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Coachella Valley art scene growing as young people see opportunities

The new $5.6 million visual arts building at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, which was designed by the architecture firm Perkins+Will.
The new $5.6 million visual arts building at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, which was designed by the architecture firm Perkins+Will.
Dan Chavkin/Courtesy of Perkins+Will

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Coachella Valley, once known as a place to retire in the California desert, is taking on a new spirit.

The valley is attracting a younger crowd, residents and educators say, one drawn not only to the valley's popular music festival but to its growing arts scene. 

"This is no longer just a retirement community," said Lisa Soccio, art professor at College of the Desert in Palm Desert. Soccio said she's seen radical changes over the nine years she’s worked at the college.

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"We have a lot of people in the sort of 18 to 35 age category and they’re making art for themselves, and they are developing some new forms of art — some new approaches to working with materials that you don’t see in other places, that you don’t see in Los Angeles," Soccio said.

The arts expansion has been driven by two groups, she said: young artists who grew up in the area and more established artists who are choosing Coachella Valley as a home base.

Sarah Scheideman, at 30 a young but major influence in the area's art happenings, recently opened a gallery in Cathedral City and runs the popular blog The Coachella Valley Art Scene.

"Three of these last artists that we featured, they all grew up in the Coachella Valley," Scheideman said. "They went to Otis school of art, and then they recently returned because they saw more opportunity out here to get involved in the art community."

A symbol of the change underway may be the community college's new $5.6 million visual arts building that opened to students this fall. School leaders saw a growing need for arts education among the 10,000-plus students who depend on the college as a resource. Educators say many of the students didn't get arts instruction at the K-12 level. 

Another sign of the valley as an emerging arts hub is the new Architecture and Design Center that opened last month in Palm Springs. The 13,000 square-foot space serves as a new home for exhibitions and community programs as well as educational resources. 

As the area’s demographics skew younger — the most recent Census data shows that 24 percent of the population in Riverside County is 18-34 years old, up nearly 2 percentage points from 2000 — the art scene here is mirroring that shift.  

Soccio thinks the desert has an edge and a vitality that’s fueling the evolving art scene. On the one hand there's the space to get creative — wide open vistas foster new ideas. 

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival launched in 1999 served as a significant driver of the arts expansion. This year, the festival in Indio drew about 90,000 people for each weekend of its three-week run. 

Many of the young attendees are drawn to the frenetic concerts but they get to experience art pieces that in 2014 included Charles Gadeken's 50-foot obelisks lit by LEDs and Poetic Kinetics' giant astronaut.

Modernism Week, the 10-day design event that unfolds in February but was previewed in October, is another arts happening that is drawing an audience to the Coachella Valley — and building its reputation as an arts center.

During Modernism Week’s preview weekend, tour guide Roger Freeman led the popular Frank Sinatra walking tour through one of Palm Springs’ historic neighborhoods — it included a stop at the former home of ol' Blue Eyes.

At the end of the neighborhood trek, Freeman talked about the younger people he's seen among those who have joined his tours over the past two years.

"It’s kind of wonderful that young people who weren’t even born in the 1950s can really be attracted to this style of architecture and a style of living," Freeman said.

As one person on the tour put it – for young people interested in art and design in Palm Springs, this is boom time.