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An examination of Sacramento’s recent visual-arts history affirms the idea that Warehouse Artist Lofts and Art Hotel ignited a spark. Then ArtStreet and Wide Open Walls kindled the flame of interest in establishing more sizable arts initiatives, thereby making our city more hospitable to artists. Will increasing visibility of high-quality art, along with efforts like Creative Edge, a public forum for residents, lead to sustained regard for our arts community’s worth?
A Conversation with the Artist
Is art perception? Not just what an artist makes of a thing, but also what we make of it? We’ve heard the riddle: If a tree falls in the woods but no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Well, if we think of Sacramento’s art scene like a forest, then we’re only starting to hear the trees fall. The artists have always been here. We’re only just taking notice.
In February 2016, artist collective M5 Arts announced the scene with both a shout and a whisper. A shout because of its impact, and a whisper because we almost didn’t hear it. More than 100 artists gave the destined-for-demolition Jade Apartments a swan song by transforming every wall, room and stairwell into an immersive work of art, gaining national attention. But like a Buddhist sand mandala, Art Hotel was here and gone before we had a chance to understand what we nearly missed.
Just like that, artists had shown Sacramento what they could do with just a couple thousand dollars, the space to create and the freedom to do whatever they wanted. Property owner Peter Noack provided the building, and crowd funding paid for some supplies, but really Art Hotel was the artists’ labor of love: a gift from artists to the city, and on their own dime.
That should have begun the conversation about art’s civic value, which, though priceless, comes at a price. Artists have long known the reality: overworked and underpaid. But that didn’t stop them from following up Art Hotel’s success with an even more ambitious project, and still free to the public. For three weeks in February 2017, about 32,000 people walked through ArtStreet, a labyrinthine exhibit in an empty warehouse on First Avenue. Similar to its predecessor, the location of ArtStreet was provided by the developer behind The Mill at Broadway, and donors funded the $160,000 project. Unlike Art Hotel, ArtStreet was able to pay its contributors $500, though for many artists that wouldn’t cover the cost of supplies. Like artist Bryan Valenzuela, whose “Autumn of the Outsider” cost about $1,000 in materials, in addition to paying for an assistant and extending a lease on a $2,000-per-month studio space only to complete the piece.
Meanwhile, another public art event was leaving its mark across Sacramento city walls. In August 2016, the Friends of the Arts Commission presented the Sacramento Mural Festival, an event that, like Art Hotel, seemed to fly under the radar, and it lasted just a short week. But unlike Art Hotel and ArtStreet, the dozen murals painted by Sacramento and international artists have lasted longer.
Murals appeared overnight, transforming the facades of buildings and streets, and also the way we see our city and the attention we pay to public spaces, and names of artists such as Shaun Burner and Anthony Padilla were associated with their work.
Bryan Valenzela, Artist
Photographed by his mural on 28th Street between R and S streets.
Most recently, in August 2017, Sacramento Mural Festival co-founder David Sobon launched Wide Open Walls, a morethan-$400,000 project that had both Sacramento and international artists painting murals on more than 40 walls across the city. The festival garnered national attention, and tourism nonprofit Visit Sacramento donated $100,000 in cash and trade to spread the word.
“We even used a public relations firm in New York to pitch Wide Open Walls nationally,” says Visit Sacramento CEO Mike Testa. In October, Forbes magazine called Wide Open Walls one of the best mural festivals in the country. In the two years since Art Hotel, artists have physically transformed Sacramento, but they’ve long been shoveling coal into the furnace of its emerging zeitgeist. If Sacramento has arrived (or is finally getting there), that’s because artists have been driving that train.
We can point to the murals and the Golden Globe-winning movie “Lady Bird” to prove the point, and sure, filmmaker Greta Gerwig is now Sacramento’s nonresident resident darling, but her work isn’t the entirety of Sacramento art. Gerwig is one large piece of the puzzle whose picture is finally starting to emerge.
We, the nonartists, are finally talking about it. More than a year ago, 36 people, most of them artists, died in Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire because they made their home in a warehouse that was woefully out of code. Similar artist collectives, like West Oakland’s ironically named Deathtrap, were soon shut down. Here in Sacramento, we mourned publicly while metaphorically pouring the ashes of Ghost Ship over our heads, claiming, “This won’t happen here, not in Sacramento.” Then, seven months later in June, Panama Art Factory, a studio space and Art Hotel’s ground zero, was shut down for code violations. In July, the underground performance art venue Red Museum followed suit.
Except there was a plot twist. IBEW Local 340 union members volunteered to fix Red Museum’s electrical system, and the city hosted a benefit concert that through crowdsourcing raised nearly $6,000. In this instance at least, artists felt the city’s support, and Red Museum reopened in August.
That’s what artists do: They create, but they also generate, and as problem solvers, they are some of the city’s most valuable resources. They are the original infill developers, finding uses for our empty warehouses and blank walls, and now we can’t look away.
The Perception of the Artist
How can we feel connected to a work of art and yet know so little about the artist? We’ve mythologized what we’ve misconceived, accepting that artists create their best work under pressure. So while we idolize art by placing it on pedestals and under shining lights, we still believe the myth of the suffering artist.
“Don’t worry about my suffering,” says Jesse Vasquez, a photographer and Latino Center of Art and Culture board member. “I just don’t want to worry about my rent.”
Vasquez is one of many local artists who recently found himself measuring his freedom to create art against his financial security. He hesitantly took a position as a photography tech at UC Davis’ photo lab, and says that he finally has a stable income.
“I think getting a consistent monthly income is what plagues every artist,” explains Maren Conrad, a local artist whose blue koi mural adorns the back of the MARRS building on 20th Street. “That’s why you saw artists in Ghost Ship living in slumlike conditions. The second you take on a car payment or rent that’s expensive, you put yourself in the category of needing a day job. Doing artwork on the side is really difficult. It takes so many hours.”
Which touches upon a common misconception about artists, that they are lazy at worst or daydreamers at best, but always leisurely and absent-minded until creating in a flash of inspiration.
“I wake up early and work 10 to 12 hours every day,” clarifies Valenzuela, a Wide Open Walls muralist and creator of the Golden 1 Center installation “Multitudes Converge.”
Jeff Musser, another Wide Open Walls muralist and fine artist, left a salaried position to pursue art full time. For him, the cubicle wasn’t just soulless, but also physically debilitating.
“My last real job was working for Health Net in the customer service department back in 2005. I was working the phones at a desk all day,” says Musser, who developed carpal tunnel “to the point I couldn’t paint.”
Musser recalls saying, “I will hustle, I will grind, and I will do what I have to do to make it.” He says that he makes about the same financially, though his income is inconsistent.
In lean times, he quips, “It’s just salad and a Clif Bar.”
“Thank God for the Affordable Care Act,” adds Valenzuela.
Many artists who spoke to Sacramento Magazine mentioned the Affordable Care Act with a kind of devotional gratitude. While the life of an artist is often idealized, the reality is their income is not nearly as much as people imagine.
Maddy Smith, a tattoo artist at Apothic Heart Tattoo Collective, says friends often tell her, “Wow, that’s so cool you make your own schedule and you are so free.” But in reality, she says, “I’m actually paralyzed internally by stress. I work full time but I barely get by.”
Visual and projection artist Matt Brown describes “waking up every day not knowing where your money is going to come from. You have no protection or security that anybody is going to give you anything, and 80 percent of anything falls through.”
Photographer Jesse Vasquez at his studio on Front Street.
For years Brown struggled to pay rent. He lived on a ranch, in his van, at a gallery downtown, even in the restaurant Blackbird while he curated their art. Not until he began working in Los Angeles did he find substantial success. Now splitting time between Sacramento and Los Angeles, he rents properties in both cities.
Brown admits there’s more value for his work in Los Angeles, with its thriving videography industry, but he’s not the only artist who believes Sacramentans have yet to acknowledge the talent in their own city.
“I’m tired of everybody else saying that artists are better in other cities,” says Conrad, who adds that most people don’t realize the hidden costs of making and selling art.
“Gallery owners take 50 percent, and I only get that percent when a piece sells,” she explains. “And since materials come out of my 50 percent, depending what your piece is made out of, that 50 percent turns into 25 percent. My upfront investment for any show just in materials is $15,000,” adds Conrad. That number doesn’t include costs like paying assistants or renting studio space.
“I get the feeling people think I’m rolling in dough because of my hourly rate,” says Smith, who pays a percentage of that rate to her parlor as rent. “But when I was an apprentice, I was charging $100 an hour and seeing $40 of it. We also pay for our inks, machines and anything else that other people in the shop won’t necessarily use.” Additionally, says Smith, “we have to pay self-employment taxes, and then the no-health-insurance thing, too.”
So if artists work as hard if not harder than people in other professions, and we value their compositions enough to hang them on our walls or put them permanently on our bodies, why do they still struggle to pay rent?
Musser admits he’s worked for less, or for free, because of the vague idea that artists want more exposure. “How many times do you take it on the chin, because this would be a great opportunity for you, or it would be great exposure?” he asks.
“But that’s like saying if you put a [contractor’s] sign in front of a custom home, the contractor should work for free,” says Conrad.
According to Sobon, Wide Open Walls is the second-highest-paying mural festival in the country, having paid contributing artists a $2,500 stipend. But many artists worked more than 12 hours a day for 10 days straight, and paid as much if not more for their supplies.
Sobon says he understands the artists’ position and already plans to increase the stipend next year, adding, “I lost money. I personally came out of pocket.”
But for many artists, the problem wasn’t that Wide Open Walls paid festival rates, but that those rates perpetuate the misconception of the worth of artists. Many commercial murals easily cost more than $30,000, but landlords who received murals through Wide Open Walls paid only $5,000.
“I think because the owners of the building got such a good deal that it really undercut everybody’s worth,” says Conrad.
Again, Sobon acknowledges the artists’ concern.
“Here’s the fear of all the artists: that all the landlords are going to wait because they can do it cheaper during the mural festival,” he says.
In Conrad’s case, the paint for her mural alone cost $30,000, and she suggests the commercial rate for her mural would have been around $100,000. In other words, MARRS owner Mike Heller got a hell of a deal.
“I can’t afford my own work, but I can give it to the city. Wide Open Walls is a huge gift to this city. Period,” says Conrad.
Artist Maren Conrad painted the blue koi mural on the back side of the MARRS building at 20th and J streets.
“I get it,” says Sobon. “So my job is to give them more than just the opportunity to paint. What does that mean? Wide Open Walls had 155 unique television stories, 1,200 online articles written, and 1.2 billion impressions. Their art is being exposed to more and more and more people.”
But exposure can be a double-edged sword.
“I’ve also had people say, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to buy a painting by you and now I don’t have to,’” says Conrad, referring to conversations about her mural.
None of the artists who spoke with Sacramento Magazine was ungrateful for exposure, but all agreed: Exposure doesn’t pay the rent.
“The only reason I worked those 18-hour days for 13 days in a row, and barely slept and barely ate,” explains Valenzuela, “is because that’s my reputation. If I did a mural worth $2,500, nobody would hire me.”
“I didn’t do it for the exposure,” agrees Conrad. “We all did it because we want to be a part of making the visual arts an everyday part of our life.”
In other words, Sacramento artists wanted to represent the city they love by doing what they love.
“Yeah, we’re painting this town because we love it,” says Brown. “I actually do care about everybody in Sacramento. All the artists in the community are probably the best people I will ever meet in my life.”
Which may really get to the heart and worth of Sacramento artists. More than creating art, they’re creating community.
Tattoo artist Maddy Smith works on Ashlee Espinoza
The Patrons of the Artist
Without Pope Julius II, would we have the Sistine Chapel? Without Peter Noack, would we have had Art Hotel? Without Ali Youssefi, would we have Warehouse Artist Lofts?
These are not flippant questions, intended to diminish the significance of the artist, but ones meant to express the significant, sometimes essential relationship between artists and their patrons. Patronage is a word with a Renaissance connection, but in America it has maybe a negative connotation, conjuring ideas of parents supporting their children too far into adulthood. As capitalists, we embrace the idea that people should make their own way and pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but our reality is an ecosystem, where even the basest commoditized exchange still suggests that we need each other.
Artists need support, and we need art. But mostly, the exchange goes in one direction. Artists require business savvy and marketing skills. We’d never ask a CEO to paint a mural, but then every artist is the head of his own business.
“That’s the thing that bothers me with the current push of the arts,” says Vasquez. “It’s a marketing campaign. Artists are constantly told that we need to have these extra skills, but it’s a one-way street.”
Artists create, and they’ll do it whether they’re paid or not. That puts many artists at an economic disadvantage.
But that doesn’t stop them, either.
“The coolest art has been done independently, by people finding their own finance, and they work their asses off to do it,” says Brown.
Developer and property owner Peter Noack acknowledges the difference, which he saw firsthand during Art Hotel.
“I’m a business man; I think differently,” says Noack. “Artists come with this approach that art should be free, and that’s so awesome. It should be free, but you guys are withholding from yourself so much. That giving nature comes back to kick those artists sometimes.”
Noack found himself a patron for local artists almost by chance, and perhaps thanks to Jameson Irish Whiskey. He wanted a mural on the exterior of the Jade Apartments, and an acquaintance suggested he talk to Shaun Burner.
“I’d never heard of Shaun Burner, although I’d seen his stuff. I just never knew. So we met, had a couple beers, maybe a shot of Jameson,” Noack says with a smile, “and Shaun goes, ‘Hey, pops, any way we can see this thing?’”
Noack gave Burner a tour of the building’s 16 units and proposed to Burner renting the units to artists at $500 a month “to do whatever they want.”
“I’m an investment guy, so I’m looking for it to pay the taxes, insurance, maintenance—stuff that never stops,” explains Noack. “Then Burner says, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll work on that, pops.’”
“Getting the 500 bucks never quite happened,” Noack chuckles, but once the ball got rolling, he says he didn’t care.
“I absolutely got caught up in the idea. Yeah, this is risky, but it’s one of those things. I saw the potential and I was all in. My partners weren’t in, the police weren’t in, insurance said I was crazy, the city was probably going to fine me,” says Noack. “But I was sucked in”—so much that Noack, without financial incentive, handed over the Jade Apartments to more than 100 artists. A year later, he wrote a private check to help fund ArtStreet.
Some have the means to donate walls and buildings, and others the means to build them from the ground up. Many individuals facilitate the arts in Sacramento, but perhaps none is so universally praised by artists as Ali Youssefi of CFY Development.
Youssefi is the developer behind Sacramento’s first affordable housing for artists, Warehouse Artist Lofts, which brought together more than 150 of the region’s most creative people under one roof, cementing the R Street Corridor as Sacramento’s art district.
Projection artist Matt Brown.
“Anytime you’re doing a first [in development], you’re adding challenges to the process, like getting investors to buy in and be comfortable with the concept,” says Youssefi.
But he did it anyway. Without an existing template for the project, or even the mandate to build it, Youssefi served area artists over maximizing profit per square foot.
“It was important to me that it was a mixed-income community,” says Youssefi, “so there were no stereotypes related to income that could be applied to artists living in the building. The challenge was also to build a community that is representative of Sacramento area artists. I didn’t want to finish a building and open the doors and show it to artists for the first time and say, ‘Come live here.’”
After three short years, it’s nearly impossible to imagine Sacramento without WAL and the community it created, which wouldn’t exist without Youssefi’s partnership.
Without the support of donors and patrons, it’s likely we wouldn’t have Conrad’s Wide Open Walls mural on the back of the MARRS building. When she realized she would have to pay $30,000 for supplies, Conrad reached out to David and Patty Schwartz and Dr. Patrick Browning, who helped pay her expenses. And why?
“Because they wanted to give a gift to the city,” says Conrad, who plans to mount plaques with their names on both sides of the mural.
Ali Youssefi, Developer.
Photographed in front of 1810 Gallery at 12th and R streets.
Patronage of the arts doesn’t require developing housing, donating buildings or giving thousands of dollars—we don’t all have those means. It can mean simply buying art, and at the very least acknowledging artists’ contribution to our community.
Before he developed WAL, Youssefi admits, “I don’t think I fully appreciated the depth and the range of the creative community in Sacramento. If we support artists, I think we’ll be amazed by what they’ll accomplish, and for the most part that means just getting out of their way.”
Fundamentally, yes, but like the Youssefis, Noacks, Schwartzes and Brownings, if we have the ability, we can also help make a way for artists.
The Public and the Artist
“For me, the city and the arts often have a relationship that’s sort of like starcrossed wallflowers at prom,” says Eben Burgoon, producer and author of B-Squad comics, who represented Tapigami at Maker Faires in both China and Italy. “They want to help each other, but both of them are a bit naive about who makes the first move.”
Or maybe it’s more like Sacramento and its artists are characters in a romantic comedy. The artist is the awkward kid ridiculed by her peers until undergoing a Cinderella transformation, then arrives at prom where she’s voted homecoming queen by all the students who wonder just who is this new kid and where has she been all these years?
Except the artists are already here, and they don’t need a makeover. They’ve shown up to the dance ready to lead. The city might not be ready to ask them to dance—even if it wanted to.
Developer Peter Noack donated downtown's Jade Apartments to more than 100 artists to turn it into the pop-up exhibition Art Hotel two years ago.
On Nov. 6, when the city officially announced the recipients of grants from its $500,000 Creative Economy Pilot Project, Councilmember Steve Hansen admitted that Greta Gerwig contacted Sacramento asking to film “Lady Bird” in the city, but Sacramento didn’t have the infrastructure to make that happen. Thankfully, Gerwig took matters into her own hands.
Is that what it takes for the city to notice? A name like Greta Gerwig, writer and director of a film that could win Best Picture, saying, Sacramento, are you ready? Because we are.
But artists have been saying that for years. We’re finally admitting that artists don’t just generate culture but also economy.
“One of the things that we’ve neglected in the past is the arts community,” says Testa. “Our job—tourism—is about tourists, and attracting outside dollars to reinvest in the community. You need reasons for people to come, and the art community offers that.”
It’s not a coincidence that the city recently hired Jonathon Glus as its new director of cultural and creative economy. Meanwhile, Glus is spearheading the public forum Creative Edge, where Sacramentans contribute to the city’s new Arts, Culture and Creative Economy Plan.
In November, the city awarded $5,000 to $25,000 microgrants to various artists as part of the Creative Economy Pilot Project. The city is starting to put its money where its mouth is, but not without the mantra creative economy.
“Creative economy,” says Vasquez. “You know what creative economy is? I can walk up to that bar and pay for this drink with a poem.”
Valenzuela asserts that he doesn’t mind the city talking about creative economy. “The economic part is fine,” he says, “but it barely trickles down to the people who are making it.”
Which should be a cautionary tale. Artists generate tourism, and tourism generates income for Sacramento, but does that money end up in the pockets of artists? Vasquez is doubtful.
“The people who are really coming out ahead are the people who are always coming out ahead,” he says.
Artists are also skeptical—not of the city’s motives but that the current conversation will produce results.
Before Brown moved to Los Angeles, he regularly tried working with the city of Sacramento to create public installations and admits, “I built up a lot of resentment. Nothing was working, no matter how hard I tried. Over the course of four years that I was active, I just didn’t see anything getting done.”
While many artists attended the first Creative Edge forum, Conrad wasn’t one of them, because when it comes to creating policy through forums, she isn’t so sure it will work.
“They’re not going to get it done through a forum,” she states. “It’s going to take somebody like [Councilmember] Steve Hansen or [Mayor] Darrell Steinberg, because if the mayor and city councilmembers can’t get it done, what’s the likelihood of somebody picking up that ball in a forum?”
Artist Eben Burgoon
Brown believes the problem is that policymakers are stuck in a conservative mentality. “They want to play it safe. No risks. They need to have creative people making creative decisions,” he says.
The solution, then, might mean asking artists to step into political and leadership roles, but would that leave time for them to create? And doesn’t that solution suggest that Vasquez might be right? That we expect artists to take on additional skills, instead of meeting them where they are?
Practically speaking, the city is making strides. Hansen acknowledged Sacramento’s shortcomings when it came to helping Gerwig film in Sacramento, and city leaders very publicly have voiced their support for the arts. The recent microgrants are a very good step in that direction, making it possible for artists like Eben Burgoon to continue with their own passion projects, which give back to the community regardless of how that impacts their own savings account.
“I’m going to teach a comic book writing workshop, at least at one school in every district with a priority to underserved schools,” says Burgoon, who received a $5,000 grant. “I’m trying to reinforce students that their voice matters, and how to tell the story of their community, too.” Without the financial support of the city, he says, “I couldn’t do it.” But he probably would have tried.
So while the city rightfully talks about creative economy, which will hopefully establish a better economy for all Sacramentans, we must also acknowledge that many artists are committed to creating better community, which can’t necessarily be measured in economic terms.
Which is why we say art is priceless. When the beauty of a painting arrests us, or we relate to the character in a story, or a photograph moves us, how do we measure that impact? If it inspires one person, who goes on to inspire many more, how do we quantify that kind of worth? Perhaps we can’t, but recognizing the artist’s contribution, and creating an environment where artists can financially flourish while making Sacramento a better, more beautiful city, is a good place to start.