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Arts Council Napa Valley responds to a new reality: 'It's all about survival'

Arts Council Napa Valley responds to a new reality: 'It's all about survival'

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Arts Council Napa Valley is pivoting. In normal times, they distribute money for projects by groups and individual artists who are the most capable. But now, because of the constraints imposed by COVID-19, it is all about survival.

Chris DeNatale, executive director of the Arts Council said, “Before it was about growth, now it’s about stabilization.”

The arts have been hit hard. Banned from holding events of 50 or more people, theater companies like Lucky Penny Productions or Vintage High School have delayed or canceled upcoming shows. Like other businesses, nonprofits who count on revenue from sales or education and operate on thin margins in flush times, don’t know if they are going to survive.

To combat this, the Arts Council Napa Valley (ACNV) has adjusted its granting criteria. DeNatale said, “We’re going to keep this as simple as possible because getting the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act money has been so onerous. For a small nonprofit to get the paperwork together for the Paycheck Protection Plan loans has been nuts. These organizations are stretched so thin in the first place that we don’t want to add another burden on them.”

In normal times, DeNatale and the board look for, “good financial planning, capability to finish the project and a well thought out timeline,” he said. Now, due to COVID-19, it is “tell us what you need in order to keep your organization afloat. It’s going to be much simpler and more about survival than about capability.”

Founded in 1963, the ACNV has been a fixture of the Napa Valley arts community for more than five decades. In their current incarnation, they primarily grant money to arts organizations and individual artists for proposed projects. But they also serve as a coordinator and advocate for arts programs in the Napa Valley Unified School District by providing support and a forum for the exchange of ideas for arts teachers who, in the past, have operated individually.

“What we do best is fill that gap with the arts teachers and make sure they are vocal with each other so as things get cut, we find ways to crowdsource what is needed through the teachers themselves. It is important that they have what they need and are recognized,” DeNatale said.

This has been part of a master plan for the arts education, a framework that promotes equity and availability of arts education for students in NVUSD as well as the rest of the Napa Valley.

With classes going virtual due to COVID-19, and the NVUSD grappling with reduced funding as a result of shrinking enrollment, DeNatale said the council is going to revisit that master plan to accommodate the new reality.

A specific issue DeNatale was concerned with is the canceling of Vintage High’s “West Side Story” as well as American Canyon High’s “Cinderella.” Those productions will not have the ticket sales needed to reimburse the production costs and the cost of the rights to the show. DeNatale said he and his board have asked, “How do we make those programs whole again so that they are not starting from a financial hole in the next year? Those rights are expensive.”

What they’re proposing is to “launch a grant program for educators to reimburse some of that money.” He said, “We have an education alliance fund. We also have an emergency fund so that we can put together a grant program. We hope to announce an emergency grant program at the end of the month.”

The bulk of the ACNV’s funding comes from the Hewlett Foundation, which has a directive to fund smaller arts organizations and projects, but is too large to focus on relatively small communities like the Napa Valley. By dispensing funds to ACNV, they can fulfill that directive and support organizations, projects and artists that do not have the resources or know how to apply for the larger grants. In this way ACNV operates at the local level where Hewlett cannot.

When asked about the future, DeNatale said, “I feel confident that we’ll still be here to do the work we do and I hope by next year that we’ll be close to normal. I don’t know that every organization is going to survive this catastrophic loss of revenue. We need to help as many people as we can to survive this and we will be there at the other end to support them getting back to normal.”

John Henry Martin thinks this virus sucks. If you agree, email him at

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