New life for the NEXTies: Santa Cruz awards show gets new partner, new post-shutdown lease on life

Lookout's Jamie Garfield (left) and Ashley Harmon (right) flank Matthew Swinnerton of Event Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Co-presented by Event Santa Cruz and Lookout Santa Cruz, the NEXTies return Friday at Woodhouse Brewing to honor Santa Cruz County difference-makers in community building, business, art, music and more.

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What is this thing called the NEXTies? It’s an awards presentation and show, yes. But, implied right there in its name, is its orientation to Santa Cruz arts and culture. This awards show is about what’s happening now and what will happen next. You’re not likely to ever see some Lifetime Achievement Award given to some graying eminence whose peak influence on local culture was during the Bill Clinton years.

The NEXTies return on Friday, this time to Woodhouse Blending & Brewing, just off River Street in Santa Cruz. Co-presented by Event Santa Cruz and Lookout Santa Cruz, the NEXTies will pass out some 20 awards to local “doers,” in the language of the event’s primary coordinator, Matthew Swinnerton. It touches on the arts (Musician of the Year, Visual Artist of the Year, Band of the Year), entrepreneurial businesses (Innovative Business of the Year, New Biz of the Year) and community building (Nonprofit of the Year, Educator of the Year).

Among those to be honored this year are chef Jessica Yarr, community activist Oscar Corcoles, visual artist Abi Mustapha, artist/activist Jessica Carrasco, photographer Nicole Fischer, rapper/performance artist Mak Nova and more.

Swinnerton, the CEO of Event Santa Cruz, has been managing the NEXTies since 2017. The NEXTies have become a reflection of Swinnerton’s vision of them. He said he and his selection committee focus on what people have accomplished recently: “We start looking at [the nominees] and the first thing we start with is: OK, what did they do this year? What I always say about the NEXTies is that, whatever year it was, [for the winners], it was their year, the year they really came to the forefront. And at the same time, there’s a potential there to go further.”

The NEXTies date back to 2010, and were established by the organization Santa Cruz Next, a local nonprofit founded by Ryan Coonerty and Caleb Baskin of the co-working space NextSpace. The idea was to throw a spotlight largely on entrepreneurs and small businesses who were doing interesting or important work with a big impact on the community or the world.

Host Woodhouse Blending and Brewing has some specials NEXTies suds.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The event went on for a few years before its original producers began looking for someone else to manage it. They found Event Santa Cruz’s Swinnerton, who was already in the business of promoting Santa Cruz’s culture on the arts, food and business fronts.

“They said they wanted a good steward to keep it going,” said Swinnerton. “But they also wanted it to grow. For me, that’s always what I’m thinking about anyway, with anything I do. I can’t do the same thing over and over again. It always has to change somewhat.”

Swinnerton had actually never even attended the NEXTies in their original incarnation. But he eagerly adopted the event, looking both to respect its original intentions and spirit, and to reinvigorate it with a new focus and orientation. “It was so completely new to me,” he said, “which maybe was a good thing, to give it fresh eyes.”

Swinnerton’s approach was to give the event a bigger performance focus and to promote through the show Santa Cruz County’s rich musical and performing arts subcultures. He wanted it to be a celebration and a showcase of Santa Cruz’s cultural life and bring a bit of Oscars-style pizzazz to it.

As much as he loves music and the arts, Swinnerton is equally captured by the spirit of entrepreneurism. And he wanted to give those in small businesses the cachet often associated with artists and performers. “I always love when people — especially brewers or chefs, people who have passions for what they do — quit their jobs and put it all on the line and actually make a business out of what they’re passionate about,” he said. “That’s truly inspirational to me.”

Through 2019, Swinnerton had indeed turned the NEXTies into a kind of Oscars-lite show to honor local musicians, artists, culinary innovators and tech entrepreneurs. The event had achieved momentum, honoring such luminaries as singer-songwriter Mira Goto, food teacher Vrinda Quintero, and co-founder of the cannabis-based e-commerce platform Jane Technologies, Socrates Rosenfeld.

Then came 2020. The nationwide shutdown of most public activity in March of that year preceded the scheduled NEXTies event by only a couple of weeks. The event was postponed, then canceled outright. It returned in 2021, but as an online series of video productions. In 2022, it didn’t happen at all.

On Friday, the NEXTies return in, more or less, pre-pandemic form. “We’re back in full swing,” said Swinnerton.

New for 2023, Event Santa Cruz has taken on a partnership with Lookout Santa Cruz. Lookout’s Jamie Garfield and Ashley Harmon took on a co-producers role with Swinnerton. (Given that I work at Lookout and once hosted a similar awards show, I’ve been asked if I was involved in the event. I had no role in the NEXTies planning or the selection of the awardees.)

“I felt I needed to mix it up a bit, in case I was getting too soft in my decisions,” said Swinnerton of partnering with Lookout. Swinnerton himself is only one among 10 votes on the event’s selection committee to choose its honorees. Initially, the call for nominations was issued on social media, and the selection committee received an astonishing 3,000 nominations. From there, the committee mulled over the names suggested.

As for the criteria used in selecting who’s deserving of the honor, Swinnerton said, “This really should represent what Santa Cruz looks like, and then sometimes, it should be what we want Santa Cruz to look like. And, if we’re looking at Entrepreneur of the Year, you may have made millions of dollars. But if you’re a jerk and if you’re not part of the community, we’re not going to give you the award. There’s a reason why we pick who we pick, and that’s because they’re giving to the community. It’s not just that they are amazing at whatever they do, they’re also very community-minded.”

The NEXTies, presented by Event Santa Cruz and Lookout Santa Cruz, takes place Friday at 6 p.m. at Woodhouse Blending & Brewing in Santa Cruz. Tickets are $30 general; $45 VIP.


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