Part 1: Bryce Chisholm, the Artist's Take
While Reno rebrands, part of its journey is a developing art scene, which comes with the risk of artwashing, whereby artists take part in a cleansing effort, and act as "regenerative detergent." Artwashing often goes hand in hand with gentrification and higher prices in long abandoned but now revalued downtown areas. In this process, a certain style of graffiti which came out of the street anarchist tradition also becomes commodified. Our Town Reno wanted to check in with one of the major homegrown muralists in town, Bryce Chisholm from AbcArtAttack. Part 2 of this series this week will be with a coordinator of the local mural art scene, Geralda Miller, the curator at Art Spot Reno. Both will share some of their thoughts from inside this local mural movement.
The Local Burning Man Effect
Chisholm, who studied at Earl Wooster High School, TMCC, and UNR, says he decided to become a full-time artist in 2010. He has been a paid muralist and artist with the City of Reno as well as an official artist of Artown. He is also now on the city's Arts and Culture Commission.
He says the much talked about "Burning Man" effect does indeed drive a lot of what is going on artistically in Reno.
"Over the years it’s kind of grown into Reno being the hub for what was going on there. I would still say that the main portion of the people are from San Francisco and L.A., so they drive through and they pack our stores and buy all the water and supplies and stuff from the stores," he said. He says, now with more communal maker spaces and group art projects happening here, as well as pre-burns and post-burns, the permanent Reno Burner scene has grown, creating year-round artistic energy and interest.
"The minute you leave (Burning Man), you’re already planning next year. So, it’s almost like this year-long obsession because you’re like 'Well next year, I’m going to build this and it’s going to be so awesome.' So, it kind of just becomes your lifestyle I guess. And so, it’s a creative lifestyle because you’re going to build this structure and tent, and it’s going to have a shower and be really cool. So, it just has this domino effect, and then you make friends and they are building these structures, so you have this community of like-minded people that are building things and a huge portion of that is art…or people that support art and care about it. So, I guess the Burning Man effect is still growing and it still continues to create new projects and people that want to be involved," he said.
From his website, Chisholm says he has "a fond liking for undervalued beauty", as well as a love for street art and graffiti, which he says were long frowned upon locally, and still are looked down by some.
"When I was young, at Wooster High School in the 90s, I loved graffiti, that was my thing. I loved seeing it. In Reno, they really looked down upon it and there wasn’t much of that. So, me and maybe four or five friends would either take a monthly or twice a month trip and go to the Bay Area. We would walk down dirty allies and take pictures and just look for graffiti and street art, wherever we could find it. Back then I wanted to start a magazine and so that’s why I was trying to take as much photos of it as possible, and there wasn’t really any in Reno," he remembers.
Officially Sanctioned Art
But now, in Reno is street art something you can just paint out in the open, or is it sanctioned?
"That’s really a touchy subject, or an 'I don’t know,' because I know the city is always, and I don’t want to say too much, but the city’s always said 'Well we like that, but we can’t leave it because then we’d have to leave everything,'" Chisholm explained.
"It’s hard because who’s to judge what is good graffiti and what is bad graffiti? I mean I don’t want to be the one that does that. So, there’s two sides, say the people who say any graffiti is bad graffiti, and then there’s the ones that say 'Well, that’s really nice to look at so it’s okay.' So, it’s a real thin-line that you’re trying to walk [as an artist], I’m sure you can do stuff if people like it. But, there’s also the ones that are like, 'If you’re doing anything like that, it’s bad.' Finding that nice happy place is kind of difficult," he explained of his own challenges as a sanctioned, paid street artist.
The Art-Gentrification Correlation
Chisholm agrees that art has played a role in current gentrification as in other cities, previously. He also says if Reno really does believe in art as much as it says it does it should also have more people actually buying art and allowing artists to live from their work.
"Artists go into like a dilapidated, run-down area, they start painting there because it’s low-rent and make it all cool, and the next think you know there’s a Starbucks there and coffee shop, and then the artists can’t afford the place and they’re kicked out, then they’re moving on to the next area. I definitely worry about that kind of thing happening. I mean, rents and house prices are just insane right now, houses are selling for prices that they’re totally not worth, but I don’t know, somebody is affording it because they keep on buying it."
The situation might be good for artists initially, he acknowledges, but not in the long run.
"I worry that that might be bad for artists. Artists keep on creating no matter what, but I don’t know if there’s enough support for the artists in terms of cash, and buying and paying. It’s nice to say: 'Oh, we love the arts, we love the arts,' but if you’re not buying paintings and paying for murals, then it doesn’t necessarily help the artist. I still want to see more of that ... people buying art, paying for murals. I mean, really, there’s probably only a handful of working artists in town. I think that if you’re saying Reno is art, art art, there should be a lot more than that...I don’t know if there’s quite enough support yet.
Is Reno Artwashing?
Chisholm doesn't see the current Reno situation as artwashing per se. He says he would be more worried if more and more non-locally owned corporations were taking over Midtown but he doesn't see it that way now.
"The rents in Midtown being part of “artwashing,” I don’t see it as that way," he said. "I see it as already upturning, so the people that own these buildings, that’s part of their way of also making that happen. That’s just another step on the stairwell because the property is getting more valuable, they are refurbishing it, so one of the other things they do is that they will paint a mural or put some artwork up there, and then it’s like the building is better and there’s something to look at, and you’re in a good part of town, so then the rent goes up because more people want to live there. I guess if that [artwashing] is a thing, then it’s probably just a part of it, that the owners of these place use it as like a 'Let’s give them another reason to pay $100 more,' or whatever it is even," he said.
Reno Struggles to Establish Galleries
Unlike other places were art has really boomed with revitalization, he doesn't see a gallery system taking hold in Reno at this point.
"The only real gallery that makes money in town is the Stremmel Gallery, in part because it’s an auction house and they have this huge clientele and sell paintings for $40,000-$50,000," Chisholm said,
"But every other gallery in town that I’ve seen usually closes within a year or two because it just doesn’t work, there’s not enough people buying art and selling, and supporting artists. I still don’t know if it’s at that point, there’s definitely more buyers, I guess, but there aren’t galleries consistently selling local art. Most of the stuff that the Stremmel Gallery sells, and they do an amazing job, they’re awesome at it, but a lot of those they bring in artists from out-of-town that are really well established, then they [the galley] give it to their clientele and are like 'This is a great investment, you should buy this,' and then they sell it. Most of what’s still in Reno I think is coffee shops and stuff, I don’t know too many artists that can really live off that."
More Grants for Local Artists
"Right now there are grants, mostly or like nonprofits, so there’s several organizations, theater groups and different things, which are all deserving...." Chisholm said.
He says there are just too few such opportunities currently.
"There’s the Nevada Arts Council...they do some grants, but usually there’s only one grant every two years, and then there’s like three honorable mentions, and that’s statewide. So, that one’s tough to get, you know. What I’m hoping to create is like five to 10 artists every year, they would get $1000 or something like that to help create whatever they’re doing. That would be [in] Reno."
He would like this to be open for artists in a broad sense.
"It would be for somebody who needs a grant to make an album, or put on a theater show or something like that. One of the other ones we were talking about doing was like an exchange, so New York would send an artist to Reno, and we’d send an artist to New York, and each one would have two to three weeks of residency to create art in Reno, and then have a little show at the end.... I don’t think there’s enough monetary value going to artists, so, if I could help that in any ways, that would be really nice, that’s what I want to do."