Plenty of artists do what they can to support arts education. They donate pieces to fundraisers, have shows that benefit arts groups, and the like. This kind of work does a great job of raising awareness about the importance of art education. And then there is Sonoma Plein Air.

Lead Image: A child at the Sonoma Plein Air Festival demonstrates her painting technique.

What could your local school district do with $130,000 per year earmarked for arts education? This is the question the primary, middle, and high schools — and a few other assorted entities in the Sonoma Valley — happily face, thanks to the fundraising work of the Sonoma Plein Air Foundation. The group holds a plein air event each year attracting some top names in the circuit, and 40 percent of sales go to the Sonoma Plein Air Foundation for distribution among schools and other art-education programs. Participating artists are largely housed in local homes. It’s a collegial atmosphere, with the only prize being Artists’ Choice.

For the last two years, the event has raised $130,000. The amount has steadily increased over the 13 years the event has been held, with the total given to Sonoma arts education now topping $1 million. Most of the money has gone to public schools in the Sonoma Valley, but the foundation has also supported art programs in community centers, at a local museum, and at other places with creative instruction.

The sale of artwork created during the 2015 Sonoma Plein Air Festival
The sale of artwork created during the 2015 Sonoma Plein Air Festival

How do they pull it off, year after year, with nearly steady growth? “It works here because we have an amazingly generous community that recognizes the key importance of education, and that a key component in education is creativity and the arts,” says Gerry Brinton, a board member for Sonoma Plein Air. “Our board is a good example — nobody on the board has kids in the Sonoma school system; we all came from somewhere else. But it’s important to us.”

One might suspect that it takes an affluent area to support arts education in such a dramatic fashion. Brinton says that isn’t so. “There is a broad spectrum of people living in the Sonoma Valley — vineyard workers and owners, retirees, all sorts,” she says. So is it deep-pocketed tourists who prop it up? “The plein air festival attracts both locals and visitors,” says Brinton. “Walk through our homes and you will see a lot of plein air paintings. People within driving distance can have a fun day in Sonoma and then enjoy this event in the plaza. It’s both.”

Children painting at this year’s Sonoma Plein Air Festival
Children painting at this year’s Sonoma Plein Air Festival

One element in SPA’s success is Keith Wicks, the co-founder of the foundation. “Keith is well known in the plein air community and has many artist friends who recognize that the Sonoma Plein Air Festival will be a fun event, and they come and participate,” says Brinton. It is indeed a popular event among painters: Last year the festival received more than 150 applications for the 35 slots. The entries are juried by well-known artists, and the selected painters seem to get into the spirit of things, publicizing the event on their personal websites and on social media, ensuring that plenty of collectors know about their participation. Another factor is somewhat obvious: The Sonoma Valley has plenty of things to paint.

Today’s art students are tomorrow’s artists and collectors. Thanks in part to the work of the Sonoma Plein Air Foundation, the Sonoma Valley will likely have a vibrant arts scene for decades to come.

The Sonoma Plein Air Festival will be held next year from September 5-10. For more information, visit the SPA website.


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