Interview: Celeste Smeland, Arts Benicia’s Executive Director

Malcolm Slight

Earning a master’s degree can help your career—sometimes in unexpected ways. Just ask Celeste Smeland, Executive Director for Arts Benicia since June 1.

“The best thing about doing a thesis is that it prepares you for all the grant writing you have to do with an arts organization,” she says with an easy laugh. “It’s very didactic writing—not the flowery stuff, but facts and figures and making your case.”  

A lifelong artist, Celeste began working in arts administration in the 1970s when she discovered her organizational skills complemented her artistic background.
    
“I simply stumbled upon it when I was in San Francisco.  I’d worked with neighborhood galleries and alternative art organizations and I’m a natural organizer—I liked putting events and programs together.  And I wasn’t afraid of fundraising.” she recalls.
    
Since then, she’s worked in leadership positions in art organizations throughout the Bay Area, including five years as executive director of Vallejo Community Arts Foundation. She moved to Vallejo 15 years ago and took an Arts Benicia monotype class from the late Bill Harsh shortly after arriving.
    
During her five months heading up Arts Benicia, the organization has held its major annual fundraiser, hosted three exhibitions, had three Family Arts Days, offered arts classes for adults, programming for students, and an organized EcoArt Camp for youth. Arts Benicia’s four staff members rely heavily on volunteers to make it all happen. Celeste estimates the group has about 100 volunteers and 400 members. Its current exhibition, Why Make Art, runs through Nov. 15, with an Artist and Curator Talk scheduled for 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 7.
    
Celeste is hands-on with almost every aspect of the organization. On a warm September afternoon, she directs artists to put their paintings and sculptures and other works in the middle bay of the Arts Benicia site in the Arsenal. “It’s already painted,” she explains. “I still have to paint the others.”

When did you know you were an artist? I would say literally when I was 3 or 4 years old. It was like I found magic. It was my escape, my love, my best friend. I’ve always kept a studio going. I have a converted garage that I use as a studio now.  I don’t get in there to work as much as I’d like, but I keep going.

What type of art do you do? I do 2D drawing and I do collage and printmaking and some painting. Drawing is my first and favorite love. It led me to printmaking.

What do you like to draw? I like to draw pretty much anything. I draw very representational pieces, so it’s recognizable. It’s rendered in such a way that it’s representational and you would recognize it easily. … You might not get the symbology, but you recognize it as a hand or twigs.

What brought you to Arts Benicia? It is an artist-based organization in an arts community.  That’s what has always inspired me. I absolutely believe art is an agent for change. I worked in situations where art made a difference in individual lives and in the community. I know for myself personally and in the world that art can make a difference.  

Where have you seen art make a difference in people’s lives? Art was a saving grace for me as a young child. In working with people in very stressful situations—working with young girls in a youth guidance center, working with people who have cancer or AIDS, working where there’s been violence or trauma in a community—and I’ve seen what art can do. You see the transformation.

There’s something that resonates and connects with a person doing art. It’s this voice or inspiration that makes a connection to other people. Art takes you outside of yourself, especially in situations where you’re working with other people. You build a bond, you build a trust.

What advantages exist in Solano County for arts organizations? You can make a difference. There’s an opportunity to influence the field. It’s still an open field overall. It’s not jaded. I think there’s so much opportunity in terms of having an impact. …

More and more artists are moving into Solano County because it’s affordable. So there’s an edge, a lot of ways to open doors.

What challenges face Solano County art groups? Along with the financial challenges of raising money, it’s getting recognition and respect as a regional organization. For Benicia and Vallejo, we’re still limited to within the city limits.
 
Arts Benicia has been here for 28 years and it’s a real leading-edge organization that does high-caliber exhibitions with artists from all over. Arts Benicia builds on the fantastic legacy of Robert Arneson and Manuel Neri and current artists like Mark Eanes and Nikki Basch-Davis—so many.
    
We don’t feel we have to maintain the status quo, but sometimes there’s not an understanding that this is a place you should check out and support and buy art from.

How is Arts Benicia working to use those advantages and meet those challenges? The good news is that everybody works very hard and is very committed. We count on our community for volunteers, for support at any level. We take advantage of the fact that we don’t have to fit in a box. That gives us freedom to explore very different shows, bring in new people who don’t have the same world view. We don’t want to rest on our laurels.

What inspires you? People, creativity—creative people inspire me very much.  Whether it’s a blank sheet of paper or a world situation, they look at it and say, “What can I make of this that can give something back to the world?”

What hangs on your walls at home? Lots of art. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to buy or trade with other artists. I have a piece of Mike Kendall’s. I firmly believe in getting what you love, and you often can do that when the artist is starting out.  

I also have pictures of my sisters, my nieces and nephews, and my dog.

If you weren’t doing this type of work, what would you be doing? I’d probably be making art more full time and traveling. I love road trips. There’s nothing more beautiful than driving along the coast down by Big Sur. I’d be on the road more often and taking long walks with my dog.

Categories: Community, Interview, People + Places
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