Modesto forum to focus on balancing access with excellence in the arts

Dellanora Green
Dellanora Green Modesto Bee

MoBand is a rarity. It’s a hugely popular musical group that attracts throngs to its summer performances, but one that also is made up of, well, pretty much anyone with an instrument who shows up at rehearsals.

No auditions. No professional experience required. No limits on age or degree of talent.

Still, the group’s Thursday evening summer concert series is legend at Modesto’s Graceada Park. People put down blankets early on concert mornings to reserve a spot at the park’s Mancini Bowl, just to hear the Modesto Band of Stanislaus County.

That dichotomy between all-inclusive talent level and widespread popularity is what attracted nonprofit “ideas exchange” organization Zócalo Public Square, in partnership with the James Irvine Foundation, to host a panel discussion in Modesto on how to balance access with excellence in the arts.

The free forum is open to the public Thursday evening at McHenry Museum and will feature three Modesto panelists – MoBand director George Gardner, street singer Dellanora Green and singer-guitarist Patty Castillo Davis. It will be moderated by Joseph Kieta, editor of The Modesto Bee, and will be followed by a free wine and beer reception.

The event precedes MoBand’s final concert of the season, which begins at 8 p.m.

“We chose to present this event in Modesto because MoBand is a tremendous model of an arts organization that truly balances access and excellence,” Zócalo’s California editor, Joe Mathews, said in an email interview.

MoBand is an anomaly because arts organizations more often are forced to choose between offering access to a large number of participants or achieving excellence, according to a Zócalo news release. With the value of the arts questioned by some and funding for education and public cultural programs stretched thin, the forum will center on whether organizations should concentrate resources and time on the most talented artists, or if reaching as many people as possible serves a greater public good.

The local panelists were chosen because they represent the issue from “a variety of angles,” Mathews said.

Gardner was surprised when he got the call from Mathews asking him to participate. As director of MoBand, as well as a music educator for 45 years – he retired last year from Modesto City Schools – he said he’s looking forward to the discussion and insight into how the community can foster the arts.

“I’m always happy to be the No. 1 advocate for the arts, but I’m also going to let as many people know as possible about MoBand because it’s a very unique organization,” Gardner said.

Green was chosen because she particularly represents the question of balance, given her background, Mathews said. Green can be seen many evenings singing for tips outside the Gallo Center for the Arts and other downtown venues.

“We first read about her in The Modesto Bee,” he said. “Dellanora ... very much represents the question of the evening – arts, access, excellence, public space and how you balance all these complicated things.

Castillo Davis is a singer, songwriter, voiceover actress and session musician based in the Modesto area. For the past 32 years, she also has been a music liturgist and senior cantor at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. For her, the forum offers a chance to shed light on the value of performers in the region.

A lot of venues and events offer artists exposure to play, rather than money, Castillo Davis said, and while that does offer beneficial opportunities, some sort of compensation also is important.

For example, when she performs at farmers markets, she often is paid in “tomatoes, blueberries, and I’m happy with that,” she said. It’s consideration for artists that she’d like to see discussed at the Zócalo event, from something as simple as offering a singer a glass of water between sets when they play at a restaurant to financial payment.

“These artists are opening their soul to play music for you. ... There’s value, it just needs to be realized,” she said.

Zócalo, a project of the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University, blends live events and humanities journalism to present public events and conferences across the United States and internationally. The Modesto forum is part of a grant specific to California’s Central Valley and Inland Empire.

“The goal of the Zócalo/Irvine Foundation ‘Living the Arts’ series of articles and events is to get people in Central Valley communities talking about how arts organizations can better connect with residents and better understand how they’re choosing to participate and engage in the arts today,” Mathews said.

“We’re helping the foundation get the communities it serves talking about what the public needs from its arts organizations,” he said.

Zócalo presents 50 events a year that attract full houses made up of diverse audiences – ethnically, economically, geographically and politically.

After the discussions, communities continue the conversation, Mathews said, and share it with others. Video, audio and a write-up of the events are published the next morning on the Zócalo website.

He said discussions in other communities have resulted in further communication.

“All Zócalo events result in more inclusive, open and engaged dialogue. We get communities talking, and these conversations are in and of themselves integral to the process of creating change,” Mathews said. “You have to understand the complexity of the problems and issues you’re facing – and include the broadest possible audience in the discussion – before you can work to solve them.

Castillo Davis encourages artists and patrons alike to join Thursday’s forum.

“People need to show up to have their voice,” she said. “The arts are so important, above and beyond.”