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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

With Art Shows On Hold, Money From The CARES Act Helps Keep Artists Afloat In San Juan County

A man sits behind a counter with lots of baskets and weavings displayed around him.
Kate Groetzinger
Steve Simpson applied for $102,000 in CARES Act funding through the state’s Shop In Utah program. He is using that money to give customers 30% off of all purchases.

Ernie Washee learned to solder from his cousins while growing up on the Navajo Nation. Now, he lives in Blanding and makes jewelry with engraved stones and silver. Normally he sells it at art shows, but this year has been different.

“It has been slow, very slow,” Washee said. “I haven’t made a sale since February, which was down in Las Cruxes, New Mexico.”

That changed last week when he made his first sale through the Bluff Arts Festival, which is online this year.

The state of Utah received $1.25 billion from the federal government through the federal CARES Act this spring. Now, some of that money is going to support artists in San Juan County.

San Juan County gave the festival $5,000 out of the nearly $1.5 million it received from the state. That money went directly to honorariums for filmmakers and advertisements promoting an online art market, according to festival coordinator Amanda Podmore.

“Surveying past artists, what we heard was that they wanted help with exposure, because most in-person events this year were cancelled,” Podmore said. “So we selected 30 artists and made every artist a webpage on the Bluff Arts Fest website.”

A Navajo man holds a hand torch with flames coming out of the end.
Courtesy of Ernie Washee
Navajo silversmith Ernie Washee melts silver and pours it into an ingot mold. Each of his rock art jewelry pieces is unique.

The county also set aside $110,000 to reimburse trading posts for the cost of half of all the items they purchase, allowing them to buy more art and make more money. And Twin Rocks trading post in Bluff received $102,000 of funding through the state’s ‘Shop In Utah’ Program.

San Juan County Economic Development Director Natalie Randall said the county wanted to find a way to give CARES Act dollars directly to local artists, but they opted to give it to trading posts instead because of the tracking requirements for the money imposed by the federal government.

“The hard thing with being able to directly shift funds to artisans who work in their homes, is that a lot of them don’t have businesses set up, so there isn’t a way to transfer funds that can be tracked,” Randall said.

Twin Rocks owner Steve Simpson said he is planning to apply for the county’s program, which opened on Monday. In the meantime, he’s been able to give customers 30% off their purchases, both in-store and online.

He said he then uses the CARES Act money to buy more art to sell.

“I could have spent the money on electricity and wages,” Simpson said. “But the local artists are really suffering and we thought that would be a good way to help them out.”

Simpson said Twin Rocks also received funding from the state to provide hunger relief through the trading post’s restaurant. For every meal purchased, he said they donate one meal to a Navajo family in need.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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