Community leader Joan Sortini has died

October 27, 2012 

Longtime arts advocate and community leader Joan Sortini died a week ago, her family confirmed Friday. She was 77.

Joan Sortini, who served for two decades as the executive director of the Merced Arts Council, played a central role in establishing the Multicultural Arts Center on Main Street in Merced.

She was born in Michigan, raised in Denver and graduated from Wellesley College and Boston University with an arts degree.

After college, she worked at the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, where she has been credited with developing the first tactile art curriculum for blind and blind-deaf children.

After she and her family moved to California, she taught art at the University of California at Riverside and Santa Cruz. and California State University, Fresno.

She had been involved with the Merced Arts Council since the early 1980's, and helped develop several programs -- including Art Tree, a program that brings local artists into elementary school classrooms.

"She wanted art for everyone," said Kathy Hanson, who served on the Merced Arts Council over the past 20 years. "It was really important to her that kids in underserved community would have exposure to art."

As executive director of the Arts Council, she started the enrichment center, an arts program for adults with developmental disabilities.

"She was the most intelligent nonjudgmental person I've ever met," said Rose Eager-Sabo, who served on the Arts Council board over the past 20 years. "She deserves every bit of credit. She touched a lot of people."

Sortini was diagnosed with cancer about 10 years ago. She recovered and continued to work as the Arts Council executive director until she retired in 2006.

"Joan was so well versed in the arts," Hanson said. "She was always the curator for our shows. She knew artists up and down the state. She gave Merced County a lot of credibility."

She was active in the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce and the Merced Community Foundation, until she suffered a relapse earlier this year.

She is survived by her husband, Adam Sortini, and son, Arthur.

"I cry a lot," said an emotional Adam Sortini. "I miss her. She was my best friend."

She and her husband celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this year. The couple renewed their wedding vows in the hospital days before she died.

"She was a beautiful-souled person," said her son, Arthur Sortini. "I know that sounds corny, but she really was the most beautiful-souled person I'll ever meet."

There will be a service for her on Nov. 9 at the Multicultural Arts Center at 6 p.m.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or

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