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'There is more to Napa than paintings of Vineyards:' Addressing the arts landscape of wine country

(From left to right) Bill Gant, Kristina Young and Amber Manfree at the Napa Valley Community Foundation, Sato Family Center Conference Room during the arts round table. (photo credit: Izz Valencia)

The future of the arts in Napa County was the main discussion topic at the community roundtable hosted by the Arts Council Napa Valley (ACNV) in February. ACNV Executive Director Chris DeNatale was joined by Amber Manfree, candidate for District 4 Supervisor in Napa County, in an open forum where community members expressed concerns about the art landscape in relation to the carefully cultivated Napa Valley brand.

“The thing about ‘the Napa brand’ is it’s always felt very disconnected from what is actually happening here,” said Kristina Young. "The brand that goes out to the world does not reflect the art that is being created here. We don’t hear the voice of Napa because we are told Napa is a fancy vineyard place; that is Napa but it’s not all of Napa, that’s not who lives here, that’s not who works here.” 

Those who work and live in Napa, farmworkers, teachers, small business owners, artists, mental health advocates and community activists, make up more than half of the Napa County population. “It's not just million-dollar winemakers,” said Terese Edestam, a local artist and former Unidos Middle School instructor. “I am tired of looking at paintings of vineyards; there is much more. They are very pretty, but I would like to see more contemporary art.” 

A lot of the contention in the valley stems from the fear that the tourism-centric Napa Brand might become threatened if it becomes more diverse, said Debbie Alter-Starr, co-founder of the volunteer group Napa Valley to Ukraine. 

On average, Napa Valley welcomes close to 4 million visitors a year and generates over $2 billion in tourism spending across the county. Visit Napa Valley, the “official destination marketing organization for Napa County,” states that their target audience for focused messaging is the “luxury traveler” and “aspirational traveler,” among other audience groups. 

Although Latine immigrant farmworkers have historically been the backbone of the Napa wine industry, the presence of art that acknowledges this portion of the population only peeks through the cracks– it exists but continues to be scarce, Alter-Starr said.

Last year, the play “Es Una Vida Maravillosa,” a translation of the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was the first fully Spanish language play in Napa County, said DeNatale who has been overseeing the the Arts Council for five years.  “Those are some real wins for looking like the community that we actually are.” 

“The Ed Foundation is launching a mariachi afterschool program, which has been missing,” DeNatale added, referring to the Napa Valley Education Foundation, which raises funds to support public school programs. “Such initiatives need to be paved, forward,” he said. “Time and time again we see glimpses of what we could be. It's encouraging to see these changes and see we are serving our entire community.” 

More art for programming for the youth should also be a priority, Edestam said.

“I want everyone from every financial background to have an opportunity at the arts, so it doesn’t become segregated,” she said. “Who gets to do art at a very young age? Who gets to develop their talent? And who doesn't? I see that a lot. It’s happening.” 

Incorporating opportunities for local artists to host art that is reflective of the talent in the valley was another key talking point. Charlene Steen of the Napa Valley Chamber Orchestra suggested the creation of a countywide arts center. “For a community that is really wealthy, I don’t understand why we don’t have one,” Steen said.” Vacaville and Fairfield have one. Why can't we?” 

Waiting for government to come in and serve the art's needs is not viable; it needs to be a grassroots effort, said Young. “We need to have a brand that is more aligned with what we actually have here.” 

“My theory has always been: If you serve your local community and they are enjoying it, then the tourists will follow,” DeNatale said.

“How many people does that resonate with?” Manfree asked.

Everyone’s hands went up. 

ACNV does not endorse any candidates. The round table is open to any person or organization that would like to learn more about the arts said DeNatale via email.