SANTA ROSA, Calif. — 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.
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 on the land an inaugural exhibition 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.