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First Night (A Story by Community Builders for Monterey County)
Community Builders for Monterey County

First Night (A Story by Community Builders for Monterey County)

“It's hard to image a place that has no art program, right? That’s why we are in Greenfield.”

“The arts can teach us so much in the ways that the arts engage us in such a beautiful way to participate and to collaborate … the arts show us who we are.”


When she first took on the executive director role at First Night Monterey, Ellen Martin found herself attending a workshop in Greenfield, a Salinas Valley community that for many can feel like a world away—separated from Salinas by a 30-minute drive and from the Peninsula via the Santa Lucia Coastal Range.

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“I learned that it had the lowest per income capita,” Ellen reflects. “And it didn’t have any formal arts programs and that it was in the heart of the migrant farming community.”


First Night Monterey is most known for their New Year Eve’s celebration in downtown Monterey. It's a local cultural tradition that brings together families from all walks of life. But, aside from busily preparing for this grand celebration, they have taken on an even greater mission of appealing to our community’s diversity and bridging the cultural divide it brings, while broadening and deepening our appreciation for the arts.

FNM serves the community year round through ArtsWorks, an outreach program providing the community opportunities to learn how the arts can enrich their lives and their community. These hands-on workshops provide youth, young adults and families across the County an outlet to create art and work with artists and educators. The art produced is showcased at First Night Monterey as well as at Monterey Peninsula Airport Gallery, Sunset Center, The National Steinbeck Center, Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco and other public venues throughout the region. 


“We are always trying to honor, showcase and lift people up. To really be respectful of who they are, where they come from and what their cultural traditions are.” 

In 2016 First Night Monterey took on the theme “Art is the Next Peace | Connecting Communities” and featured art to promote non-violent resolution to problems such as gangs, bullying and domestic violence. FNM utilized the symbolism of fence posts—which have a history of separating neighborhoods—to present peace and justice issues the participants deeply care about.



Hundreds of individuals collaborated to paint and write on 8-foot fence posts depicting stories through words and symbolic images. With Monterey County being home to the largest Oxacan community outside of Mexico, the local Oaxacan community contributed to the celebration with handmade dolls dressed in traditional clothes, with tiny story books depicting their journey to the U.S.


Accessibility and inclusivity are built into First Night Monterey’s ethos. Through intentional programming, they bridge the art gap serving historically underserved communities, working within communities to create projects that reflect back those they serve, such as through their murals.

“To be part of those murals, to be a part of those programs, [allows participants to] see themselves, and it's in a very respectable, honorable way.” 


That first Greenfield workshop Ellen attended was the impetus for the Greenfield Cultural Arts Center, which launched in 2014 providing free arts programs. Ellen worked with the Arts Council for Monterey County and the Community Foundation to start weekly arts programs in coordination with community leaders, offering activities like guitar, visual arts and traditional dance classes. The Center also hosts the La Union Digena Group, formed in 2005 with Triqui indigenous communities from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, to preserve their cultural, language and family values for the next generations to come, among other similar programs.


“I grew to love the people and how passionate they are for the arts and how willing they are to volunteer, to participate, to be engaged and we’ve done some very beautiful projects along these past years.”


District-wide budgeting constraints led to the cancellation of summer school. Ellen took this opportunity to start a free art camp which served 25 to 30 kids weekly. This grew into First Night’s Greenfeld Summer Art Camp, which provides programming that includes digital art, drawing, watercolor and painting using traditional mural techniques. The camps also provide opportunities for the kids to learn about teamwork and how to uplift others, by collaborating with each other on chores and projects, teaching them to identify and honor the strengths of others.  

“What we learn from that is how starved the people are, and how much the children grew during the summer by participating in the camps. I had so many parents tell me that their children grew emotionally.”   


In 2010 Ellen got wind of the news that the community’s only outdoor art and music festival, the Greenfield Harvest Festival, was to close and made the decision to save the event.


“I said we had to take it, we had to do it no matter what.”


The Festival recently made its grand return after being put on hold for the last two years by the pandemic, which upended lives across the world, deeply isolating us in an increasingly isolated world. The need for the power of art to bridge this growing chasm is the ever more present, its healing properties made obvious through FNM’s growing library of efforts. And that’s the heart behind First Night Monterey’s art. 


“It's hard to imagine a place that has no art program, right? That’s why we are in Greenfield.”


First Night Monterey has a variety of seasonal and year-round volunteer opportunities to fit your needs and skills! Head over to their volunteer page for more information on how to get involved!

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