Maria Partridge, who became the new curator at Sierra Arts this past summer, has long been a champion of Reno arts, but back in 1998, when she first moved here from Mill Valley, California, it wasn’t love at first sight.
“It took me about five years to actually really fall in love with it,” she said of her adopted city. “I felt like it was a cultural wasteland.”
Soon after the move, she started reading Encore, a newspaper for artists that Sierra Arts used to publish. “I was really impressed with that,” Partridge said. “I thought, ’Wow, there is something happening here culturally.’”
She soon made connections all over town. She joined the Nevada Museum of Art as a member, worked for the Peppermill as a graphic designer, and taught drawing and design at Truckee Meadows Community College.
“I felt like there was an easy entrée into the arts here,” she said. “It wasn’t that competitive. I liked that.”
In 2006, a chance encounter led to what has been, so far, her most prominent arts administration job. She met Burning Man co-founder Crimson Rose at an NMA event. Partridge was interested in Burning Man but had never attended.
“I felt there should be more of a presence of the art here in Reno for people like me, who didn’t want to go,” she said. She told Rose, “If you can helicopter me in and helicopter me out, I might go.’” Rose said no to the helicopter, but Partridge went anyway, making the often traffic-impeded trip up Highway 447 to the Black Rock Desert.
She decided she’d play a part in bringing some of the festival’s artwork to Reno. Partridge and Rose set about learning how to get artwork placed outdoors in Reno, enlisting the help of experienced administrators such as Stacey Spain and Christine Fey, learning how to present to the Public Art Committee, the Arts & Culture Commission and the City Council. In 2007, their efforts yielded an outdoor exhibit in what was then an empty lot behind Sierra Arts, now the Eddy container park and beer garden. The installation was called “The Mangrove.” It was made up of 11 tree-like sculptures, and the site soon became an event venue, complete with weekly music programming.
Eleven years and a few public art installations later, Partridge is still a committed Burner. She’s employed by Burning Man as an on-playa art project manager, and she’s been instrumental in running the Playa Art Park, a hub for temporary sculptures and events that opened in 2016 on a vacant block on North Virginia Street that used to house a motel and will likely be developed some day.
Now, Partridge is also the gallery curator at Sierra Arts. She won’t get a chance to really flex her muscles as a curator for a while, as exhibitions are already scheduled through the end of 2019, but she’s already making plans based on the kind of community collaboration that she’s come to favor. She’s thinking about how to fit more exhibitions into each season, and she wants to group together artists based on their existing ties in other contexts—for example, maybe one day there will be a Sierra Arts show of all of the artists who are instructors at the NMA.
Her first call for artists is scheduled to go out in January 2019 for exhibitions coming up in 2020.