Nevada City’s Neighborhood Center of the Arts
We spend today’s show with Amee Medeiros, the Executive Director of Neighborhood Center of the Arts, a nonprofit in Nevada City that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to make and sell art. Amee tells us how Neighborhood Center has been supporting their artists remotely through the pandemic and shares her vision for the center going forward.
CARL SIGMOND, HOST: From KVMR Nevada City and in partnership with FREED, welcome to Disability Rap. I’m Carl Sigmond.
Today on the show, we’re joined by Amee Medeiros, the Executive Director of Neighborhood Center of the Arts here in Nevada City. In non-pandemic times, Neighborhood Center of the Arts is a working studio for artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They offer classes and workshops in woodshop, ceramics, photography, weaving, mixed-media and visual arts, digital arts, and more.
The mission of the program is to enable artists with disabilities to create and sell their art. 50% of the artwork sales goes to the artists themselves to supplement their income, and the other 50% goes back into running the center. In March of 2020, like so many other programs and nonprofits, Neighborhood Center of the Arts had to pivot and reorient in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, closing their physical doors for a time but continuing to support and create spaces for artists to make and sell their work. We’ve invited Amee back on Disability Rap today to give us an update on the program and tell us where Neighborhood Center of the Arts is heading. So Amee, it is great to have you back on the show.
AMEE MEDEIROS: Thank you, Carl. It’s good to be here.
SIGMOND: The last time you were on here, you were actually a guest host for us when Ana was away. And it was March of 2020, right before we went into lock down. So, my first question for you is: how did you survive and thrive during the pandemic?
MEDEIROS: Well, we only survived here at Neighborhood Center because of our staff and the community. So on a given day, I used to have 18 staff members in program for in-house, approximately 12 a day. Obviously, March 13th of 2020 was our last day in person. We didn’t get to say goodbye or transition. We just… Like, the rug was pulled, like we all experienced. And we were pretty much in shock. As you remember it was like: It’s just gonna be a week. It’s just gonna be two weeks. It’s just gonna be three weeks, and then lo and behold, you know, do the math: 18 months, pretty much for many of us.
So it took us a while to – like – catch our breath and figure out – like – how we can serve the people that we were seeing every day. They’re not just our clients or our artists. We’ve known each other for – you know. Some of us have worked here for 17, 25 years, so we are family. We’re our own little community.
So we had 76 artists at the time and each of my staff took anywhere from six to ten artists. And we would call and check in with them. And not everybody in Nevada County has internet. Not everybody that we serve has a smart phone, wi-fi or a computer. So we were dealing with a lot of phone calls and not all of our artists communicate well over the phone. So it was really, really challenging and – you know – we’re afraid to see people in person. We were worried about getting someone sick or not knowing if someone was sick. So we relied on emails, text messaging, social media and phone calls to connect with those that we were tending to.
Then we got all the money together that we could from the program and bought everybody individual art bins. And this was right at the end of our Listos grant. That money coming in was like a godsend because that allowed us not only to educate our folks on Covid and emergency preparedness but we were able to create wind-up radio bags and art supplies and then pass those out to all of our families here at the center. And then just [we] really encourage[d] people to continue creating and expressing themselves while they were at home.
And just like that, the time went by so fast. And as we got more people… We got Chromebooks from FREED to allow some of our folks who didn’t have technical devices to join Zoom meetings or Facebook Messenger meetings.
Yeah, I have to really give all the credit to the staff, and the artists, and their care providers, because we were asking a lot of everybody. You know, our jobs here pivoted drastically. Where we could usually come into an art studio and work with seven artists at a time, at times we were working with one person at a time. And we were working seven days a week and we were on call. So we were no longer art curators, art instructors. We were mental health workers, social service workers, emergency preparedness trainers. You know, there was even times we evacuated folks from their home due to the fires. So our roles change quite drastically. So I have to give a lot of credit to the staff and being willing to pivot and not giving up and running the other direction. We really kept our staff team tight together
SIGMOND: I think that speaks so much to the experiences of so many during the pandemic. And I was listening back to an interview you did with KVMR in May of 2020, when you talked about the loneliness that many people that you work with were feeling at that time due to the isolation of lock down. Can you talk more about that, about how you were able to create ways for people to connect, even while apart, and then talk a bit about the power of art in this time of uncertainty?
MEDEIROS: A lot of our artists live alone. So they’re isolated. They don’t have family members to keep them company. Some artists live with elderly grandparents, so the engagement might be a little less. And I had one of our artists call me daily – like at a certain time every day – on video chat. He just needed to see my face, hear my voice. So I included him in story time. So I have a child who’s now seven. So we would read books to this individual and he would participate and listen to the stories we were reading.
I had another staff who would take her artists while she went around her property to feed the horses. She said: come with me. We’re gonna do the farm chores today. And so people got to experience our lives, which have always been very private, because we would come to work and we would share our art lives together. But the pandemic – you know… We had to open up and be a little bit more loose to let people in to our world, just to make sure that they weren’t being – you know – falling further into depression.
It was super hard. So, just to make sure that we were including them… I did some cooking videos at home and invited folks to watch me cook something live, and we did pre-recorded videos for folks. But everything we could do live, and then include them, and invite them, we did our best to make happen.
The power of art. Even if you don’t feel like you’re a great artist, holding a paintbrush or a pencil or a pastel and just letting your feelings explode on canvas is so healing. And it’s still really lonely. We were here, working in a classroom, with many people, and the energy that that produces is… You can’t even describe it. So when you’re home doing that alone – like – you’re not motivated. You lose your motivation.
And – you know – depression is real. We’re really worried about our artists, and I was really worried about our artists. But I was also very worried about my staff, because [for] the majority of us, this is our life, you know. This is… We tend to people to survive. Like that’s what gets our blood flowing and makes our heart beat. And so when you pull that away from teachers – you know – social workers, people that live to interact, and heal, and you’re surviving off of that energy, it gets really hard.
So I was very tender for the staff because I was worried about them. A lot of people picked up – like -habits, even some of our artists who might have drug issues or alcohol issues, you know. We had to be really mindful, and check in with those people often, and make sure people were well and they had the connections they needed, like suicide hotlines and online counselors. So that was a really, really tender time.
And then that interview you’re speaking of in May, I had no idea what the heck was gonna happen. I didn’t know if we were gonna be paid from the state. That was like a month-to-month basis. We didn’t know if we were going to financially survive. I had no idea if we were going to be able to pay my staff that month, pay rent, pay for the elevator. It was very challenging. So we tried to keep – as artists ourselves, the staff members – keep doing our art, keep updating people on Facebook and Instagram, showing what people were creating at home. And as times loosened up, we were able to do art in the park, in parking lots, get a little looser, and actually see people in person which, was very, very, very healing.
SIGMOND: Thank you. Can you talk a bit about what you’re doing now that things are opening up a bit? Are you able to have people come back into the space?
MEDEIROS: We are working five days a week. Three of those days – Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays – we have some in-person studios live in-house. There’s a lot of our artists who are still really scared to come back so they’re not. So I have to have two days – our Mondays and our Fridays – to do virtual services. So that requires our staff to have Zooms, porch deliveries, porch pickups. Some meet in the park [for] activities where they’re not inside the building. So we have to be really flexible with staff’s time. A lot of us are still creating videos to upload, maintaining social media.
But what looks different now is instead of 45 people a day at the studio, I have about 12 to 15 artists creating work [on] Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. It is so nice to have folks back here. Everybody is so grateful to be back, creating artwork in person. And you can feel the magic. Even though it’s – you know – a small percentage of our folks, it’s still really wonderful to have everybody here. You’re only coming in one day a week. That’s really all I can afford. I’ve had to let staff go for budget reasons and that’s been really tough. But we’re here, creating artwork. We’re doing ceramics, and drawing, and painting, and digital arts, and weaving. Our wood shop is on break currently – you know – until maybe we get another teacher when funding comes back. Because that’s a big issue right now: money.
SIGMOND: And I saw that you were focusing on online sales. How is that going, and are you doing any shows right now?
MEDEIROS: We had a holiday show on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th of December, where we were open for the public – you know – limited access for people to come into the studio and see the galleries. We will be launching an online auction, online sale probably this week. Yes, we are doing a lot of online sales. That’s tricky, but we’re offering it. We had our art in Grass Valley [at] South Pine Brew Bakers. It’s a little coffee shop. They were really a lifeline to us. For an entire year, they let us display our artwork in their shop, and we changed it with the seasons. When the seasons changed, we went and changed the art. And that allowed visitors who were staying at the Holbrook Hotel to see our artwork. And [that allowed] our followers within the community to see that we’re still here; we’re still creating art; we still need your support – you know – to support our artists by purchasing their work.
So we have had some places within the community that we are still showing our [artwork]. We used to be open to the public. I’m not quite ready to go there yet for safety reasons. But as the times get further and we feel a little bit more confident with what we’ve got here with Covid, we will open our gallery, because at Neighborhood Center, we have two galleries on site. And we used to always have folks come in and watch the artists work and experience art in action. But at this time, we’re not doing that quite yet. But folks can go to our social media sites and our websites and follow links to our online stores.
SIGMOND: Thank you. I want to circle back to your funding during the pandemic. You said at one point it was really touch and go, but you obviously made it. So can you talk a bit about that, how your funding works, and where you are now?
MEDEIROS: So just to give a quick little overview: DDS, which is Department of Developmental Services, they get money from the State of California. And then from there it goes into Alta [California] Regional Center. And so Neighborhood Center is a vendor of the Alta Regional Center. And so between Alta and DDS, they determine what our vendor fees will be. So we are paid like a school: per head per day. If you came to work, we got reimbursed for services.
When the pandemic happened, that happened for a while, where they were giving us our average rate. So we were having an average rate of pay, meaning I was able to pay payroll and pay rent. But again, that was – like – month to month. We weren’t quite sure… The state didn’t know what they were doing. Scary times for everybody.
To back up a little bit more, I’ve been with Neighborhood Center 16 years and I’ve squirreled away. I’m a kanishka, as they say in Portuguese, a penny pincher. So I’d squirrel away money, squirrel away money, because in my gut, I knew there’s gonna be something that hits the program and we’re gonna need some backup. If the state ever decided to close, at least I would be able to transition my artists into a new life, and transition staff, and move, and whatnot. So we were able to use some of that money when we came short.
Then DDS decided to give us a flat rate. So they chose a flat rate based on the math that they did. And that flat rate put us in the hole anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 a month. And so that’s when I went to my secret stash and made sure that we were paying rent, made sure I was keeping my staff who are working for me paid. I didn’t want to change anybody’s pay rate. I wanted to keep it the same so I would have a team when we came back.
And we’re still under the flat rate services. So again, if you’re looking at my profit and loss, we’re definitely not making money. And that’s when I turned to the community for a lot of help. There was a lot of grants offered – the community relief fund. And we were able to receive one of those for art bins.
So speeding up a bit, we’re still in the flat rate. That’s probably going to extend out until March of 2022. So I know I’m in the hole $10,000 every month, right? And rent is $8,900. So I wrote a proposal for the community resiliency grant that was offered and we were awarded that money. And that specifically goes to our rent here. So we can stay here for 12 months, or if I have to pivot again to stay sustainable, I might have to find a place with cheaper rent. So we are still day by day, really, and if it wasn’t for this resiliency grant I’m not quite sure where I would be.
SIGMOND: Somber times, indeed. As we begin to wrap up, what are your hopes and dreams for the center moving forward and for our community as a whole?
MEDEIROS: I would hope that the new normal for program looks a lot like it used to look, where we could have 45 people here a day, gathering, taking breaks together. My hopes and dreams would be that I would feel that magical again. [It’s] very powerful to have that many artists in one place creating, sharing experiences, tending to one another.
For the community, I really don’t want to be forgotten, because again, I’m very grateful for – like – South Pine of Grass Valley [and] Broad Street Bistro. We’ve lost a few, like Broad Street. She sold her business and she’s not there anymore. So we’ve lost a lot of places where we used to be visible to the community. So I really hope the community doesn’t forget and follows us on social media. The end of the year giving, they consider us because we are a unique gem.
I always say it was the best kept secret in the community and we’ve been in this community for over 35 years. And I would hate to have to close our doors. There have been some day programs that have had to do that and I don’t want to be on that list.
So moving forward, if it wasn’t about money, this would be easy but we have bills to pay. So message to the community is: look us up. Keep an eye on social media, and when we’re having open houses again, come by. Even if someone wasn’t to purchase something, it’s just the power that you bring when you walk into the door and you’re thankful that we’re here.
SIGMOND: That was Amee Medeiros, the Executive Director of Neighborhood Center of the Arts in Nevada City.
And that does it for the show. Special thanks to Courtney Williams for her support. To listen to this show again, go to FREED.org/disabilityrap or wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Carl Sigmond for another edition of Disability Rap.