"Boats at Harbor" has a familiarity about it, both as Humboldt scenery and as subject matter for local watercolor paintings. A trio of boats flank a small dock rendered in earth tones, with sharper lines tracing the masts and the edges of the boats and layers of deepening green for what looks like Woodley Island in the background. The strokes loosen in the water, depicted in chartreuse and blues, a light patch of which bears Sally Arnot's pencil-fine signature.
Jemima Harr, executive director-curator of the Humboldt Arts Council and its Morris Graves Museum of Art, was surprised to find the painting by her former boss, who died Sept. 15, for sale online through Etsy. Despite Arnot's decades-long career with the council and as a central figure in Humboldt's art community — her blond, then silver bob and power suits fixtures in meeting rooms and galleries, alike — it seems not many people knew she'd done any painting herself.
"I think what it really boiled down to was her passion was not in creating but promoting and supporting the arts," says Harr. "It was more for everyone else ... the museum is for everyone."
The Morris Graves Museum of Art is the clearest manifestation of that support, housed as it is in the stately classical revival-style Carnegie Library, the restoration and renovation of which were funded largely through her fundraising efforts. Even after stepping back from the HAC board as an emeritus member and leaving the area at the age of 82 to be close to her family in Lake Oswego, Oregon, Arnot continued to put her energies toward the MGM from afar. She was still talking to Harr almost daily, getting updates and coming up with ideas, until she suffered a stroke in her home on Sept. 6. Harr says, "This was her heart and soul, and something she was thinking of every day."
Born and raised in Eureka, Arnot graduated from Eureka High School in 1956 and married Philip Arnot the following year. According to their son Stephen, "My parents met when my mom was working at the Eureka Theater, which was next door to the Carnegie Library, now the Morris Graves Museum. My dad had gone to the movies and she was working the concession stand. Phil asked her if he could drive her home after work. Sally said, 'I already have a ride home tonight but you can take me home tomorrow night.'" In nine months, they were married and remained so until her death 63 years later.
The couple spent five years in San Francisco while Philip worked and completed a law degree. There, as her friends and family tell it, she fell in love with the city and its cultural attractions, particularly the museums. When they returned to Humboldt for Philip's work as an attorney, it was with the promise that they would travel and see the world beyond the rural county where she grew up. This they did, setting foot in 50 countries over the years.
In a profile in the Journal ("Sally Arnot: Cheerleader for the Arts," Dec. 30, 1999), Arnot is asked about the importance of art, to which she replies: "I think it raises your spirit. It's good for your soul. The importance of art — I remember one time Morris Graves said this, and it's so true — 'Everything that we touch in our lives began with an artist.'" She continues, "Artists designed cars, artists are architects who build houses, our clothing is an art work. ... I think the way you live, the way you dress, everything has to do with your artistic nature."
Stephen Arnot says it was a perspective that manifested in their daily home life. "She believed having art in your life made life more interesting and joyful," he says. "She believed being creative and surrounding yourself with art you loved made life better ... . My older brother Mike and I grew up surrounded by the beautiful work of local Humboldt County artists. Our home was like an art gallery filled with paintings from floor to ceiling. Our dishes were Kathy Pierson's pottery, and Stan Bennett, Mel Schuler and Hobart Brown's sculptures were in our living room."
Those who visited the Arnot home on Quaker Street in Eureka remark on the salon-style arrangement of art on its walls, which were covered with works by local artists and pieces acquired in the Arnots' travels. "Buying it was and still is the only way to support artists," says Harr, "and she was a proud collector."
In 1970, four years after Humboldt State University professor Homer Balbanis founded the HAC, Sally Arnot joined its board of directors. When the Humboldt Cultural Center, operating under the HAC, found its home in the E. Janssen Building on First Street in Old Town Eureka, she was very much at its helm, overseeing exhibitions, lectures and concerts.
Artist Jack Sewell recalls meeting Arnot in the mid-1970s. "I was just getting my feet wet" in the local scene and setting up shows at the HCC for the Redwood Art Association, he says. "She really was the central person in the art community. Her and [artist] Floyd Bettiga."
It was an impression that stuck, even after the MGM was established.
"She was certainly the boss, the top of the ladder," Sewell says. "There were several directors that came and went over the years but Sally was the final answer. ... She was very effective and kind of defined her own job description as she went along."
Ink People Center for the Arts co-founder Libby Maynard met Arnot in 1984, when Maynard was hired on as the arts coordinator for the California Arts Council State and Local Partnership. Arnot was executive secretary then, a title Maynard says should have been executive director. "That was one of those gender things," she says.
"She was a good talker and a good asker," Maynard says of Arnot. "'Cause, you know, in the nonprofit world, if you don't ask, you don't get." She adds that Arnot was good at recognizing personal initiative and checking in on progress, and that she was a believer in art as an economic driver. "In any kind of organization, it takes an individual agenda to move it forward ... you get strong individuals who make things happen. The trick is to set it up so it'll continue after they're gone."
Maynard herself served on the board and briefly as executive director of the HAC but, as a self-described "rabble rouser," sees ways in which she wasn't such a fit in aesthetics or vision. "Think of it like an arts ecology. There are ecological niches. Ink People is the on-the-ground grassroots organization. And the HAC is the patrons' organization." Arnot was especially suited to the latter by dint of her persuasive charm, connections and drive. Asked if she ever witnessed anyone saying no to Arnot, Maynard laughs. "I'm sure people did but I didn't see it," she says.
Arnot's gift of getting people to give would be tested when a required seismic retrofitting of the E. Janssen Building meant the cultural center would have to move. The city of Eureka's offer to sell the Carnegie Library, shuttered for two decades, for a nominal price would have been a simple fix had it not come with the massive costs of retrofitting and renovation. The HAC would need to raise close to $1 million to make it work.
Arnot went after the money in donations large and small, starting with the Brick Buy Brick program, through which patrons could pay $65 for a brick engraved with their names to be installed on the grounds. She continued hitting up people at Eureka club meetings and in her social circle. Prominent local artists and business owners ponied up. A special edition of The Palette magazine honoring Arnot lists "the Arkleys, Schmidbauers, Bill Pierson, the Eureka Rotary Club and the Kresge Foundation" as "large contributors." Anchoring those names is Morris Graves, for whom the museum is named.
Robert Yarber, who runs the Morris Graves Foundation with his wife, Désiree, and who worked for the late artist for 28 years before his death, says Graves met Arnot through the HAC. Graves, an internationally renowned painter, had relocated to Humboldt and had his first local exhibition at the HCC. Over the years, he would have three shows with the HAC.
Graves' contribution to the Carnegie building effort came in the form of both money and art from his collection, including some of his own pieces. "They were looking for someone who would donate close to $1 million [in cash and art] for the naming," says Yarber, and Graves and the foundation obliged. When the museum opened in 2001, it held a major exhibition of Graves' work.
"I think Morris respected Sally for her dedication to the arts and the community," says Yarber. "He felt that they would respect the art and it would give their permanent collection more strength on an international level from a semi-famous artist of the 20th century and he wanted to do it as a show of friendship with them."
Yarber himself served on the HAC board for several years during the transition to the Carnegie Building, working closely with Arnot. "I always appreciated just her positive energy, and her focus on the goal and what needed to be done for the community," he says. "She could bring a wide variety of people together and accommodate their differences."
That sentiment is echoed by Sanderson Morgan, a former HAC board member who most recently curated the Seven Artists, Seven Paths group exhibition at the museum.
"She knew her constituency and she bridged the academic side and the other side that liked the idea of supporting the arts," he says of Arnot. "She was instrumental in bringing parts of our culture here together," one side creative and scholarly, and the other moneyed and political. "She and I were poles apart in our world view," he says, as Arnot and her husband's social circle were politically conservative, "but we had a good working relationship."
The two met in 1980 when he was teaching at the Humboldt State University Art Department, where she was pursuing the art history degree she'd put off when she got married and would finish two years later. He says they became friends instantly and she invited him to show at the cultural center and, it seems, he was no more capable of refusing than anyone else. "I brought some watercolors that I would never have shown but she asked me, so I did it."
While Arnot's bridging of those worlds was a monetary success, some in the arts community felt reliance on wealthy, conservative donors, as well as Arnot's own vision and aesthetics, led to exhibitions that played it safe with established, apolitical artists. There was criticism, too, in the early years of the museum, over its lack of inclusion of work by women and artists of color.
But by and large, despite her husband's involvement in politics, which extended to radio commentary on KINS and a column in the now defunct Eureka Reporter, Arnot herself kept politics separate from her work in the arts. "It's not really a party-line thing," says Maynard of the business of fundraising for the arts. "There may be differences in the kind of art [people] like or approve of, but generally art crosses boundaries. ... It's one of the hopes I have for this country."
Karen Angel, a museum advisory board member and Arnot's friend since the 1980s, recalls Arnot showing up for lunches at Angel's home with a box of pastries from Ramones. They would open a bottle of wine and chat about art, the arts council and Arnot's children and grandchildren. "She was so very proud of them and just talked and talked about her grandchildren and their adventures," Angel says.
She describes Arnot as "a joyous person who had a mission." Obstacles encountered in the course of that mission didn't seem to get her down, either. "Things took longer than she thought they would but ... she wasn't a person, in my experience with her, that ever showed outward frustration or anger. Because tomorrow is a new day." Even the macular degeneration that, in the last few years, made it a struggle to see the art she loved so much didn't lead Arnot to despair. "For a person so visually oriented, the loss of her vision must have been cataclysmic but I never heard her complain about it," Angel says. "It was never, 'Woe is me.'"
And like a number of people interviewed by the Journal, Angel was awed by Arnot's drive and powers of persuasion. "If anyone said no to her, I don't know who it was," she says. "She kept pursuing."
Harr met Arnot while applying for an exhibitions coordinator position at the MGM 17 years ago at Stanton's Diner in Eureka, now long gone. "I could sense a mile away that she was a powerhouse," says Harr, who started out curating the San Francisco Airport museums — a dream experience in some ways, but one geared to visitors coming coming and going, not anchored. After working as collections manager and acting director of the University of California at Davis' Richard L. Nelson Gallery, she came to Humboldt, where she made a home for herself with a mentor who believed in her.
Once on board with the HAC, Harr was amazed at Arnot's complete lack of hesitation walking up to someone at a Rotary meeting and suggesting they fund, say, a new computer for the museum. "She was an asker," Harr says, adding that over the years she heard many people say, "You can't say no to Sally Arnot."
"And you can't," Harr says. "You couldn't."
Back then, with the museum established in its new home after the herculean lift of the renovation and retrofit, the HAC coffers were nearly depleted, with some $20,000 in the bank. Arnot, who'd already served as HAC president and become an emeritus member (always unpaid), had stepped away from her role on the board but returned to the board and to volunteer for regular 40-hour weeks to build back the organization's resources.
"She sent me to grant writing courses," says Harr. "She knew kind of more about me than I knew about me at that time and she invested in me." In 2015, after operating at a deficit, the HAC sold six paintings by Indian artist V.S. Gaitunde from Morris Graves' donated collection. After Bonhams Fine Art Auctioneers took its commission, the council was left with $1 million with which to establish an endowment. That money, according to Harr, remains untouched and the day-to-day operations are paid for with shoe-leather fundraising, grant writing and the earned income of the gift shop and admissions. That means hitting 7 a.m. Sunrise Rotary meetings to talk about the arts council, running three-day trips to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and hosting appraisal fairs with Harr's mother donating her expertise on antiques. Those fundraisers, Harr says, serve the dual purpose of gathering cash and connecting with the community.
Like most nonprofits and arts organizations, the HAC has been hit hard by the pandemic, as attendance has dropped, events are canceled and donors themselves feel the economic impact. But as nonprofits go, Harr says, the organization and the museum that Arnot poured her energy into are in a good place.
"We have a strong future," she says. "As a friend and a longtime colleague of Sally's, I'm not gonna let her down."
A celebration of life for Sally Arnot will be held at the Morris Graves Museum of Art from noon to 5 p.m. on Oct. 16.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.