Fires Devastated Arts Groups Serving Communities of Color, New Study Shows

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A work of art made from scorched debris by Sonoma artist Helena Donzelli. Her home and studio were destroyed in last year's North Bay fires. (Helena Donzelli)

Arts organizations serving communities of color suffered three times as much economic loss as other regional arts nonprofits because of the devastating North Bay fires. That's according to the findings of a new study out this week.

One such organization is the Raizes Collective, a bilingual Spanish-English arts, culture and environmental education organization based in Santa Rosa.

Last October's fires didn’t destroy the nonprofit's rented space, said executive director Isabel Lopez. But between redirecting resources to the relief effort and witnessing the displacement of her customer base, Lopez said she lost around $30,000 in earned income. She could no longer make rent.

A destroyed arts space in Sonoma County.
A destroyed arts space in Sonoma County. (KSRO)

"So after November, we had to give it up, just because there wasn't enough funds to continue being in that space," Lopez said in a phone interview.

Now Lopez runs the collective out of her home office.


Emily Katz, a spokeswoman for Northern California Grantmakers, which commissioned the "North Bay Fires and the Arts, One Year Later" study with funding from the Hewlett Foundation, said her organization plans to further investigate why groups like the Raizes Collective were so disproportionately hit.

"This really begs for more investigation," Katz said.

The study also found heavy losses among individual artists living and working in the region.

More than 25 percent of the nearly 100 artists who responded to the survey reported losing their homes, studios and workplaces in the disaster. And more than half lost at least two of these spaces.

Helena Donzelli's property in Sonoma was destroyed in North Bay Fires.jpeg
Helena Donzelli's home and studio in Sonoma were destroyed in North Bay Fires. (Helena Donzelli)

Sonoma sculptor Helena Donzelli's home and studio were reduced to rubble. She estimates around $150,000 in damage and she didn't have renter's insurance.

"I had nothing," Donzelli said. "I had nothing to work with. I had no place to work."

Donzelli set about finding a new space. In January, she moved into a warehouse in the city of Sonoma. One of her main activities since last October has been making art out of debris rescued from the flames. Now she's teaching others to do it.

"I'm planning on holding some workshops for as many fire survivors who are interested to bring whatever they sifted from their property, and I will help them make art," Donzelli said.

Arts and culture are an important economic driver in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties. The nonprofit arts and culture industry generates more than $80 million in annual economic activity in Sonoma County alone, according to the arts service organization Creative Sonoma.

The arts also emerged from the study findings as an important way to help the affected North Bay communities to heal.

"Through art, through spoken word, through community gatherings, we're able to heal and talk about all of these things that are affecting our communities," Lopez said.