Shhh? Are You Kidding?

With innovative cultural offerings that include music, cooking, and art, libraries across the desert are attracting eager new members

Ellen Paris. Arts & Entertainment

You can drive into any town and judge it by the town’s library.”
— Milt Levinson

On a Tuesday evening in May, classically trained chamber musicians put their ear to their gear, tuning their precious instruments while the speakers crackle to the final sound checks. Meanwhile, about 250 concertgoers vie for prime orchestra seating and peruse the program of classical and chamber works.

Welcome to the second annual Idyllwild Arts Academy “Music From the Pines” concert at Rancho Mirage Public Library. Standout musicians from Idyllwild Arts star in this performance.

“We come every spring,” says Bill Lowman, president of the academy. “This performance is the highlight of the year. Our audience continues to grow. They seem to understand the music and are very appreciative of our students. And the acoustics are excellent; [the library is] a beautiful venue.”

Throughout the desert, cultural offerings have been sprawling beyond traditional performing arts venues. Public libraries, for example, host chamber concerts, award-winning films, art exhibitions, author readings, lectures, chef demonstrations, and even wine tasting — mostly at no charge to those who attend.

“We do about 150 programs a year, which means we look for richness and diversity to shape our calendar,” says David Bryant, director of Rancho Mirage Public Library. “This broad programming appeals to an eclectic audience from across the valley and often beyond.” The library’s community room seats 350; and on many evenings, attendance has been standing room only.

Music lovers seek the library’s series for piano recitals, big band music, and contemporary jazz. “These patrons are loyal and repeat visitors,” says senior librarian Susan Cook. Long have libraries been taken for granted as places to kill time, borrow books and movies, and use the Internet. Only recently have they become recognized as dynamic cultural centers.

Credit goes not only to dedicated staffs, but also to “friends of” library groups. These volunteers raise money and provide services from handing out programs to public relations.

This year, the Rancho Mirage library teamed with the UC Riverside Palm Desert Graduate Center to offer its Writing From the Desert Series. “We brought an amazing array of authors and filmmakers to the library as part of this series,” says Tom Lutz, former director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for Performance program at UCR Palm Desert.

UCR held a similar Arts & Letters Series at Palm Springs Public Library. “I was interested in teaming up with local libraries because they had such vibrant communities of readers and we were having trouble luring them up to the Graduate Center campus,” Lutz says. “I thought — and the libraries thought — that this would be good for all of us. Some authors, because they were introduced to culture by their own local libraries, feel a special obligation and desire to be part of library series.”

Barbara Roberts, Palm Springs’ director of library services and president of the California Library Association, offers insight into the journey that many libraries have been taking. “The idea is to reach out and stop waiting for people to find us,” she says. “That is how libraries are becoming cultural destinations for the community.”

The library’s manager of public relations, Julie Warren, has taken charge of developing a series of programs focusing on lifelong learning — from literature and music to self-help and job- and resume-building skills, as well as adult literacy.

Between March and May, the Palm Springs library presented 22 programs, including its standing-room-only Notes in the Desert with free wine tasting, light hors d’oeuvres, and performances by acclaimed musicians.

“My approach to performing at the library is both as an entertainer and educator, being that the harp is an instrument unfamiliar to most people, in hopes that, in addition to enjoying their evening, my audience might become more regular concert attendees,” says Vanessa Sheldon. “Giving a recital at the library allows me to reach a more diverse audience than, say, a concert hall and challenges me to plan my programs with that aim in mind.”

Other recent programs at the library have included nature lectures, a series on feng shui, and book club discussions. “Our library has become the cultural center and soul of the community — it’s where people gather,” says Milt Levinson, president of the library’s board of trustees. “We always get programming to stimulate the mind and that will [appeal to the diverse] community. You can drive into any town and judge it by the town’s library.”

Mary Arnold, special events coordinator at the Palm Desert Public Library, worked on the next season over the summer. “We are offering a variety of events to encompass the whole community, such as music programs, speaker series, political discussions, and chefs,” she says. Audiences love the Chef Series, in which local chefs prepare a signature dish and the audience tastes it and leaves with a recipe.

The Happy Cookers, a 95-member group of foodies from Sun Lakes in Banning will travel to the library to enjoy this month’s Chef Series. “We had heard it at the library last year and made it one of our excursions for this year,” says Suzie Messick. Attendance often tops 100 at most Palm Desert library events. Librarian Jeannie Kays reports that they have planned 35 programs for the 2008-2009 season.

Cathedral City, whose library was damaged in a fire earlier this year, is rebuilding and planning programs. “When we reopen, we’d like to have musical programs for adults,” says Librarian Amy Dodson. “We’re working with the city’s arts commission to diversify our programming, promote our collection, and reach out to the community.”

Establishing partnerships with other local cultural organizations makes perfect sense for libraries. The annual Altered Book Art Project, sponsored by the Palm Springs Public Library and Palm Springs Art Museum in celebration of National Library Week, presents artists’ works (exhibited at the library and museum) made from books, videos, CDs, and DVDs culled out from the library’s collection.

Palm Springs artist Robert Dunahay created five pieces. Knowledge is Power — a complete set of World Book encyclopedias chained and locked together — so captured the artist that he purchased it for his own collection at the silent auction benefiting both the library and museum.

“I hadn’t been in a library in years and didn’t realize how much the library as a cultural resource has evolved,” he says. “I rediscovered the library myself by doing this project.”