Hi-Desert Artists A Phoenix Rises from the Ashes of JTAG

By Katie Nartonis

“I have been honored to be a part of our steering committee, for the Hi-Desert Artists group, right from our beginning – when we were trying to save the JTAG gallery. This has been a huge learning experience for me…(it) makes me very proud to be doing something worthwhile for our high desert art community.” – Snake Jagger, HDA Artist + Volunteer

Earlier this year, the MBCAC (Morongo Basin Cultural Arts Council) closed the long running JTAG (Joshua Tree Art Gallery) located in the heart of Joshua Tree. JTAG, a community-run and artist’s led art-space was one of the few places in the high desert where local artist members could take part in group shows and arrange a solo show for a manageable fee. The closing felt sudden, and the artist members were left feeling adrift.

Sometimes when things get tough, folks rally. Almost immediately after the closing of JTAG, the artists of the Morongo Basin pulled together and started meeting in person to discuss their options.

Founding HDA member, local ceramicist and arts advocate Ed Keesling explains the genesis of the new Hi-Desert Artists’ organization. He notes, “It evolved from a group of artists that formed a cooperative to save JTAG. The cooperative offered to manage JTAG and to continue to show local artists and pay all of the rent and utilities costs. When the MBCAC abruptly turned us down and closed the gallery, we decided to find a new place to run a gallery.” After months of hard work, this tenacious group established a new 501-c non-profit organization (calling themselves the
Hi-Desert Artists or HDA) and already have a strong working membership.

“The (HDA) organization is built on the
principle of total transparency and
involvement of the artists in the planning
and operation of the gallery.”
– Ed Keesling

Ed continues, “The HDA is currently a group of artists who have joined together to found the organization as Legacy members. We have a board of 8 founding volunteer members, approved by the membership. The membership meets on the last Sunday of the month to hear progress reports from each of the directors, and to vote on all major decisions about the operation and management of the organization. Obviously, this is somewhat cumbersome and time consuming, but as they say, democracy is messy at times. The advantage is that all the members are well informed and have the chance to be involved.”

In December, the HDA announced that they have purchased the old Route 62 Vintage Marketplace space in Yucca Valley. Cheyanne Sauter, the Director of the group Affordable Housing for Artists, offered to form a partnership with the HDA and to be their fiscal sponsor to apply for the grant to purchase the property. The group plans to provide display and sales space for artists, visual and performing arts classes, events for the community, and to serve as a support group for all of the other arts’ organizations in the basin.

Keesling is thrilled with the new building and notes, “we owe a debt of gratitude to the owner of the Route 62 Antique Mart, Dawn Blevins, for facilitating the purchase of her property which she and her husband Denis have poured their heart and souls into for over 20 years, as a destination for quality antiques, and works of art. During the past few months, Dawn has patiently answered our many questions and hosted many visits form the HDA members and board.”

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The building has closed escrow and plans are in the works to make the necessary changes to create the interior art galleries with the necessary good lighting and walls for hanging, and to build out the needed ADA restrooms and ramps. The group is moving forward with alacrity and determination, so the community should not have to wait long to visit the Hi-Desert Artists galleries. The current projected timeline includes moving in around the first of this month, next to remodel the space, and if all goes smoothly – the HDA galleries will begin operation in April 2024.

The newly elected volunteer HDA Gallery Director, Karin Skiba notes, “We tried so hard to get JTAG, and when that fell through – we just didn’t give up. It has been a ton of work, but we’re excited.” Skiba says that over fifty artists are showing up for the monthly organizational meetings, and “there is a lot of good energy – we are really trying to embrace everyone.” This good energy has not gone unnoticed by the larger arts community, everyone is talking about the new developments.

The new HDA space will be a full-fledged art center. There will be four galleries in total – two will serve as member’s spaces for themed shows, one will be a space for solo artist shows, and the last will serve as a high-end store with quality crafts and goods on consignment. There is a large yard in the back of the building where the HDA plans to have music events and other performance art.

All members will be required to sit in the gallery from time to time, and to join one of the operating committees. Keesling explains further that “this way the artist members are involved in making it work, and they can help keep the cost of membership lower as we do not have to pay for employees. For the most part, we strive to operate as a volunteer organization, in which all of the members matter, and have a vote.”

Newly elected HDA Membership Director and talented artist/photographer Deanna Valdez believes wholeheartedly in the new project – “The HDA will give a year-round opportunity for artists of all disciplines to display work and give back to the community, as well as educate the youth, in a creative way. I am most excited to help develop and create a center – for all to take part in.”

Sometimes it takes a hard challenge to pull people together. The new Hi-Desert Artist’s organization and gallery space are now positioned to support the vibrant arts community here in the high desert. Their location in Yucca Valley will be an added draw to the already established monthly Yucca Valley Arts Walk, slated for the third Saturday of each month. Legacy HDA memberships are now available for $50, and almost 60 artists have signed up so far. For more information, visit: hi-desertartists.com or on Instagram @hi_desert_artists.

We can’t wait for the first of many art openings and events at the HDA, and to celebrate the Hi- Desert Artists!

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