Ad for the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

Monterey County’s Most Enduring Cultural Institutions

Performing arts centers, galleries, theater troupes, music festivals and more.

PUBLISHED AUG 22, 2023 4:24 P.M.
Share this:  
A 1911 production of “Twelfth Night” at the Forest Theater.

A 1911 production of “Twelfth Night” at the Forest Theater.

There’s something about the coast of Monterey that brings out the poetry in a person. The ambience encourages the fantasy—a fantasy as old as local writer John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats and Cannery Row—that you could find a life without labor and responsibility…or that you could sum up the lashing waves and the shriek of seagulls into a work at least half as important as Robinson Jeffers’ writings.

The visual drama of this peninsula, on the brink of the vast blue depths of the bay, has attracted the artist and the artsy alike since the state of California was young. Carmel may in reality be a place where a lot of very well-off golfers have their summer cottages, but it’s still a particular draw to the painter, the musician, and the poet.

Here are some of the cultural organizations that have made Monterey County a special place, ranging from performing arts spaces that were created at the beginning of the 20th century to newer traditions that have already endured two decades and beyond.

1. Forest Theater (1910)

Carmel’s much-loved al fresco theater has gone through changes over the course of the century. The 540-seat amphitheater was rebuilt by the WPA, went dark for the 1960s, and then was closed by the pandemic. What hasn’t changed is the tree-lined beauty of the setting, and the actors’ passion for Shakespeare and more locally sourced drama. The nonprofit Forest Theater Guild looks after this venerable theater, which is currently the home of Pacific Repertory.

2. Golden State Theater (1926)

Street view of Golden State Theater
The Golden State Theatre, on Alvarado Street
Philip Armitage/Shutterstock

A compact Spanish Colonial palace of a place with 1,000 velvet upholstered seats, the Golden State Theatre was once the main stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco for an eclectic range of performers. In more recent years this nigh-hundred-year-old cinema was triplexed, closed and awaited restoration. Today, it’s booked for live music by the management of the Catalyst, Santa Cruz’s long-lived nightspot.

3. Carmel Music Society (1927)


Carmel’s Sunset Center for the Arts, with its vast picture window, is the home for the Carmel Music Society, founded by Dene Denny (far left) and Hazel Watrous, two women who had recently moved to Carmel to work as architects and decorators. (Find out more in Carmel Impresarios, David Gordon’s “cultural biography” of these two influential figures in the Monterey Bay cultural scene.) Since its inception, the organization has presented more than 500 solo artists and ensembles.

4. Carmel Art Association (1927)

Painting of a church
Mission San Luis Rey, by Jennie V. Cannon

The beautifully situated Carmel Art Association is one of the oldest nonprofit art collectives in the country. It was founded by Jennie V. Cannon, a poverty-stricken Swedish immigrant’s daughter who was the first student ever to get a masters in art at Stanford. (Her Wikipedia entry has no shortage of high drama.) The CAA’s purpose is “to provide a safe haven for some of the greatest artists in California”; today, this nearly century-old gallery specializes in the Carmel coast’s astonishing landscapes.

5. Carmel Bach Festival (1935)

Less than a decade after beginning the Carmel Music Society, Dene Denny and Hazel Watrous cosponsored the Carmel Bach Festival, which takes place in July. One highlight for this season is a “Father and Son” concert with pieces by J.S. Bach and his fifth son, C.P.E. Bach. Selections include the latter’s Magnificat and Papa Bach’s Credo from Mass in B-Minor. The ensemble performs in a number of sites, including Sunset Center for the Arts, Church of the Wayfarer and the Carmel Mission Basilica.

6. Monterey Symphony (1946)

Music director Jayce Ogren

It began as a pro-am orchestra, playing the Officer’s Club at Fort Ord. Then in 1954 Gregory Millar became the symphony’s first professionally trained conductor…but in 1959 Leonard Bernstein scooped up Millar to be assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic. In June of 2022, the symphony welcomed its 12th music director, Jayce Ogren. A highlight of the current season featured composer-in-residence John Wineglass performing a new composition, Sacred Land: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.

7. Monterey Jazz Festival (1958)

Tim Jackson ends his long tenure in 2023.
RR Jones/Monterey Jazz Festival

One of the most celebrated jazz festivals in the world. The list of performers who have appeared at this annual late summer event at the Monterey County Fairgrounds event is flabbergasting: Miles Davis and Anita O’Day, and Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, Quincy Jones and Ornette Coleman. The 2023 schedule includes Herbie Hancock, five-time Grammy winning jazz collective Snarky Puppy, and a Sunday gospel performance by Tammy L. Hall and the Texas Southern University. It’s also the swan song of artistic director Tim Jackson, whose three-decade tenure as artistic director ends this year.

8. Monterey Museum of Art (1959)


The museum’s location on Pacific Street.
Photo by Sgerbic/Creative Commons 4.0

California artists, both past and present, are the focus in the two locations that make up the Monterey Museum of Art. Permanent here is the William F. Ritschel memorial exhibition of his California Impressionist seascapes. Shows in 2023 included paintings of wildflowers and pollinators by Erin E. Hunter, and “You’ve Got to Be Kidding: Humor and the Absurd in California Art,” featuring Funk artists such as the late Clayton Bailey, William Wiley and Robert Arneson.

9. Center for the Photographic Arts (1967)

America’s second-oldest photography gallery is in Carmel, founded by Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock and Cole Weston; it hosts juried shows and exhibitions. It has free admission and hosts members-only monthly events, artists talks, and film screenings. One annual event is Photowalk Carmel, which takes participants on a tour of nine photography galleries in picturesque Carmel.

10. Pacific Grove Art Center (1969)

Four galleries make room for international and local artists; First Friday celebrations occur and the shows change every other month. The Art Center holds classes and an art summer camp for children. It’s the long-time home of the Peninsula Ballet Center (see below). Plus, the center has more than a dozen studios rented to artists and musicians.

11. Peninsula Ballet Center/ Ballet Fantasque (1974)

Kira Ivanovsky
@1985 John Meyer

Peninsula Ballet Center was founded by the late Kira Ivanovsky, and is now operated by her daughter, Milou. Kira was still teaching at 100 years of age after a prodigious international career in dance; she herself was trained by Vera Nemtchinova, who danced in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. During her long tenure, Milou has produced and directed original ballets for young dancers and appeared in principal roles. The PBC has an annual full-length performance of The Nutcracker.

12. Arts Council of Monterey (1982)

Formed to promote the arts in Monterey County, with outreach and public programs paid for by hotel taxes. It provides support for more than 100 local fine and performing arts organizations in this coastside county.

13. Pacific Repertory Theatre (1983)

Founded as the GroveMont Theater, this troupe (which includes a school for the dramatic arts) plays the Forest Theater. They’ll also be returning to their indoor theater, the Golden Bough (1952), once the building is fully renovated some time from now. As for the 2023 season, offerings include The Addams Family (Aug. 10-Sept. 17) and Shakespeare’s twisty Cymbeline (Sept. 28-Oct. 15), a comedy with attempted murder in it.

14. Youth Music Monterey County (1988)

The Youth and Honors Orchestra is led by the eminent Maestro Danko Druško, a guest conductor at the LA Philharmonic; the orchestra has a hundred student musicians. The YMMC also has brass and woodwind ensembles and a program of chamber music. They perform and teach at local schools.

15. Ariel Theatrical (1989)

This long-running children’s theater program, based in Old Town Salinas, took its name both from The Tempest and an acronym: “Accountability, Respect, Integrity, Excellence and Leadership.” Theater programs like this have been proven to throw a lifeline to children who can’t find themselves. Salinas—an agricultural town where the average income is $26,000 per annum—has its share of kids with the deck stacked against them. In pre-pandemic times Ariel was putting on 10 shows a year.

16. Paper Wing Theater and Supper Club (1992)

Based in a historic factory on Cannery Row, Koly McBride’s troupe packages dinner and a show. Originally migrating from the Fox Theater in Salinas to the coast, Paper Wing has put on a variety of performances since: a regular Rocky Horror Picture Show and a little Star Wars burlesque (featuring “Luke Thighstalker”).

17. Alliance for California Traditional Arts (1997)

Including this organization on a Monterey list is a slight cheat. Though this statewide alliance has three separate offices, it isn’t actually based here. ACTA has worked in 50 counties, distributing $7 million in grants to artists and organizations. Thus, it helped finance inside-the-walls art classes, such as a mural painting workshop given to some of the 4,000 inmates in Monterey County’s Soledad prison.

18. National Steinbeck Center (1998)

A statue of the author at the center.
Sgerbic/Creative Commons 4.0

About the time of the publishing of East of Eden (1952), the Nobel Prize–winning author John Steinbeck was not a popular man in Salinas. Those who didn’t consider the author of The Grapes of Wrath a Communist might have condemned him as a tattletale, exposing the nighttime side of his home town in his prose. Steinbeck spent his last days in New York, but the long valley formed him as a man and a writer. He’s buried a little more than two miles away from this center, which houses a collection compiled from the writer’s life and works. There’s a theater on site, and a Young Authors program.

19. Youth Arts Collective (2000)

“Do art. Be kind.” More than 1,000 children have been mentored at this arts workshop founded by Marcia Perry and Meg Biddle. They’re proud of programs for financially challenged children, which provide instruction and free lunches (“no starving artists” is another of the collective’s mottos). The YAC notes the high number of alumni going on to college. Visitors can see the members’ works at their gallery in downtown Monterey on Calle Principal.

20. West End Celebration (2001)

Six square blocks of Sand City are cordoned off for a fest of food, drink, art and live music; in 2023, the street fair occurs on August 26-27. The music lineup includes Carl Verheyen, Shana Morrison, Forrest Day, One A-Chord, and a couple dozen other acts.


Support California Local

$10 • $25 • $50 • Our Impact

List of local resources, knowledge and information.

This article is tagged with:
Join Us Today!