The new executive director and CEO of the venerable Palo Alto nonprofit Pacific Art League is an art lover and media business professional whose career has included two years as chief revenue officer at the media company Re/code and most recently a year as head of event sales for Bloomberg Live Events.
Jon Graves, who originally hails from Devon, England and first lived in the U.S. in Los Angeles, took over the helm at the nearly 100-year-old nonprofit in June.
"I wanted to get into something I believe in and enjoy. I have lived in Palo Alto for over 20 years and have a vast network of connections here," Graves said. About leaving the tech industry, he added, "I was pleased to get away from it."
Graves was selected for the position from a field of more than 30 applicants. Pacific Art League board director Theo Keet said they were seeking someone with "a combination of management and marketing experience, qualifications or training in visual art and who is well-connected in the local community."
Graves is leading a organization that experienced a fair amount of internal turbulence over the past decade, much of which centered around competing visions for the organization's future and the redevelopment of the venerable building at 668 Ramona St. In 2014-2015, the board of directors saw an exodus of at least eight members. But under Executive Director Seth Schalet, who like Graves had a background in the technology sector, the renovation was completed. Schalet resigned after two years as head in February 2015 to take a position at a national nonprofit. The Art League in August 2015 hired Shannon McDonnell, who resigned in January. Gabi Blumberg worked as interim executive director from February through May.
In spite of the past turmoil, Graves called the Art League, located across from City Hall, "pretty low-profile." Raising that profile in the community is among his ambitions, as it is the board's. Another goal comes out of the renovation, which resulted in the nonprofit renting out its top two floors in order to pay the mortgage.
Said Keet: "The board expects that Jon can expand the education and exhibition activities and fundraising to the extent that we can occupy all of our historic building from 1923 by the centenary of the Pacific Art League in 2021."
Graves's passion for art stretches back to the University of Wales, where he majored in art history. Following graduation, Graves wanted to combine his interest in art with a position in business, he said. The opportunity came along when he was hired by Art LA, a UK-based firm that staged large art fairs. He moved to Los Angeles, met and married his wife and then embarked on a career that encompassed everything from high-tech trade shows to the position at Re/code.
A dedication to the arts runs in his family. His wife teaches after-school art classes for children and his two daughters are both pursuing careers in the performing arts.
Graves is unabashedly enthusiastic about the challenge of leading the Pacific Art League. He wants to pursue more outreach to local corporations, with the goal of offering art to underserved populations. He also envisions collaborative efforts with neighbors Pace Gallery and Bryant Street Gallery, as well as encouraging the local start-ups to use the Pacific Art League for team-building off-sites. He is excited, he said, about offering more evening programs for young families. And he would like to see the quality of the gallery exhibitions raised to a higher level, while admitting that the primary purpose of the League is to serve the practicing artist, not to compete with area museums.
"We can be the place where you can go to learn to make art and to enjoy art," he said.
He acknowledges that the city-run Palo Alto Art Center plays a similar role in the local art community, but he believes that the Pacific Art League has an important advantage in its downtown location.
Currently, the nonprofit employs 35-40 instructors, many of whom have been with the organization for decades. More than 2,100 students are enrolled in quarterly classes that include media such as painting, drawing, printmaking and photography. The league also offers one-day workshops and summer camps.
Classes are offered in open, airy studios that also serve as galleries. There is a year-round schedule of juried exhibitions that change monthly. Members receive a discount on class tuition and also a reduced fee when entering the juried competitions.
All of the activities take place on the ground floor of the building, where the staff also shares a small office area. The upper two levels of the building are now rented out to a technology group. It is Grave's mission to eventually expand the league's programs into the upper floors, but that can only happen if the nonprofit can generate the income to pay the mortgage that was required when the building was upgraded and retrofitted.
It's an ambitious plan, he admitted, but he said the Pacific Art League enjoys a dedicated and loyal volunteer base and an active board, who steered the organization through the renovation of the building and finding tenants for the upper floors. In spite of currently having just one floor for programming, Graves said there is room for growth.
"We have a lot more scope to fill this building with classes," he said.
He plans to use his business acumen and his passion for the arts to lead the Pacific Art League forward. While the Silicon Valley high-tech industry has not always been known for philanthropy or interest in the arts, Graves said this is changing.
"Art is beginning to get more of a reputation in the Valley," he said.
"If we can become a really impressive arts organization in this amazing, powerful little town," he said, "that's quite a cool ambition."
Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.