Delayed, not derailed, Napa Valley arts fundraiser Nimbash returns live

A pandemic, wildfires and a court ruling may have sidetracked a Napa Valley nonprofit known for encouraging artists, while making art accessible to the public. But it’s hardly derailed it.

In operation since 2005, St. Helena-based Nimbus Arts on Highway 29, is back on track with its May 28 annual spring fundraiser. As a live art fashion show, auction, dinner and participatory art demonstrations, the event sold out in 18 minutes, 6 minutes sooner than last year’s record. Organizers said the event, which was attended by about 500 guests, raised more than $660,000.

In 2020, tickets had already been sold and sponsors donations already accounted for when the pandemic shut things down. A “good percentage” of ticketholders and sponsors, however, donated their tickets and contributions to the center anyway,” said Jamie Graff, executive director. “We offered the money back, and they said ‘no.’”

Staging a “cloud sculpture camp” in its first year of its operation, the organization made the leap to a brand taking the name from a cloud formation classification.

With budget of a bit more than $1 million a year, the operation is funded by grants, a circle of donors, small fundraisers, and the May main fundraiser of the year, Nimbash. Almost half of all revenue coming from this event, held outdoors under the Redwoods at Charles Krug Winery at $175 per person.

In addition to no in-person fundraiser for a couple of years, the pandemic brought other challenges. There are only two full-time employees at Nimbus, Graff and her assistant, and three part-timers. A big part of the mission is to support local artists, and a huge chunk of funds raised at Nimbash go to the artists. Graff said the Paycheck Protection Program (PPE) loans largely allowed staff and artists to keep working through the pandemic.

In 2020, however, expenses exceeded revenue by about $280,000. To sustain operations, fund-raising was improvised on their website, and Nimbus also drew on reserves, selling property that had been donated years ago.

Besides the pandemic, and general disruption of Napa Valley wildfires, along came AB5. Starting in January 2020, the legislation reclassified millions of gig workers as employees. Nimbus responded by putting all of the artists on the payroll when they teach at the center.

“A ‘dirty dozen’ do a lot of our programming, but we have a fleet of more than three dozen artists, plus guest artists. So now, we have to look at the human resources and health and safety components to a degree that we hadn’t had to exercise as largely before,” Graff said. “It’s all welcome, we’re learning a lot, but it definitely threw a lot of extra work our way to make that all happen.”

Keeping creativity alive

Like the rest of the world during the pandemic, Nimbus took advantage of Zoom, Facebook and Instagram live, which turned out to be a fortuitous endeavor. During the past two years, the center offered 250 virtual art programs and 20 live-streamed paint-n-sip workshops (Painting while sipping wine.) Online classes included a cooking class with a chef from London, and artists from around the Bay Area, with attendees from as far away as New York.

“Learning to reach people like that, it’s a game-changer for us,” Graff said.

Now, with pandemic regulations relaxed, people want to come back to the studio, “But online classes opened up some doors,” said Kerri Beeker, the center’s independent marketing consultant. “We are going to put a concerted effort into continuing those classes.”

Nimbus also continued its program for collaborative public art installations by created more than 1,000 to-go art kits. More than 600 given out for free. People could Zoom in for instructions, and “We found it to be very therapeutic,” Beeker said. “People were still able to connect because once the art was assembled and installed, people could walk by and see how we all still came together.”

The art kits was an idea Nimbus had “always wanted to do, but never could make the time and priority for it,” Graff said. “There’s something (therapeutic) about being able to take the kit home and work on it with your family. That’s the blessing of COVID right here.”

The latest installation is comprised of sunflowers supporting Ukraine. “It was the first time we had people in the studio since COVID for a public event. We had everyone from toddlers to seniors who love to participate,” Graff said.

Another installation is planned for the Fourth of July. Participants can work in-studio or take a kit home to work on it.

“We have an ambition to do a lot more free community activities,” Graff said.

In-person summer camps this year are already 90% booked. Funds are also allocated for scholarships, as no one is turned down for inability to pay.

A large part of the mission is partnering with local agencies and public health organizations, and Nimbus regularly brings art instruction to more than a dozen public and private schools, including Napa County Juvenile Hall.

Plans now include a mobile art studio, the Nim + Bus.

“It makes more sense (than building another art center),” Graff said. “For all of these mobile projects where we’re hauling mosaic materials all over the place, it’s really going to open some doors.”

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