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Surviving on a shoestring

Despite loyal support from a handful of artists, dancers, musicians and volunteers, Saint Joseph’s Cultural Center often is overlooked by the rest of the community.

Bombarded with dozens of entertainment choices weekly and an overload of non-profit groups with outstretched hands, the center has much to compete against, said Executive Director Joseph Guida.

“There’s so many events on any given weekend,” said Guida, the cultural center’s director for 10 years and its only full-time staff member.



An economic downturn isn’t helping, he added.

Attendance was half of expected at an annual benefit concert held in June to raise money for 25 percent of the facility’s insurance costs. When turnout failed to materialize, fans and volunteers pitched in to make up for the loss and help the center reach its goal, Guida said.




This is the first year in a decade that no one has scheduled to hold a wedding and reception at the former convent built to serve California orphans during the Gold Rush. Weddings can fetch up to $1,000 and typically three to 10 are booked each year, Guida said.

Guida already is planning more concerts this fall to make up the difference, but he knows that a number of events will compete for the same time slot come October.

For now, the center manages to stay afloat and manage its costs.

With a building and its one full-time staffer, overhead costs are lower than other art groups, said Desmond Knox Gallaghar, who sits on the Historical Preservation Committee for the center.

But owning the 142-year-old wood and brick structure means major maintenance costs with little in the budget to replace the heating and air conditioning unit or fix up the hall, Gallaghar said.

Without funds to cover long-term improvements, all it would take is one maintenance disaster to put the nonprofit group over the edge, he said.

“That is really something we’re going to have to deal with in the next year or two. We don’t know where the money will come from,” Gallaghar said.

It remains to be seen how the economy will affect the center’s annual fall membership drive, said Gallagher, who is banking on volunteerism to get the center through rough times.

Saint Joseph’s big three expenses include utilities, insurance, payroll and taxes with a budget of $75,000. Half the center’s funding comes from artist studio and hall rental.

Nonprofit squeeze

Another challenge is the ever increasing competition for donations and volunteers in a community inundated with nonprofit groups to choose from.

“We’re just one of a 100 nonprofits. Businesses are burned out by having non-profits go to them for money. It affects every non-profit. It affects every school,” Guida said.

Its location on Church Street – a three-block jaunt from downtown Grass Valley – prevents some visitors from stopping by.

“It’s kind of like being in Timbuktu,” Guida said.

Still others, believe the center is associated with the Catholic Church.

“It hasn’t been that way for 40 years,” Guida said. The center does not receive funding from the city or county, either.

A band of artists who rent studios on the third floor said more support needs to come from the community.

On one hand, Saint Joseph’s Cultural Center is a best kept secret for artists who have the place almost to themselves, but the building is suffering because of the lack of attention, said artist Matt Gottschalk.

“I think people would notice it if it was gone,” Gottschalk said.

Saint Joseph’s offers quiet, affordable studios with views of a rose garden, something uncommon in larger cities. Studios range from $60 to $350 per month.

“To find an affordable artists studio in a large city with this kind of aesthetic charm would be near impossible,” said artist Benjamin Vierling, who calls Saint Joseph’s a creative anchor of sorts, and like others, returns to his studio for inspiration after travels abroad.

Musicians seek out the acoustics in the wooden St. Joseph’s Hall, built in 1894. Some said it has a sacred spiritual energy from the time the nuns sang inside its walls and in recent years, from visits by Tibetan monks.

“I think that’s made something special in here, too,” said Guida, before opening the double doors out to the garden.

Two years ago, Joanna Newsom, who once rented an artist studio at Saint Joseph’s, drew an overflowing crowd to a benefit concert.

“For most of us, this is kind of our home base. If this place wasn’t here, I don’t think I would be here,” Gottschalk said.

“This building totally takes care of us,” added artist Jessica Henry. She, Gottschalk, Vierling, Brook Caballero, Cody Feiler and Jeffrey Thorsby rent studios on the third floor. It’s not uncommon for them to use their own money and time to patch holes, sand floors, paint walls and do minimal electrical work.

A rabbit warren of rooms and passages, the large building is cherished by people that use the space, Guida said.

“It’s really just about love. I hear that more than anything,” Guida said.

Naturalist John Olmstead’s houses an odd assortment of natural history relics as part of his Earth Planet Museum in the basement. Volunteers give tours of the old nunnery and orphan school in the Grass Valley Museum above the Mount Saint Mary’s Thrift Shop.

Every Thursday, the thunder of beginners learning Taiko drumming can be heard from the community room. Moving Ground Dance Studio holds yoga and dance classes nearly every day of the week. Other groups meet to study Tai Chi and African Dance.

“Now we just try to do our best with what we have,” Guida said.

To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail lbrown@theunion.com or call 477-4231.


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