Diverse panel discusses Modesto arts scene

From left, singer-guitarist Patty Castillo Davis, MoBand director George Gardner and street singer Dellanora Green were the panel in a discussion about how to balance access with excellence in the arts Thursday at the McHenry Museum.
From left, singer-guitarist Patty Castillo Davis, MoBand director George Gardner and street singer Dellanora Green were the panel in a discussion about how to balance access with excellence in the arts Thursday at the McHenry Museum. dnoda@modbee.com

Members of Modesto’s arts community, from street buskers to band leaders, came together to discuss excellence and access to arts in the city.

There was a packed house at the McHenry Museum on Thursday night to witness the first Zócalo Public Square forum bringing together a diverse group of local artists for a panel discussion. The event was a partnership with the James Irvine Foundation and meant to be an “ideas exchange” aimed at answering the broad question of “How Should We Balance Access and Excellence in the Arts?”

“This is such an important conversation in such a wonderful community,” said Zócalo Public Square Managing Director Dulce Vasquez, based in Santa Monica. “Through our partnership with the Irvine Foundation we are exploring cities we’d never be able to explore.”

The panel, moderated by Modesto Bee Editor Joseph Kieta, featured MoBand director George Gardner, singer-songwriter Patty Castillo Davis and street singer Dellanora Green. The wide-ranging discussion in front of a crowd of about 80 touched on everything from their most proud performance moments to arts education in schools.

Most seemed pleased with the facilities available for arts in the area – from the Gallo Center for the Arts to the Peer Recovery Art Project to the cafes and restaurants that host live music.

“I think we’ve done a really good job bringing really top-notch facilities for the kind of performances we want in town to serve the patrons. It also gives local people like myself something to aspire to because we want to play those places as well,” said Castillo Davis, who works at a music liturgist at her church and also performs at restaurants, clubs and galleries around town. “The people who own venues that are restaurants and clubs are trying. They realize it is beneficial for us and beneficial for them.”

Still, one of the evening’s biggest discussions revolved around obstacles to arts in the community. While Gardner and his well-established and highly popular MoBand Concert in the Park series enjoy full support and free services from the Modesto City Council and Modesto Police Department, Green said she faces strict policies and even harassment about her singing.

For the past 10 years, Green has sung daily on the streets of downtown Modesto for money. Her booming voice often can be heard in the evening around restaurants and outside performance venues. Two years ago, supporters raised money to help her put out an independent CD.

“We should have something that protects someone like me who has been on the streets for 10 years and performing,” she said. “It makes it hard to live and survive out here. The City Council is tough, says I am forceful and pushy and rude. And I’m not, I have never been – even though some people are rude to me. Leave us (street performers) alone and get to the panhandlers. There’s a big difference; I’m a performer.”

The unequal treatment of some performers and groups also was broached by longtime area music promoter and current Peer Recovery Art Project organizer John Black, who spoke during the question-and-answer period of the forum. For a decade, Black produced the free Modesto Blues Festival, often in the Mancini Bowl, the same location as MoBand. But he stopped because he could not afford to put on the event anymore.

“One of the reasons the event did not thrive is because of the permits, restrictions on alcohol in the park and all of those things cost me multi, multi thousands of dollars. Bills from the Police Department broke me. We gave it away for free, in a park, but we were busted with the red tape and regulations,” he complained. “I think if the city supports the arts in one nature, it should support the arts in all nature, provided it’s a free, all-inclusive family event.”

The nonprofit Zócalo Public Square is a project of the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University. The group blends live events and humanities journalism and works across the country. The Modesto forum was the second in a series called “Living the Arts,” and is specific to the Central Valley and Inland Empire.

The forum was recorded and video will be posted on the Zócalo website today.

The popularity of MoBand is one of the things that attracted Zócalo Public Square organizers’ attention to Modesto. Gardner attended the event on the evening of the final concert of the summer. Dressed in his tuxedo for the performance, Gardner said the secret to the series’ 95-year success is hard to quantify. But it would never happen without the musicians in the take-all-comers community band who spend six weeks of their summer playing for free for the community.

“Seeing my kids perform, just standing in front of MoBand and listening to them is a real turn-on,” Gardner said. “I don’t think it is anything I do particularly. Tonight when I stand in front of them and they play Billy Joel or Santana, I just like to sit down and listen because it really knocks my socks off.”

While the panelists shared some impressive personal triumphs – from singing for Pope John Paul II for Castillo Davis to having a fan come from France to meet her for Green – they all said their love for the art is what buoys them and keeps them performing. And they hope that joy can be passed down to younger generations, despite the decrease of music and arts education in school systems.

“When I was coming up, there were no all-ages places. There wasn’t a lot of support – there was, ‘Go get a real job.’ There wasn’t a whole lot of value put on arts,” Castillo Davis said. “Even if you don’t dance or paint or sing, there is a place in you where beauty lives. All together, we can make places and afford options for kids. Because they don’t have as much support as you think they do.”