Mercer: A leading contributor to Valley arts

October 04, 2001|By RICHARD MONTENEGRO, Staff Writer

Twenty-seven years ago, former Montana resident Harry Mercer was looking for a place where he could get as much daylight flying time as possible.

He found it in the Imperial Valley.

What he didn't find in this land of endless sun, forever drifting dunes and ungodly heat was much in the way of cultural events.

A licensed pilot and amateur artist, shortly after his arrival Mercer joined the Imperial Valley Art Association and within two years would be one of a group of Valleyites responsible for helping to start the Imperial County Arts Council, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Now 80 years old, Mercer moved from El Centro to Visalia with his wife, Gemma, some eight years ago but returned to the Imperial Valley last week to help the Arts Council celebrate its birthday by exhibiting 35 to 40 of his most cherished paintings and drawings. The exhibit is in the council's headquarters and gallery, the Old Post Office Pavilion in El Centro.


While Mercer has been absent from the goings-on of the Valley art scene for some years, some could argue his mark was one of many left on the area when a group of local citizens led the effort to establish the Arts Council in Imperial County.

Already a member of the I.V. Art Association, Mercer was hired by the city of El Centro as an economic development coordinator in 1975. That's when his mission was realized.

On a scouting trip to Riverside County to investigate ways to enhance the economic climate of El Centro through a redevelopment agency, Mercer stumbled upon Riverside's arts council, which had been given an $80,000 startup grant from the California Arts Council.

"I thought to myself, ‘If they're getting that kind of money, why can't we get that kind of money in El Centro?'" Mercer said.

Attending a San Diego-area meeting of the state Arts Council, Mercer said he addressed those assembled: "I said, ‘I'm from El Centro, California, the most underprivileged population in the United States. There's literally nothing along the lines of cultural advantages right now.'"

He proceeded to ask the state Arts Council board how Imperial County could obtain such funding.

"‘You ask for it,' they told me," Mercer said.

Upon his return to El Centro, he enlisted the assistance of Peter Odens, then a reporter at the Imperial Valley Press, about forming a steering committee with the goal of establishing a local chapter of the state Arts Council.

In 1976, with the help of an about $20,000 grant from the state organization, Mercer said, the Imperial County Arts Council became a reality.

He said the formation of the county Arts Council was an important step forward for the Valley. While the I.V. Art Association was up and running thanks to private membership dues and funding, Mercer said, the Arts Council allowed for the arts to be spread among the general populace.

"There was literally no opportunities for kids in local schools to get any training in the arts," he said. "The California Arts Council helped that.

"In one of our first efforts, we brought the art train to El Centro and parked it on a side near the Imperial Stores headquarters," Mercer said. "It brought internationally known paintings — originals — on that train.

"That's when the real function of the Arts Council became a reality."

Mercer said one of his functions was to draft a grant document outlining what the council's funding would be used for, to which he added, "Music, symphonies, dance; anything of an artistic slant we were willing to give money to."

Mercer is so taken with fostering the arts he's come out of retirement to assist the community of Tulare, near his Visalia home, in forming its own arts council.

In addition to being in town for his art exhibit which opened Monday, Mercer is hanging around the OPOP in hopes of locating the original charters and paperwork he put together a quarter-century ago in establishing the I.C. Arts Council.

When asked what he thinks of all the local Arts Council has provided for the cultural enrichment of the Valley over the past 25 years, Mercer said, "It's glorious. … I feel tremendous pride, not only here but (for what is being done) all over the state in communities where people have reached out to young people" through the arts.

He added, "That's what an arts council does. It's providing an opportunity for people in schools to have a place to send their talented students."

On the local level, Mercer said, "The wonderful function of the Arts Council is we can reach out to artists from all over the world to give them a place to show locally."

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