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In California, Pot Is Now an Art Patron

Nonprofit arts groups tend to spend much of their time scrounging for grants and praying for corporate largesse. But one art foundation taking shape on 120 acres in the high oak chaparral of Sonoma County has different kinds of worries these days: spider mites, bud rot and the occasional low-flying surveillance visit from the local Sheriff’s Office.

Marijuana plants
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Marijuana plants

This is because the foundation, called Life Is Art, recently began to reap a new kind of financing, in the form of tall, happy-looking marijuana plants. Late this month, with some help from the sale of its first small crop, grown under California’s liberal medical marijuana laws, the group plans to present an inaugural exhibition on its land, of sculpture and installation work by more than 20 visiting artists — some of whom will have helped bring in the harvest. The foundation’s hope is that income from succeeding crops will fully support such projects, in perpetuity, creating a kind of Marfa-meets-ganja art retreat north of San Francisco and a new economic engine for art philanthropy.

At a going wholesale rate of $200 or more an ounce in the Bay Area for high-quality medical marijuana, it’s a lot simpler than raising money the traditional way, the project’s organizers point out. And — except for the nagging fact that selling marijuana remains a crime under federal law — it even feels more honest to the people behind Life Is Art. They see it as a way of supporting the cause with physical labor and the fruits of the land instead of the wheedling of donors, an especially appealing prospect in an economy where raising money has become more difficult than ever.

“The whole game of finding support just started to seem so childish,” said Kirsha Kaechele, the foundation’s director, as she hauled a plastic tub of freshly harvested cannabis hybrid branches up a hill one morning recently on her rolling land just outside of Santa Rosa. “So I decided to grow up and became a marijuana farmer.”

In California, where voters will consider a ballot initiative in November that would make theirs the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use — and where some growers are already donating portions of their proceeds to nonprofit causes like AIDS charities — the idea of putting pot to work for the arts seems to be spreading.

Artists Collective, a two-year-old medical marijuana service in Los Angeles formed with the idea of directing a large share of its income to the creative world, gave away its first chunk of money in August, to the winner of a national short-story contest it sponsored, judged by the novelist Neal Pollack. The initial prize was just $1,000, but Dann Halem, the collective’s founder and director, said the goal of the nonprofit organization was to become as effective and well known as Newman’s Own, Paul Newman’s food-based charity, which he cited as an inspiration.

“Hopefully in the long run this is something that will be able to give millions and millions to the arts,” he said.

Ms. Kaechele (pronounced KEH-shell-uh), 34, has spent the last decade directing public art projects in New Orleans. But after Hurricane Katrina and the recession, her operation was on the brink of collapse. That is when she started to think about the money-making possibilities of the rural land in Sonoma that she and her business partner, Jaohn Orgon, had bought six years earlier.

“Everyone who knew that I had land in California just assumed I was growing pot on it,” she said, “which is kind of funny, and I’d tell them I wasn’t.”

But after a conversation with the Brooklyn artist Fred Tomaselli, whose psychedelic art is sometimes made with marijuana leaves, she started to think seriously about the idea. She formed a California nonprofit called American Medicinals. (Growers in the state tend to operate as nonprofit or not-for-profit organizations.) Through Craigslist she found a veteran California growing expert whose long involvement in marijuana cultivation during the years when it was completely illegal had left him perpetually wary, prompting a strange series of initial e-mails in which he referred only to his expertise in growing goji berries.

Now, six months after planting the crop from seed — a mix of two varieties, O.G. Kush and Cherry Pie, grown in two small outdoor plots and one indoor space — she and a handful of artists who will be making work for the show have been harvesting the plants and hanging them upside down on wires to dry in the barn that serves as the group’s headquarters and makeshift studio space. They sold their first dried and cured buds to medical users in the first week of October.

They are loath to provide details about how much marijuana they hope to produce with the first harvest — plant limits vary from county to county, and they worry about how the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, which made an unannounced visit by helicopter in September, interprets the limits there. But their goal for next year’s crop is to generate $1 million after expenses to be used for art projects on the farm and to send back to support their programs in New Orleans, which they hope will ultimately be financed entirely by the farm.

“We think it’s a completely realistic number,” Ms. Kaechele said.

For the moment, though, the Sonoma wing of the foundation is still in its infancy and feels like a combination of Yaddo, a hip organic farm and a very laid-back commune (but with little smoking of the funds going on, at least in a reporter’s presence). Ms. Kaechele eventually wants to be able to set up artists’ residencies, to commission pieces from emerging and established artists and to pay for works that would remain permanently on the land, as Donald Judd’s do in Marfa, Tex., at the Chinati Foundation.

While the debate about marijuana legalization has focused on its potential dangers, its mainstream benefits are starting to get more attention: higher tax income, struggling newspapers buoyed by marijuana ads. In California the potential for recreational legalization in November worries many medical growers like Mr. Halem of Artists Collective, who fear that the change would bring in corporate interests, cause prices to fall and push out growers with charitable aims.

Ms. Kaechele and the young artists whose work will appear in the first exhibition, opening to the public on Oct. 22, seem overjoyed with the way things are working out so far, but not everyone shares the sentiment. A couple who live on a property adjacent to the farm, Steve and Catherine Matuszak, only recently learned of the growing operation nearby and said they were worried about increased traffic up the winding mountain roads and even more about the potential for thieves.

“We don’t have concerns with them as individuals, really,” Ms. Matuszak, a dental hygienist, said of the new art-farm neighbors. “It’s just the situation that’s developing that worries us.”

Ms. Kaechele said she wanted to work hard to win her neighbors over, and she even has an idea for dealing with the drug-crime concerns (another completely new kind of worry for a public-art organizer): She will ask artists to come up with proposals for alarms and security devices that will double as art installations on the land.

“We see it as a set of curatorial problems for us to respond to,” she said.

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