Artist Vincent Damyanovich says he created “Living Colors” to embody Sacramento’s diversity. The performance art exhibit is on display in SMUD’s customer service lobby.

Getting Creative

Sacramento’s Creative Edge plan aims to make the city more desirable and spur the economy

Back Longreads May 14, 2019 By Jeff Wilser

The room darkens. Suddenly there’s music — a piano, a woman’s voice. Nine dancers, clad in white, begin to move and twirl and glide across the stage. Behind them is a glowing wall that changes from blue to purple to pink, bathing the dancers in color. A woman presses her hands against the wall and draws on it, changing the colors.  

This performance art exhibit, called “Living Colors,” was not held at the opera, theater or Crocker Art Museum. The glowing wall and the dancers came to the headquarters of SMUD, Sacramento’s publicly owned electric-utility provider. “Sacramento is living colors,” said artist Vincent Damyanovich when introducing his exhibit in late February. “We are considered one of the most diverse cities of the United States. I see Sacramento as being a growing leader, modeling forward-thinking progress in the 21st century.” He created “Living Colors” to embody that spirit and diversity. The dancers might have left after the one-time performance, but the interactive wall now resides in SMUD’s customer service lobby, freely accessible to anyone who’s there to contest an electric bill.

Living Colors” is one tiny piece of a citywide puzzle called Creative Edge: Sacramento’s Art, Culture, and Creative Economy Plan, a sprawling mix of goals, grants, budgets, audits, external benchmarking and community outreach approved by the city council in July 2018. Mayor Darrell Steinberg lists Creating an Art Capital as a key initiative on the city’s website, alongside better-known goals like Strengthening Our Economy and Addressing Homelessness. “Great cultural cities are measured by arts and culture, sports, dining and affordable living options. Sacramento is primed to lead on all of these,” the mayor writes on the site. “In order to do so however, we must make a real commitment to the arts.”

So is the city backing up its words? Or is Creative Edge just a token nod? The plan is complete. Early grants have been awarded, such as $25,000 for “Living Colors.” Yet, where the ongoing funding will come from — the project costs $6 million to $9 million per year, and it’s a seven-year plan — is still very much an open question.

Why Invest in the Arts?

When it comes to tax dollars and budgeting, art is often dismissed as “nice to have,” a tougher pill to swallow than funding cops or firefighters. Why should tax dollars go to things like interactive LED walls?

The counter is simple: Culture makes a city more desirable, and this spurs the economy. “Art gives a city character, something that showcases who we are and what we’re about as a community,” says Mike Testa, CEO of Visit Sacramento and a member of the Creative Edge Steering Committee. “From a tourism standpoint, it’s important to invest in business and infrastructure, but it’s also vital that we prioritize the projects and the people who make our city what it is — diverse, vibrant, evolving and unique.” Testa points to the Warehouse Artist Lofts (reduced rents for creatives), the annual Wide Open Walls mural festival and the “converging of artists on the R Street corridor” as examples of art making the city more desirable.

“Art gives a city character, something that showcases who we are and what we’re about as a community. … It’s … vital that we prioritize the projects and the people who make our city what it is — diverse, vibrant, evolving and unique.” Mike Testa, CEO, Visit Sacramento

Jody Ulich, the director of the city’s Convention and Cultural Services Department and now the head of Creative Edge, offers a cautionary tale about ignoring art. In 2001, Boeing wanted to relocate its corporate headquarters from Seattle and scoured the country for a new home. Boeing seemed on the verge of picking Dallas — lots of land, cheap housing, no income tax. “Dallas-Fort Worth thought they had it in the bag,” Ulich says. “And then Boeing said, ‘You are a cultural wasteland. We don’t want our employees coming to a place where there are no arts.’” Boeing chose Chicago instead, citing “quality of life” as one factor.

It’s tough to prove that for every dollar spent on arts, one dollar plus X flows into the economy, but a 2015 study from Americans for the Arts found that, nationally, the arts support 4.6 million jobs and generate $166.3 billion in economic activity.

Then there are the intangibles. “The arts are part of the soul of the community,” says Dennis Mangers, an unpaid adviser to Steinberg on arts and culture who has been involved in the budgeting for Creative Edge. A former elementary school principal, Mangers cites the example of 916 Ink, the children’s creative writing nonprofit based in Sacramento. “Kids are encouraged to write poetry, and their thoughts are valued enough to be published into books with their own illustration,” Mangers says. “Before they arrive in school, children of all stripes believe that they can sing and dance and act. And they want to. But when they’re not given exposure, or instruction, they stop believing they can.”

The Plan

Since its public kick-off in September 2017, the Creative Edge team — which includes the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and the Sacramento Region Community Foundation — has conducted two town halls, 10 community forums, 57 discussion groups, 66 interviews, surveys of 1,709 residents, and a sweeping review of the city’s arts and culture.

“This was an effort to dig deep into the community to find out a number of things,” says Ulich. “What’s the support in the city for growing the creative economy? What’s the status of our arts and culture? And what are the recommendations on how to move forward, to make this a great city that grows with the arts?”

A telephone survey of 725 residents found that 92 percent considered the arts either “somewhat” or “very important.” Perhaps more surprisingly, most wanted to put their money where their mouth is: 73 percent supported an annual citywide tax to support the arts.

To determine the state of Sacramento’s art and culture sector, the Creative Edge Steering Committee used an external benchmarking metric, the Creative Vitality Index, to gauge how Sacramento stacks up against other cities. The score takes into account factors like revenue from cultural nonprofit organizations, artists’ incomes and the number of jobs in creative professions like music and photography. A CVI of 1.0 is the national average; Sacramento scored 1.15, lagging behind benchmark cities like Austin (2.55), Portland (3.06) and Denver (3.52).

To boost the CVI, the plan has six goals:

Goal 1: Support arts education. The Creative Edge plan notes that 88 percent of Sacramentans “agree on the importance of arts education, and it is the #1 priority for online survey participants.” Yet they also found that only 42 percent of children participate in the arts in school. There’s work to do.

Goal 2: Advance cultural equity. “We have a tendency to fund the well-oiled machines — the symphonies, the operas, the ballets,” says Ulich. “The smaller organizations that are serving our diverse population tend to be left out.”  

Goal 3: Grow the creative economy, which defines art more broadly than just the obvious examples of paintings and sculptures. For example, Visit Sacramento only has one person — actually, a half-time person — working on a film division. “Filming in Sacramento is something that’s very top of mind for the city right now,” says Testa, especially in the wake of the 2017 Sacramento-based film “Lady Bird.” “As an organization, we don’t have the ability to provide meaningful financial incentives to production houses. … But if the city can make those investments, we see a great opportunity to grow that industry locally.”

Goal 4: The official Creative Edge plan delicately calls this “Enable Sacramento artists and creatives to thrive in their work.” The more blunt language: help starving artists. Two uncomfortable facts: Art doesn’t pay well, and rent isn’t cheap. Their survey found only 28 percent of professional artists earn enough through their trade to make a living. They outline a range of initiatives such as individual artist grants, an expanded busking program and the creation of an artist’s co-op gallery.

Goal 5: More art in more neighborhoods. The team’s audit found that most of Sacramento’s existing art is clustered downtown. Ulich’s team is working on a Public Master Art Plan, so “we’re not just putting in things willy-nilly, but actually working with all of our council members on how to work with each neighborhood,” she says.

Goal 6: Get funding.

The Plan in Action

Ulich admits the process has taken longer than expected, and since the roots began during former Mayor Kevin Johnson’s administration, “we did start and stop a little bit.” Yet the plan is in motion. In January 2017, the city moved $500,000 from the pre-existing Innovation Fund into the Creative Economy Pilot Project.

The city was inundated with applications, totaling $7 million in requests. The 12 percent of applications they funded were covered by 13 grants of $25,000 and 44 microgrants of $5,000. The winners included the District 2 Arts Festival (with a focus in north Sacramento and Del Paso Heights), First Festival (a locally produced lineup of music, art and comedy), “pop up adventure play days” at Fairytale Town and the “Living Colors” interactive LED wall sculpture.

But the $25,000 awarded for “pop up adventure play dates,” for example, begs the question: Is the money worth it? The jury is out. SMAC’s Ray Gargano, who manages the grants, is working with a consultant, Third Plateau, to audit the process and gauge the return on investment, which they hope is complete in June. “We’re going to look at what we missed, and how we can do better next round,” says Gargano.

The Creative Edge plan’s top goal — arts education — also is underway. The Arts Education Consortium, led by Steven Winlock, the executive director of Sacramento County Office of Education’s School of Education and the vice chair of SMAC, received a $1 million grant from California’s Department of Education. Some of it is helping bus kids from schools to arts organizations like the Crocker. The bulk is going to schools to help enrich their art curriculum, accrediting art teachers and helping organizations like 916 Ink and the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra develop arts education curriculums.

The Price Tag

Funding will be an uphill battle. Some quick context: Ulich’s department, Convention and Cultural Services, used to be funded by 0.5 percent of the Transient Occupancy Tax, around $760,000. A decade ago (in the recession), that was slashed in half. In March, she presented a budget to city management that asked to restore her funding to the original amount. According to Mangers, that initial request was rebuffed.

“I went on record [in March] in telling the mayor and city management that I thought this was unacceptable,” says Mangers.  “And that the Steering Committee from the Creative Edge process would find it unacceptable and that the creatives in the community would find it unacceptable.” He’s now working on advocacy efforts — emails, social media, art supporters at the city meetings — to put pressure on the city to raise the budget. As of press time, the question was still in flux: The city’s fiscal 2019-20 budget will be finalized June 11.

Ulich remains optimistic. “Preliminarily we have been told that our budget requests are being forwarded for review and recommendation by the Measure U committees in the fall,” she clarifies. “So the request is not denied at this time.” Measure U, the 1 percent sales tax devoted to restoring public services that were scaled back in the recession, is now the best, and perhaps only, hope for funding the full $6 million to $9 million the plan requires. This year, Measure U is expected to haul in $68 million in revenue. Creative Edge’s Steering Committee is asking for 10 percent of that. They’re hoping for another $2 million from the city.

Mangers says he is 90 percent confident the budget will pass, or at least the $2 million from the city. (He’s less sure about the Measure U component.) And, for a moment, he gets philosophical. “Art is the soul of a community. There’s this other side of us that needs more than just go to work and raise money and meat and potatoes and the basics,” says Mangers. “There’s something we all crave, and it leads to a sense that we’re a more civilized society. Dance, music, theater, digital arts — all of these elements make us think and make us aspire to our higher and better instincts.” 

Jeff Wilser is the author of “The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden.” Twitter at @JeffWilser.