O’Hanlan Center for the Arts - Creativity Pivot & Commitment to Diversify
Paula Farmer for Uptake/ Marin Arts Mz. Feb. 2021
Embedded deep in the wooded residential area of Mill Valley, the O’Hanlan Center for the Arts is physically somewhat hidden while being very much a presence in the local arts community of Marin County. It is a unique community-focused nonprofit art center, with a rich history of 51 years. It was created by married couple artists, Dick and Ann O’Hanlan. Their project began modestly as workshops offered by Ann, but quickly became very popular. It was in its early days that Ann realized she no longer wanted to teach art. Instead, she aspired to help people learn how to look at and engage with art. Over the decades, the couple and their art center grew a loyal following, with a mission to help people explore their creativity.
Fast forward to the remarkable year that was 2020, and the Center, like so many other arts outlets, have had a unique set of challenges throughout the pandemic. They have adjusted and in some instances, even thrived. Although their studios did have to close, physically speaking, they have remained open virtually.
“Until the pandemic, we were very active, able to host regular events on campus as well as numerous in-person workshops. We also had several artist studios that people were able to use during the day, along with salons, “Art Film Fridays, etc.” explains Erma Murphy, director of programming and outreach.
Because their demographic is predominately older, they were concerned as to whether or not leaning into technology during the pandemic would work. Fortunately, not only have they maintained their membership and their support of visual, performing and literary artists, they have actually been able to expand their reach. This is in large part due to pivoting to technology/Zoom and the members adapting. They quickly began hosting artist talks, workshops and showings online, while implementing an additional layer of engagement to online curated works, with introductions by a poet.
Further ideas and membership expansion is also due to the recent focus on the Black Lives Matter movement. Although in recent years the center had done some partnering with Bayside MLK Arts Center for Excellence to help raise funds for them, the partnership had been inconsistent at best. Murphy admits that all changed after the murder of George Floyd last spring. O’Hanlan organizers felt that the Center should do their part in heeding the societal call for diversity and inclusion.
“In the aftermath of the Floyd murder and the prominence of Black Lives Matter movement became more prominent in our consciousness, especially in these non-diverse environments like Marin, we jumped right on that with our board president putting out a formal statement proclaiming a support of diversity. But right after we put out the statement, we wondered what we were going to do to actually make it happen. Whatever we were going to do, we wanted it to be sincere and consistent.”
One of the first things they did, post their diversity commitment, was to contact the predominately Black artist community of Marin City Arts and Culture in an effort to collaborate and give them and other artists of color from the Bay Area more access to the programs at O’Hanlan. As a result, they set up Zoom meetings between the two group’s artists, including a presentation from visual artist Orin Carpenter.
“I see the O’Hanlan Center’s commitment to inclusivity as positive steps for Marin artists and for the broader arts community regionally and nationally,” Orin declares. “When we look back over time, there have been gradual moves for inclusion but we know some steps seemed much, much slower in the transition than others. This is something that will take time to resolve. The art community is no different, however, the moves forward seem a little easier for people to change the way they view art, artists, experts within the art community, etc. I truly believe this jolt forward will be difficult for us to move backwards.”
Since then, they invited many more artists who formerly were not on their radar, to participate in all the O’Hanlan programming, guaranteeing that people from Marin City Arts and Culture know that they can apply to be juried into shows, if they so desire. They did the same with Canal Alliance, a Latino immigrant outreach organization in San Rafael and Latinx artists from the Bay Area in general. It was through this connection and encouraging artists from the Latinx community to submit to be juried at O’Hanlan, that several new Latinx artists were selected. One such invite recipient is Oscar Lopez who studies and practices art in the South Bay. He participated in the round table discussions for the first time, bringing a much appreciated fresh perspective.
“It’s been beneficial for me to meet and communicate with creative individuals and a creative organization that I didn’t even know existed until last year. It’s a special experience to bring a different point of view to this community,” Lopez excitedly accentuates. “During the roundtable after my showing, attendees appreciated my honest discussion about how I perceive myself versus how others perceive me as a Mexican immigrant. Since then, we established a good line of communication. I really honor what they are doing as activism and longterm dedication.”
Lopez comes from a humble background in Mexico City, with limited access to art. It was there that he initially flexed his creative muscles by working on graffiti, doing it for several years while pursuing a career in computer engineering. He arrived in the U.S. 16 years ago when he was 20. The more he explored Fine Arts, the more he was attracted to the discipline. convinced that was the direction he preferred. While he was at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California, his professors noticed his natural artistic talent and encouraged him in the arts. As he pursues a professional creative career, connecting with arts organizations beyond academia is crucial. This is partly why the new relationship with the O’Hanlan Center is valuable.
Both Lopez and Orin participated in the “Many Voices, Many Views” online exhibit hosted by the O’Hanlan Center. As seemingly enthused and committed to diversity among visual artists, so too is the Center to expanding their literary arts program - literary writing practice session and poetry specifically- to the center overall and their now virtual platform. Poetry for them had newly begun, pre-pandemic. Thus began the search for someone who was willing to embrace the need to pivot, overseeing a new virtual poetry workshops, without viewing it as a compromise to the art form itself. Enter O’Hanlan’s new poetry leader, Cruwys Williams.
“When I was first approached by Erma to participate and then lead the poetry section of the Center, we worked together on formulating what it needed to look like,” Williams clarifies. “We didn’t want it to be a group just reading and/or being critiqued, but instead making it a space, in-person and online, actually celebrating poetry.”
When asked about the feasibility of combining types of art from the Center, like poetry and visual art, Williams lit up and described something called Ekphratic poetry, poems about a piece of art.
“One of the most famous examples of such poetry is John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn.’ Some of our members, myself include combine our poetry with art and then present to the group. Whether it’s Ekphratic poetry or some other kind, the key is that members can discuss their works, but the emphasis is on art, expression and to include a variety of people and voices.”
As the O’Hanlan ever-increasing and newly diversifying membership honor the cultural legacy of its founders, they now, more than ever, also strive to give back in new and innovative ways to the artists, art lovers, writers, and performers who inspire them. They are doing more than just making a declaration of increased diversity and inclusion, but are determined to walk the talk.
Post- pandemic, this will include outreach across the bridges to communities in the East Bay and San Francisco. They realize it’s something they have to be very conscious of now and will take some time, but believe this current conscious push to diversify will someday be a natural, unconscious part of who they are. The real hope is that their commendable allegiance to change is mirrored in the world of art beyond Marin and the Bay Area, but also throughout the nation.