A Time of Recovery: How Philanthropy Can Help the North Bay Arts Community After the Fires

photo: Sheila Fitzgerald/shutterstock

photo: Sheila Fitzgerald/shutterstock

When natural disasters strike a region, the immediate response of the philanthropic sector involves basic needs, housing and infrastructure rebuilding. But as we learn time and time again, disasters cause more than just short-term needs. In the long term, they can stunt the growth of the local economy and cause disproportionate harm to communities of color that were previously making strides toward equity.

A case in point is the devastating North Bay Fires that occurred last fall in California, the effects of which have reverberated deeply in the region—including in ways that most outsiders don’t understand.

One overlooked part of this story involves the arts. In this part of the state, the arts are a key economic driver, and art has also been used to help local communities heal from trauma and displacement. Northern California Grantmakers recently released a report that explores the physical and economic health of North Bay arts groups in the wake of last year’s wildfires. Thanks to funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the report found that artists in the North Bay region have been feeling the effects of these fires and that they are also a key to helping people through this time of recovery.

Ellen LaPointe, the president and CEO of Northern California Grantmakers, said:

The arts bring communities together, breathing life and vital energy that strengthens connection and understanding. This is especially important during times of trauma and struggle, when art is a powerful means to help people grieve and heal. Artists and arts organizations are also a vital part of the North Bay economy. For all of these reasons, the profound impact of the fires on North Bay artists set forth in this report is a matter of great concern and warrants concerted attention and investment.

The report points out that the nonprofit arts and culture community generates at least $80.4 million in economic activity each year in Sonoma County alone. This is a global destination for art lovers and curious travelers who want to immerse themselves in world-class cultural experiences. Now a year later, many businesses and arts organization are still rebuilding and settling back into normal operations. After all, the fires destroyed at least 8,900 structures across 245,000 acres of land. With fewer offerings and events scheduled, this rebounding process has put a dent in donations and revenues, not to mention the overall economy and individual household incomes.

Worse yet, organizations that serve communities of color have been affected at a rate of at least three times greater than other organizations in the region. Reaching these populations is often a challenge, and setbacks like this take foundations and nonprofits further away from their equity goals.

Another notable point in the Northern California Grantmakers report is the call for general operating support from locally focused funders as the first priority. Given the long-term implications of the devastation, it’s been difficult for North Bay arts nonprofits to figure out exactly how they need to pick up the pieces and move forward. Therefore, now is the time for donors to give arts groups what they need, which is unrestricted support for general operations right now, so that these groups can help the rest of the community heal.

According to the report, “participants ask that funders recognize the importance of supporting whole organizations and the need for capacity building support, whether through skill-building trainings, workshops, coaching, technical assistance, or from more opportunities to connect and form partnerships.”

Learn more about how the fires have affected the local artistic community and how funders can help by reading the full report.