Ruben Gonzalez and Yaya Ortiz are building a new art and culture center in Coachella.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATE ABBOTT
Governments and institutions play major roles in our lives, but their scope, agendas, and budgets typically confine them to nebulous space. Grassroots organizers, on the other hand, see what’s happening on the ground and put their energies into filling what they identify as gaping holes in the fabric of society. The groups profiled here capitalize on their specialties and capabilities, but a common thread runs through them all: Their leaders (1) aim to connect people not only to arts and culture, but also to other people and (2) feel driven to share what they love for the benefit of others.
“It never has been about the number of hours or the money,” says Musical Theatre University founder David Green. “I have witnessed such enthusiasm in people who have found joy in our projects.”
In a similar vein, Create Center for the Arts founder Debra Mumm says, “I don’t think it’s about me at all. It’s about an exchange of ideas, expanding horizons, and inspiring people — engaging them in their creativity.”
In speaking about the center, Mumm expresses a belief held by other arts and culture leaders in connection with their organizations:
“We can make a difference.”
Culturas Music & Arts
“In the face of social and health problems, art can be transformative,” Yaya Ortiz asserts. She and Ruben Gonzalez comprise the duo who organized a 1,000-foot mural depicting a timeline of Chicano culture and the 10-year Synergy Festival promoting local music and arts. Now, they’re developing a place for people to work in harmony.
“It’s a platform for the arts where people feel safe and engaged,” Ortiz says. She and Gonzalez harbor ambitious ideas for transforming a little under an acre of land that the city of Coachella used as a maintenance yard in the 1950s and ’60s. Up first — and consuming 75 percent of an 800-square-foot existing building — are a recording studio and library with couches, TVs, and computers.
“We have a community that’s over 50 percent under the age of 26 and 98 percent Mexican-Chicano,” Gonzalez says. “But we embrace the entire valley; our doors are open to everybody.”
“In the face of social and health problems, art can be transformative.”
The property includes smaller structures where they plan to develop an “art department” in a series of six spaces with roll-up doors. Ortiz and Gonzalez envision a ceramics studio, a welding shop, a wood shop, a dance studio, a culinary kitchen for teaching healthy cooking, and an art gallery with a coffee shop, as well as a community garden. They further want to provide local musicians an outdoor stage with a canopy and lighting.
“The art community are grounded, humble people — people with good energy who enjoy the spirit of art,” Gonzalez says. “The idea is to embrace all cultures and respect everybody across the board. We have to appreciate everybody’s story.”
Musical Theatre University
Though his work hinges on live theater, David Green delights in the weekly song-and-dance show that ran September 2020 to September 2021 on KESQ-TV. “We were No. 2 in the local ratings and attracted an estimated 30,000 viewers,” the founder of Musical Theatre University beams.
MTU has returned to live classes and “Mainstage” musicals. Blame It on the Mistletoe, a movie with original music by David Nehls and lyrics and screenplay by Green, runs during the holidays at Mary Pickford Theater and Palm Springs Cultural Center. The film stars current MTU students with cameos by alumni and Broadway veterans in the
“Because video is such an important component now in the entertainment industry, with even Broadway auditions done on tape,” Green says, “we are getting students comfortable on camera.”
“It’s my passion to train young people — to be the ‘broadway whisperer — and give them the gift of positive energy.”
Also new is MTU Junior, an after-school program at Rancho Mirage Elementary School for first through
“There’s a need for our students to have a performance outlet, but there’s also a need in the greater community,” Green says, adding that proof comes from MTU’s TV show. “I have never received so many messages from people who were touched by our kids during a difficult and crazy time [as the COVID shutdowns].
“It’s my passion to train young people — to be the ‘Broadway whisperer’ — and give them the gift of positive energy,” he continues. “I don’t think there is anything that matches that more than theater and passionate kids. When young people share their talents, it uplifts and inspires others.”
Among local grassroots efforts, Raices Cultura fully embraces the bottom-up concept: “Raices” is Spanish for “roots,” and the Coachella-based organization’s logo features raised fists growing from roots in the soil. Artist and executive director Marnie Navarro cautions not to misinterpret Raices’ suggestion of activism as politicization.
“We encourage bringing awareness about things that are critical in the world, whether it’s an environmental crisis or human rights,” she says. “When people learn, they take with them what resonates. As part of a community, you become an activist.”
“When you create art, you begin to imagine things differently. I hope people connect and understand that they can affect change.”
One of Raices’ ongoing projects is an art installation by students from high schools in the east end of the Coachella Valley. Another annual event is a block party tied to the valley’s Dia de Los Muertos celebration.
Raices Cultura operates out of a former church leased from the city of Coachella. After-school programs, both sign-up and drop-in, take place in the building’s largest space.
This past summer and fall, Navarro planned new projects, including the November launch of a backyard garden as a “hangout” place with murals and vertical and raised-bed planters that people can duplicate in their own yards.
The second project was the creation of a bilingual zine with the similar purpose of opening a pathway for people to learn from each other.
“When you create art, you begin to imagine things differently,” Navarro says. “I hope people connect and understand that they can affect change.”
Create Center for the Arts
Since Debra Mumm took over a building in Palm Desert that was once a dog spa, one might look at the 20,000 square feet as an indoor theme park.
“It’s a melting pot of ideas,” the Create Center for the Arts founder says. “Five of us run this Disneyland, and the rest is done by thousands of volunteer hours.”
Its “adventures” include a digital design lab with 3D printers; virtual-reality headsets for organic 3D design and environment creation; a printmaking studio; a drawing/painting studio with easels (including a 96-by-96-inch windmill easel), airbrush equipment, light-box projection, and modeling stand; a fiber-arts room with looms, spinning wheel, sewing machines, and tools for hand needlework; a darkroom and adjacent framing studio for cutting mats, glass, and molding; an area where Master Gardeners offer free classes for the visually impaired; a film studio with a green screen; an art-supply store; a salt-therapy “cave”; seven artist studios; and a 3,200-square-foot space (used for yoga and tai chi classes and private-event rentals) in Disneyesque style, with European street façades and cottony clouds floating overhead.
“It’s a melting pot of ideas. Five of us run this Disneyland, and the rest is done by thousands of volunteer hours.”
Mumm plans to add woodworking and pottery studios and, on the center’s patio, a greenhouse.
Meanwhile, the center hosts art exhibitions and offers an array of classes, open-studio time, 3D print-on-demand and video-production services, and group/teambuilding opportunities.
“We are creative people, so we accommodate a lot of requests,” Mumm says. “We want to give people the experience of making.
“I think art is what will save the world, if it’s savable,” she philosophizes. “This is my part to make things better.”
Youth Training Orchestras of America
What the world needs now is chamber music, says music educator Nunzio Sisto (pictured below).
“I may disagree with your world view and may even dislike you, but we can play music together and create something beautiful,” says the founder of Youth Training Orchestras of America.
"I imagine every city in the Coachella Valley having a community orchestra. That's going to change the fabric of our society for the better."
His mission is to bring music and camaraderie to Coachella Valley youth. “Playing in an orchestra is a noncompetitive social activity. There are no winners and losers.
“Approximately one to two out of 10 kids participate in music,” he continues. “I find that unacceptable. My immediate goal is to raise that to three or four and then five. I think our youth are severely underserved because of all the cuts [in school music programs]. Orchestras are dead; it’s just marching bands. All the stuff I learned is being lost — the tender side of music, the storytelling of music.”
YTOA concentrates on 12- and 24-member pit orchestras. Sisto, who has degrees in music and education, has developed a 32-week program that includes a two-hour rehearsal, one hour on music theory and composition, and a half-hour private lesson — all for just $35 a week. To raise funds for a dozen full scholarships to the program, he is presenting PopValse on April 2. Featuring 12-piece ensembles of students and Sisto’s professional Palm Springs Theatre Orchestra, the concert serves as a prelude to Palm Springs Opera Guild’s “Opera in the Park” the following day.
“I imagine every city in the Coachella Valley having a community orchestra,” he says. “That’s going to change the fabric of our society for the better.”
Palm Springs Dance Academy
and Palm Springs International Dance Festival
Nickerson-Rossi Dance Company founder Michael Nickerson-Rossi recalls that when he came to Palm Springs a decade ago, “There were so many beautiful works in design but not in dance.”
He set out to fill the void with a conservatory-style program focused on classical training for individuals on the college and professional dance tracks, as well as with classes for introductory levels. He further launched a multiple-genre dance festival with master classes and performances.
“We had 43 students in the first festival [six years ago] and were up to 400 before the pandemic,” he says. Young people and educators came from Puerto Rico, Russia, Romania, Italy, France, Hungary, and Turkey. But, Nickerson-Rossi laments, “We had .0001 percent local participation.”
“We need exposure to different things to understand them. My draw to come here was to bring life to this community through dance.”
He hopes to alter that situation with his new Palm Springs Dance Academy studios featuring sprung floors and the capacity to seat audiences.
At the age of 23, Nickerson-Rossi immersed himself in dance as grief therapy.
“Dance was my lifeline and led me to be mentally and physically healthy,” he says. “I want to give back that gift.” His drive to do so can be seen in programs with Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center and Desert Regional Medical Center’s Comprehensive Cancer Center — telling personal stories through dance.
Outreach to the larger community includes a pair of free dance concerts on Dec. 4 in Sunnylands’ gardens in Rancho Mirage and a Native American dance residency with public performances in January.
“We need exposure to different things to understand them,” Nickerson-Rossi says. “My draw to come here was to bring life to this community through dance.”
According to Margaret Irwin-Brandon, the answer to the question, “What’s new?” is “What’s old.”
The Desert Baroque founder believes the beauty of antique instruments adds visual art to the aural experience of music from the Baroque period (1600–1750). She’ll demonstrate this throughout a season of five concerts on the first Fridays of December through March at Artists Center at The Galen in Palm Desert and on March 25 at a location to be determined.
“Unlike our present age, when everything is homogenized,” she says, “these concerts draw you into the period and country featured.” Each performance includes Irwin-Brandon on the harpsichord with collaborators on other Baroque instruments (viola da gamba, violin, oboe, and bassoon). The last concert, sponsored by the Swiss Embassy, features a Swiss harpsichordist.
“They all aim to find what is essentially human and portray it in music,” Irwin-Brandon says. “I want to enliven the community so there is a greater sharing of our common presence in the world. We are part of something much bigger than the things that pass our view every day.
“This is a passion that I can’t keep to myself,” she says. “Music is a communicative art. Ifwe connect ourselves to the lives of those who came before us, we have a place to center our role as humans in the world.”