Watsonville Center for the Arts
Mireya Gomez-Contreras (from right), Deputy Director of Arts Council Santa Cruz County, Stephanie Dieguez, Whitehawk Indian Council for Children Secretary and Liaison, and Janet Johns, artistic director of Esperanza del Valle, meet Tuesday inside the new Watsonville Center for the Arts at the corner of East Beach and Main streets in downtown Watsonville. — Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

WATSONVILLE—A new arts and culture hub will soon open in downtown Watsonville, acting as a home base for a number of longstanding organizations, education programs and more.

Watsonville Center for the Arts, 375 Main St., is the culmination of decades of work by local groups who say they have longed to have such a space in South County.

“This is part of the movement for the arts that’s been building in momentum for some years now,” said Mireya Gomez-Contreras, deputy director of Arts Council Santa Cruz County, which will manage the space. “The arts in general, especially here, have been way underfunded and there’s been little by way of resources. So we’re hoping this can be a hub that brings together artists, and makes visible what the arts truly are for this community.”

In 2020 the Council formed the Watsonville Stewardship Committee for the Arts, aiming to bring resources, build spaces and improve access to the arts in South County. Members of that committee, which is made up of artists, teachers, political leaders and city staff, created a report that recommended creating a new arts center downtown.

The Watsonville Planning Commission approved plans for the Center for the Arts in April of this year.

Gomez-Contreras called the center a “huge step” for the arts movement in South County.

“We’ve had about six other points over that last 40 years where there were plans written out, blueprints made … and then, suddenly, the funding just disappeared,” she said. “But here we are, finally beyond that point. It’s pretty incredible.”

The two-story, 3,400-square-foot building on the corner of Main and West Beach streets, just across the street from the City Plaza, previously housed Watsonville Yoga Dance & Healing Arts, now located on East Lake Avenue. The center will act as a rehearsal space for local dance and music groups, as well as the Arts Council’s Mariposa Arts program.

Six local groups have already come on board to utilize the space. This includes long standing Watsonville dance groups like Esperanza del Valle and the Whitehawk Indian Council for Children, as well as Estrellas de Esperanza, Grupo Folklórico Los Cocuyos and Activities 4 All. In addition, Cristal González Avila of Teatro Campesino will be running theater classes.

Janet Johns, co-founder and executive director of Esperanza del Valle, said that this will be the first time her organization will have a permanent practice space.

“We’ve been in the community for over 40 years without a home,” Johns said. “It’s time. Thanks to the Arts Council and Mireya’s leadership, it’s happening.” 

Stephanie Dieguez, secretary and liaison for Whitehawk’s board of directors, agreed. Her group has also been performing in the community for more than four decades.

“We’ve bounced around town so many times,” Dieguez said. “From school parking lots, cafeterias, the Vets Hall … It’s been tough. When the Arts Council came to us with this idea, it was the biggest blessing ever. To be able to be planted here, in the heart of Watsonville … it’s really exciting.”

This is also the first time the Arts Council will have in-person administrative offices in South County. Mariposa Arts, an after-school program offering visual art, music, dance and theater to thousands of local students every year, will now be headquartered at the center.

“We will have five Watsonville-based staff members working out of this space,” Gomez-Contreras said. “That’s about a third of our staff. This is very intentional … It’s part of our investment in Watsonville around our equity work.”

Johns said that the center may not have been possible without the partnership of so many different organizations, leaders and other groups.

“Maybe when it’s been one group acting alone, it’s impossible,” she said. “This is the power of numbers.”

While the center’s initial six partners have offered the center a good foundation, Gomez-Contreras said that things are already growing and expanding.

“In some ways, we’ve already outgrown the space,” she said. “In terms of ideas, and actual square footage. Because there’s six groups who have been brought on to activate the space, but there are at least a dozen more who would be ready to move in tomorrow. We’re starting out with the performing arts, but it’ll grow.”

Added Dieguez: “This will open doors for other artists to get involved. We’re not going to be the only ones. It’s not just song and dance. It’s all art forms. It takes spreading the word so people actually get in contact.”

Watsonville Center for the Arts is scheduled to open for use later this summer. The Arts Council is currently working on finalizing insurance certificates and other paperwork. They plan to hold a grand opening event in September, once the space is ready and groups are settled.

Gomez-Contreras said that seeing such an art movement blossoming in South County is “a long time coming.” The arts, she said, are vital for communities, but especially disadvantaged ones like Watsonville. 

“To me, what it means to be here is to respond to the very real need for the arts as survival,” she said. “The arts keep you hopeful, give you a sense of dignity, a way of expressing your emotions and feelings. The arts have so much potential.”

Learn more about Watsonville Center for the Arts at watsonvillecenterforthearts.org.

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Reporter Johanna Miller grew up in Watsonville, attending local public schools and Cabrillo College before transferring to Pacific University Oregon to study Literature. She covers arts and culture, business, nonprofits and agriculture.


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