Sacramento and art? The two generally don’t show up in the same sentence. Sacramento has always been a drive-by city: a Central Valley town you pass through en route to San Francisco or Lake Tahoe, better known for political rhetoric than painting. In fact, for most of its history, starting with the Gold Rush, this capital city bounded by two rivers-the American and the Sacramento-has been regarded as the artistic stepchild of a lesser god. While that notion still circulates in certain quarters, it no longer has any substance. Read Thomas Albright’s definitive Art in the San Francisco Bay Area: 1945-1980 and you’ll learn about a region that for more than a generation has been awash in artists of near-mythic proportions.
To wit: It was UC Davis faculty members William T. Wiley, Robert Arneson, Robert Hudson, Nathan Oliveira and Roy De Forest who collectively put Northern California on the international art map in the ’60s and early ’70s with satiric, self-parodying style that critics dubbed Dude Ranch Dada. Following suit, though hardly in lockstep, Sac State’s art faculty-which included William Allan, Joan Moment, Steve Kaltenbach, Jim Nutt, Joseph Raffael, Roger Vail, Joan Brown, Oliver Jackson, Peter VandenBerge and Carlos Villa-pushed Sacramento’s reputation even further in the decades that followed.
Never mind Albright’s charge of “stubborn regionalism,” by which he meant the persistence of funk, figuration, ceramics and plein air landscape traditions that brought the region to prominence. The only things Sacramento lacked were consistent institutional support, a network of strong dealers and the necessary quotient of affluent, educated collectors. Today this tree-canopied, government-dominated city of 1.5 million people has all three. The city’s public art budget, swelled by a wave of new Capitol-area construction, is at an all-time high. The number of quality exhibition spaces is growing at a fast clip. And the Crocker Art Museum (see sidebar), is set to quadruple in size by 2010 in a new building designed by Charles Gwathmey, the architect who remade New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 1992.
The forces driving this transformation are simple population growth accompanied by a widespread desire for civic renewal and cross-cultural engagement. Émigrés from LA and the Bay Area, flush with real estate profits and dotcom cash, flooded the area in the past two decades, bringing with them an appetite for fine art and other urban pleasures.
“We’re seeing a very different kind of collector these days,” says Beth Jones, who along with co-partner Lynda Jolley operates JayJay, a warehouse-chic East Sac gallery whose stable includes some of the city’s best-known artists, including Michael Stevens, Suzanne Adan, Roger Vail, Joan Moment, Mark L. Emerson, Kim Squaglia and David Wetzl.
“Now instead of only thinking about what looks good over the sofa, collectors are asking more serious questions, like what museum collections an artist is in and who else besides us represents them? The level of sophistication is definitely higher.”
The first inklings of a real shift came in the early ’90s, when gallery owners agreed to coordinate openings on the second Saturday of each month. Supported by generous media coverage, including a monthly supplement from a local newspaper, the Second Saturday Art Walk became an instant hit, animating Sacramento’s once languid, downtown streets with throngs of revelers who, while not necessarily conversant with Artforum, nevertheless made Second Saturday a once-a-month social centerpiece. In turn, developers who previously focused on the suburbs began refurbishing the city’s core. Over the past three or four years, they’ve added a slew of loft-style apartment buildings to the city’s existing stock of historic Victorian and Craftsman homes, pulling in restaurants, bars, clubs, boutiques and other businesses. The event now draws upwards of 10,000 people with up to 50 galleries participating city-wide.
The focal point of the Second Saturday action, which extends outward in about a 4-mile radius, is the intersection of 20th and J Streets, otherwise known as Lavender Heights, the historic heart of the city’s gay nightlife district. Always bustling, it’s become even more intense (and a lot louder) in recent years. The catalyst was the renovation of the MARRS Building. This nondescript, block-long concrete hulk was transformed into an architectural showpiece, with restaurants, a newsstand, a coffee shop and the Solomon Dubnick Gallery-a glitzy space specializing in figuration, funk, ceramics and landscape painting by local artists.
The neighborhood’s most noteworthy pioneer was the b. sakata garo gallery.
In 1998, owner Barry Sakata transformed an 1880s carriage house into a spare, elegant red-brick showcase for local and Bay Area artists, including Katherine Sherwood, Enrique Chagoya, and a sizable UC Davis contingent that includes Hudson, Wiley and the abstract painter Mike Henderson. More recently, Viewpoint Photographic Art Center, a member-supported educational and exhibit space, relocated to the neighborhood, extending a 17-year history of shows from established U.S. and international photographers working in styles ranging from early 19th century processes to the latest digital manipulations. At the opposite end of midtown, near the corner of 19th & P Streets, you’ll find two area institutions side-by-side in the same building: Axis Gallery, Sacramento’s oldest artists’ cooperative, and the Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento (CCAS), now in its 19th year. Axis, contrary to what some may think, is not a vanity gallery. Its 14 members are carefully screened, and now include several artists with reputations that extend well outside the region, including the photographer Richard Gilles,
best known for his panoramic images of graffiti-covered power plants, and new media/conceptual artist Jiayi Young whose work appears in this year’s Beijing International Art Biennale. CCAS, a member-supported nonprofit, has mounted several excellent group shows since relocating to midtown in 2005, the most notable being a roundup of top-tier LA artists curated by Cathy and David E. Stone of One Year in LA and a wide-ranging survey of contemporary photography that included Vic Muniz, Mona Kuhn and Todd Hido among others.
Pamela Skinner/Gwenna Howard Contemporary Art is another area magnet. It occupies a renovated 5,000 square-foot, brick warehouse building about half a mile west of CCAS. With its soaring clerestory ceiling it is, without question, the most striking room in the city to view art. Opened in 2006, it shows a mix of abstract painting and figurative sculpture, mostly from Bay Area artists. The strongest is Aaron Petersen whose biomorphic paintings on aluminum have sold briskly.
2008 marked the opening of two significant new DIY venues: Tangent, a storefront on Fourth Avenue on the edge of Curtis Park, which specializes in emerging artists, all whom seem to have a flair for material inventiveness, and Block, a tiny upstairs room downtown at the site of the original (now-defunct) Michael Himovitz Gallery that mounts installations and has, in a very short time, generated serious buzz among the new media crowd.
One of the biggest transformations in Sacramento is unfolding in Oak Park, an economically depressed area that’s gotten a lift from 40 Acres Gallery and Cultural Center, a nonprofit complex funded by former NBA star and current mayoral candidate Kevin Johnson. Situated in the heart of the community at 35th and Broadway, the complex includes a gallery that shows nationally known African-American artists, a refurbished theatre, a coffee shop, and an excellent bookstore run by Johnson’s St. Hope Corp., which also operates Sac High, a charter school that brings in well-known artists for extended residencies.
This past summer, 40 Acres mounted a show from local collections that included works by Raymond Saunders, Faith Ringgold, Elizabeth Catlett, Robert Colescott and Carrie Mae Weems. In January it will show selections from Bank of America’s collection, which includes Jean Michel Basquiat, Sam Gilliam, Lorna Simpson and Martin Puryear.
“Our mission has been to expose people to the very best,” says Kim Curry-Evans who, when speaking about the gallery, is always quick to add: “It’s not just about doing exhibitions. Really, the emphasis is on education. It’s about how can we use this art to teach the community about the power of what it means to have art in your life?”
At Sac State’s University’s Library Art Gallery, another of the region’s top exhibition spaces, Director Phil Hitchcock expresses a similar idea. “Art,” he observes, “is not a singular activity. It’s not just something that occurs in arts and letters. It can involve science, politics, sociology or almost any discipline you can think of.” Two memorable cases in point include a groundbreaking exhibit of technology-based art in 2003 curated by new media professor, Rachel Clarke, and an equally stunning exhibit of contemporary Korean art last year that included collaborative works from Koo Kyung Sook and Ian Harvey. This month, documentary images of homeless teenagers from Sacramento photographer Kent Lacin go on view.
While galleries are one measure of Sacramento’s artistic maturation, an even more visible indicator is public art. It’s everywhere. Since 1977, the Sacramento Metropolitan Art Commission (SMAC), through its Art in Public Places program, has transformed the region into a virtual museum, with some 600 artworks installed county-wide. About 75 percent are from leading local artists; but there are also significant works by internationally recognized names like Jenny Holzer, Dale Chihuly, Deborah Butterfield and Dennis Oppenheim. Operating on the “two percent for art” formula, SMAC each year distributes between $2 million to $4 million to artists, with an additional $8 million earmarked for art at a new terminal under construction at Sacramento International Airport. “At a time when everything is becoming generic in urban design and planning, public art is part of what gives the community a sense of itself and makes us different from every other place in the world,” observes Shelly Willis, SMAC’s administrator.
Indeed, a quarter mile from the Capitol, visitors can take in California’s largest public art project, the Capitol Area East End Complex. It contains 24 site-specific works situated in and around five state buildings that span a two-block installation called The Golden State. Its focal point, known as the Zone of Discovery, consists of 55 steel-supported glass discs that look like they were deposited by space aliens. Referencing cosmology, alchemy and history, the installation by Lita Albuquerque and Mitchell De Jarnett, includes an anamorph (an image that’s visible only from a single vantage point) of the astronomer Edwin Hubble and a golden orb that echoes the one atop the Capitol. It’s pretty spectacular. Even area developers who don’t use a dime of public money are investing in public art. “90 percent of all the work I have done is for developers who are not required to put one stick of art in their buildings,” says Sac State’s Hitchcock, who has long served as a conduit between builders and artists. “There are so many of them… and they do it with a real passion.”
One high-profile example is sculptor Robert Brady’s 17-foot tall bronze figure, Tor, installed this summer outside the U.S. Bank Tower on Capitol Mall. Like so many others that grace the city, it was cast at the Art Foundry Gallery. This facility handles bronze casting commissions from all over the West, and is widely regarded as Northern California’s best practitioner of that ancient process.
Allan Osborne, Foundry’s sculptor-owner, established the business in the historic warehouse district on R Street in 1999, and has been thriving on the growth of public art ever since. His bronze pouring demonstrations on Second Saturdays are consistent crowd pleasers.
The city of Davis, 15 miles west, also knows how to please a crowd. Show up at any of the events organized by the John Natsoulas Center for the Arts and you’ll understand. A funk art dealer for the past 23 years, Natsoulas has, over the past four years, morphed into an impresario whose programs include annual conferences on ceramics and landscape painting which, over three-day weekends, spill out across the city with demonstrations, lectures, panel discussions, workshops and exhibitions. The most entertaining of these is The Davis Jazz Festival: Beyond the Beat Generation, which runs October 4-5. It features “performance painting” accompanied by jazz from historic figures like ex-Monk collaborator David Amram and poetry readings from the likes of Amiri Baraka. True to the spirit of the Beats, the event is free.
On campus, UC Davis’ venerable Richard L. Nelson Gallery, in operation since 1976, features museum-quality exhibits that pull not only from its fast-expanding collection of contemporary and historic works, but also strives to “expand boundaries.” For Director Renny Pritikin, who joined UCD from San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Art Center four years ago, that means “partnering with non-art sources, like cutting-edge science and digital arts, as well as amateur art and popular and material culture.” This fall’s triple bill-of collage artist Laura Breitman, interactive video practitioner Camille Utterback and sculptor Lauren Davies-promises to be good example.
The Pence Gallery, a community-run space a quarter mile off campus, is another must-visit venue if you’re in town. It makes a habit of opening its doors to artists and curators with provocative ideas, like the conceptualist Chris Daubert who earlier this year knocked viewers off balance with his perception-bending installation The Hidden.
Sacramento may have once been an artistic backwater. But the consensus among art professionals today is that the city has changed dramatically. “By every important measure-the number of good galleries, the increase in collectors, the growth in public art and the Crocker’s expansion- it’s clear that Sacramento has come into its own,” says JayJay’s Beth Jones. “It’s not about beating San Francisco or LA; it’s about energizing the audience and reaching a certain level of excellence with respect to contemporary art. I think we’re there.”
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This article originally appeared in the September 2008 edition of Art Ltd.