By Cathy Goodwin
When was the last time you heard someone say, "I have the best job in the world"? When you visit the Mimbres Region Arts Council (MRAC), you hear those words from everyone—starting with Director Faye McCalmont and extending through staff and volunteers alike.
And Silver City and Grant County residents are beginning to realize they have the best arts council in the state—no brag, just fact. In April, MRAC capped 25 years of growth by winning the Best Arts Council of New Mexico designation for the third year in a row. It scored 96 points out of a possible 100 in judging by a four-person expert panel, topping the second-place Santa Fe Arts Commission and third-ranked Albuquerque Arts Alliance.
The organization has grown to 500 dues-paying members, three full-time and two part-time staff and countless volunteers. MRAC will hold its silver-anniversary annual meeting for all members on Friday, Aug. 19, at the Silver City Women's Center on Swan Street, beginning at 5 p.m.
Each year the arts council sponsors programs ranging from the weekend-long Silver City Blues Festival in May to PNM Fine Arts Friday, which brings artists into kindergarten through 5th grade classrooms in Grant County and Deming. MRAC's 25th annual performing arts season kicks off next month, with Jason Petty as Hank Williams in Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes on Sept. 17. Weekend at the Galleries will celebrate Silver City's bustling arts scene, Oct. 7-10, and then the MRAC Folk Series begins a new season Oct. 21 with songwriter Cosy Sheridan. The next in MRAC's series of arts and culture tours, to northern Chihuahua, Mexico, departs Oct. 27.
It's an incredibly ambitious array of offerings for a town of with less than one-sixth the population of Santa Fe. What makes MRAC so successful?
"At least some credit goes to our relocated population," says Donna Lawder, newly appointed MRAC administrator, herself a transplant from New Jersey. "Newcomers bring ideas and expectations from other communities where they've lived. And we enjoy a concentration of talented artists of all stripes to meet the creative appetites of our residents.
"Sometimes," Lawder adds, "I think there's something wonderfully funky in our mountain air that makes us Silver City-ites want creative, fun things to do!"
Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce President Patrick Conlin, a past president of the MRAC board, calls the arts council "a great economic engine for the area, attracting many tourists for the blues festival and the performing arts series."
Conlin, who's an associate real estate broker affiliated with Century 21, adds, "MRAC is also a big draw for anyone considering a move to Silver City. Many of my real estate clients consider the arts and the arts community as a factor in deciding where they choose to live."
Tyler Connoley, co-owner of Curious Kumquat, an international and gourmet grocery, echoes that view: "When we first visited Silver City to get acclimated, I was amazed at all the things going on. I loved that a town our size had such good entertainment opportunities," he says. "So when we moved here, one of the first things I did was to join the arts council. I wanted to be on their mailing list so I could be up-to-date on what was happening, but I also wanted to support an organization that added so much to the atmosphere of the town.
"Now that I'm a downtown business owner," Connoley continues, "I'm even more aware of how much the Arts Council adds to Silver City. Each of their big annual events—Chocolate Fantasia, Blues Festival, Fiesta de la Olla, and Weekend at the Galleries— brings a different crowd of tourists and locals downtown. By adding to the cultural life of the community, I think they've also had a part in making it possible for a specialty store like ours to thrive in Silver City."
Donna Lawder emphasizes that "MRAC's events draw participants from far outside the region. I just registered someone from Ohio for the Mata Ortiz pottery workshop! Folks tell me they coordinate their vacation around the Blues Fest each year. I know these visitors spend money on hotels, restaurants and shops."
McCalmont joined a then-struggling MRAC 10 years ago and has been widely credited with infusing energy and purpose into the organization. McCalmont, a mother of five, originally came to Silver City as a childbirth educator, working out of the New Mothers Rainbow Shop on Bullard Street.
"I started volunteering at MRAC," she says, "and found a friend in Joe Kurmaski," a former camp director who assumed the directorship during a "transition time." Kurmaski, whom McCalmont remembers as "a gregarious young guy who built connections in town," hired McCalmont as his assistant.
"Our office was in Kurmaski's house," she recalls. "We kept our accounting records in a shoe box."
After Kurmaski and McCalmont worked together for one year, Kurmaski decided to move to Oregon with his wife. McCalmont applied for the director job and was hired immediately.
McCalmont grew the MRAC annual budget from $50,000 to $350,000 over a 10-year period, and initiated a number of events that now hold firm places on the city's calendar.
For example, McCalmont initiated the Silver City Blues Festival—her biggest accomplishment, she says now. "Joe [Kurmaski] had blues night at the Buffalo Bar, and I said, 'Let's take it to the parks!'" The festival just celebrated its 10th anniversary—and suffered its first rain cancellations, ever, which temporarily drove it back to its roots. "We moved events to the Buffalo Bar, which was already set up for jam sessions, and collected enough donations to reduce the loss," McCalmont says. The event has grown from a series of informal gatherings to a packed series of concerts—so big the park won't even allow dogs to attend.
McCalmont also initiated Fine Arts Fridays, the Fiesta de la Olla celebration of Mata Ortiz pottery and the Youth Mural projects.
McCalmont's timing was perfect. As she took the helm, Wells Fargo Bank offered MRAC the use of a small vacant office in its building.
Today, says McCalmont, Wells Fargo's donation is estimated to be worth $10,000 a year. "It's a great beneficial partnership." MRAC gets office space, furniture and cleaning service. Wells Fargo benefits, she says, because MRAC brings traffic to the building. Visitors often detour to the bank and many ultimately open accounts there.
Volunteers, too, tend to feel they've got the best jobs in the world, even if they get paid only in T-shirts, free admission to concerts and invitations to the annual picnic. For instance, Diana Ingalls-Leyba of Leyba & Ingalls Arts has been a "key player" who can "spin ideas and also make them happen," says McCalmont. Ingalls-Leyba has spearheaded MRAC's mural project, working with at-risk teens identified through schools and the Grant County juvenile probation department. The mural program, a partnership of Grant County DWI and MRAC with funding from New Mexico Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, pairs local artists with Grant County youth ages 14-18 to plan, design and produce wall-sized artwork. Recent creations have included the colorful side of the Silver City Food Co-Op and a Bayard union hall commemoration of the 1950 Empire Zinc strike (see the June Desert Exposure). Mural projects have expanded from paint to tile, under the direction of artists Cecilia Stanford and Marilyn Gendron.
These projects help students develop confidence and pride as they learn to work in teams, says McCalmont.
Ingalls-Leyba glows with enthusiasm as she talks about her projects. "The best part is when you see a light bulb go off and you realize you've reached some kid," she says. "Some discover they have a real talent for the visual arts and we encourage them to take their life in a new direction."
Twana Sparks, a local physician, has put her musical and comedic talents to work for the arts council. As "Mona Little," an alter ego created for the annual $1.98 Talent Show, she performed to sold-out houses in Pinos Altos last month and raised $3,000 for the arts council.
Other volunteers help around the office, using administrative rather than artistic talent. Donna Lawder points to Larry and Joan de Bickish, a married couple, as "stalwart volunteers, who know the ins and outs of bulk mailings and always volunteer together. Not only do they get out the newsletters, brochures and postcards, but they are just delightful folks to have around."
McCalmont says she was amazed when Tyler Connoley continued to volunteer at MRAC after his store opened. "He has so little free time—and he gives it to us!" she says, shaking her head.
"Mostly, I help with the computers and database, and organize the archive files of printed materials and newspaper clippings," Connoley says.
But he acknowledges volunteering because he feels he's the one who benefits. He's motivated "because I feel like they do so much to enhance the quality of my life in Silver that I want to give back to them. I plan to retire in Silver City someday, and when I do I want the arts council to still be going strong."
"I think we attract volunteers because MRAC is a class act from start to finish," adds Donna Lawder. "I think there is a pride in being associated with such a well-established, well-run arts organization. And our volunteers are a great group of people who enjoy each other's company and have fun together."
For example, she says, "A senior gentleman stopped by a few weeks ago. He had just moved here and he wanted to help out so that he could meet some interesting people. The very next day, he joined a bulk-mailing party. On his way out, he stopped by my desk—excited by meeting new people. He'd even met another volunteer who might become friends—they exchanged phone numbers on the spot."
McCalmont concedes that her greatest continuing challenge involves funding. The latest addition to MRAC's fundraising arsenal—another volunteer-coordinated event—has been the Millie and Billy Ball, where participants commemorate Madame Millie and Billy the Kid by dressing in period costume. The second annual bash, held in June, raised funds with everything from a $10,000 raffle to a dollar-a-vote costume contest.
"We're a typical grassroots organization," McCalmont says, making a V with her hands to demonstrate: "A few people do a lot." This year, she says, the board initiated a strategic planning exercise. And the staff has expanded as MRAC takes on new challenges.
"My strength," says McCalmont, "lies in creating programs." So she reached out to the community and hired Donna Lawder, former manager of the Toytown retail store, to help manage the paperwork and the hundreds of volunteers who make MRAC work.
"We already have a volunteer coordinator on each committee for events," Lawder explains. "Doyne Wrealli was an exceptional volunteer coordinator for the Blues Festival. Sheila Swisher, our new receptionist, coordinates the volunteers for office-related projects. I am charged with developing our general volunteer recruitment and rewards program, and will work closely with one of our board members on these projects."
Not surprisingly, Lawder adds, "This is my dream job. I love working here!"
Swisher replaces Tonya Crawford, who had been "a ray of sunshine" at MRAC for three years but recently moved to Juneau, Alaska. Three part-time employees supplement the newcomers: graphic designer Patti Unger, bookkeeper Dean Gros and database manager/web designer Teri Matelson.
With increased staffing, McCalmont plans to add additional programs. "I'd love to see a free music in the park series," she says.
Ultimately, being a great place to work translates into creating a small town that's a great place to live. "There are more arts and culture events here in little Silver City, more live performers and venues than in Princeton, NJ, a larger, more 'sophisticated' college town where I used to live," says Donna Lawder.
As Diana Ingalls-Leyba puts it, "Without the arts council, Silver City would be just another small town."