists and arts organizations?

KM: While last year’s fires were indiscriminate, the results were intensely personal. Far and away, the greatest loss of structures was homes. For many of our artists, it was a double hit because their homes were also their studios. The Luther Burbank Center for the Arts and its tenant arts companies were the primary arts organizations that suffered physical loss. But all of our arts organizations and individual creatives were impacted at some level—fundraising activities were cancelled or redirected, staff and board members lost homes, events were cancelled, and more.

Creative Sonoma established a Recovery Fund last fall, thanks in large part to an earlier contribution from the Hewlett Foundation, which has now granted more than $135,000 to 120 individuals and creative organizations for both physical and economic loss.

We had the great privilege to meet personally with all of those recipients. The stories, told to us first-hand, were every bit as harrowing as those we all saw in the news. As we carefully dug just a little below the fragile and wounded surfaces of these fire survivors, we unearthed a common theme. There was relief, then curiosity, then tremendous gratitude as these artists realized that the funds they were receiving were predominantly from people who live outside Sonoma County, who did not know them personally, but who believed in the value of their work.

One of our recipients told us that when she was able to return to the ash-filled lot that had been her home, to see with her own eyes that her studio, her artwork, and all of her tools were gone, her first thought was “Well, I guess I’m not an artist anymore.” Receiving a grant, through the generosity of people unknown to her but who believed in her nonetheless, was a validation of her value to this community that she didn’t expect to need or to find in this way.

Early reports indicate that the vast majority of our grantees intend to stay in Sonoma County, rebuilding, and reimagining their futures here. Those numbers may change as the realities of construction and an already tight housing market play out for every individual family affected. But we are encouraged by the tenacity and commitment they are showing to help us all build back better in Sonoma County.

We were also happy to work in partnership with our counterparts at the Arts Council Napa Valley and the Arts Council Mendocino County to share resources and coordinated responses.

HF: What is the role of the arts in recovering from a disaster like last year’s fires? Can you share examples that illustrate that role from your work?

KM: Creative Sonoma is an active participant in the county’s official recovery plan including new conversations about integrating art into new construction. We don’t have an existing public art ordinance in the county and the timing seems especially right. Pilot projects are under discussion and we hope that support for an ordinance might be a long-term positive contribution from the arts community to the recovery. The symbols of creative construction and renovation can bolster the belief that our future will not simply be different, but will be better.

More immediately, there are remarkable, creative endeavors underway to help heal. Both of our art museums are engaging community members in making art that reflects their feelings and experiences surrounding the fires. The Charles M. Schulz Museum is inviting the community to apply original interpretative designs onto doghouses, provided by the museum, which will be auctioned off as a fundraiser for fire relief. Art Escape is hosting a project where 160 tiny birdhouses will be painted, and personal narratives tucked into them. All 160 will be grouped into a “town” of tiny homes. The project culminates with a community potluck where participants will take a birdhouse home.

Creative Sonoma has trained a cadre of teaching artists in using the arts to help students who have experienced trauma.  Over the next six months, we will be placing those artists into schools, helping those in our community who are least equipped to understand the impact that this crisis has injected into their lives.

And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the countless free concerts, exhibitions of new work made—some made, literally, from the ashes that surround our community—readings, instrument drives, and performances that have already and continue to occur. And, as always, artists—even those who lost everything—are at the center of the giving back themselves.

HF: What do we know, at this point, about the long-term impact of the fires on the arts community in the North Bay? How should funders like the Hewlett Foundation and our peers be thinking about supporting a healthy arts community in a thriving North Bay over the long haul?

KM: For starters, funders who have smart and thoughtful people on their staff, who know a lot more smart and thoughtful people, can really help by bringing that knowledge to bear in our recovery. For example, the housing shortage in the North Bay, including affordable housing, is the single issue that will dictate the pace of our overall recovery. It has been estimated that, in Sonoma County alone, we will need 30,000 new housing units in five years in order to catch up to the burgeoning need.  The housing crunch, exacerbated so significantly by the fires, has affected the workforce, the homeless population, and specifically the arts community through rising rents of homes, studios, performance spaces, and exhibition venues. Among funders, who’s working on housing, and how can we ensure the arts are part of that larger conversation?

The arts will be part of the recovery at exactly the level of our perceived value to decision makers. For example, conversations about including public art in the development of all the new housing developments that will be underway here shortly, would go a lot farther, a lot faster, if private funders were offering incentive for the arts to be included.

I’d also encourage funders to visit our community as soon as is it makes sense. Meeting the people who are surviving a significant event like the fires, witnessing the challenges they are facing and overcoming will change you. Seeing firsthand the impact that your funds have made will nourish your soul. The trust that you will engender from the community will be deep and long-lived. And it will remind you that you shouldn’t forget about the short term. People who have lost everything and need help now really can’t hear a conversation about later. Your distance from the urgency affords you the ability to think and plan for the long term, but be exceedingly careful about how you talk about that. And if you have the capacity to make an immediate response, regardless of the size, do it. The actual financial benefit to the recipients will be magnified tenfold by the comfort that validation, and a day of breathing a little easier, brings.

Most of all, keep talking. The opportunity to be in regular dialogue with funders about this experience, as a sort of real-time documentation of what we are thinking, feeling, doing, has been incredibly valuable. It has helped us dig deeper, and do more than I think any of us could have imagined. Because just like our grant recipients, we are extraordinarily honored by and grateful for your belief in our work.

(Originally published by the William + Flora Hewlett Foundation)