Jody Ulich has been Sacramento’s director of convention and cultural services for just over a year. A transplant from Fort Worth, Texas, the energetic Ulich has brought a fresh energy and perspective to the city’s efforts to stabilize and grow its diverse arts community. We sat down with her recently to discuss the arts and ongoing efforts to modernize the Sacramento Convention Center.
When you got here a little over a year ago, you described Sacramento as a city ‘getting ready to hit the tipping point.’ Have we progressed at all?
I think we have. One of the things that I point to is the Warehouse Artist Lofts that just opened. This is a private developer who recognized that artists living and working in a single place can transform that place. Now, they’re living as a community. There’s areas where they can talk to each other and bounce ideas off of each other. People in Sacramento are discovering it and they want to be there. And one of the great parts is its staying put. It’s not one of those things that might get there, and suddenly the Applebee’s are going to come in and the artists are going to be leaving. It is a vital, vital area and it’s a renaissance.
A lot of people feel it’s no longer just a nice idea to replace the Sacramento Convention Center, but a necessity. Where are we with that?
We’re looking at it strategically, because we want to be very careful. There’s some great convention centers throughout the country, and they’re really great and really beautiful. But we have to be careful not to expand past our capacity. We could double the size of the current building, but we don’t have the hotel rooms to support that. If we just expand, we will fail. We’re following what’s happening with the arena, other hotels and meeting spaces getting ready to open in downtown or midtown. And we’re also working closely with our partner, the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, in terms of what they’re seeing trending around the county. Will something get done with the Convention Center? The answer is yes. It may not be a major expansion, but I think there will be something. But we’ll be very strategic about it.
Sacramento has long been viewed as a place where only ’safe’ art does well, and anything cutting edge requires a trip to the Bay Area. Do you think that’s true, and how do you classify Sacramento as an arts community?
I think we’re still a little bit safe. Interestingly enough, our really safe organizations — the symphony and opera and ballet — are still struggling to find relevance here. The symphony and opera have combined into the Sacramento Philharmonic and they’ve been very successful because of it. They canceled their whole season last year, which can be a death knell for most organizations. But they were very strategic in bringing the right people to the table and asking, ‘What do we need to rebuild this?’ They have listened to them and are following them, and when they had their first big concert last fall it was nearly full. People loved it. So they’re slowly and strategically rebuilding their audience. Sacramento probably got hurt by the recession so much more than so many places.
How about the theater scene?
The Broadway Sacramento series is still pretty safe, but their audience loves it. At the same time, there is some more edginess there. We’ve had Avenue Q and Book of Mormon through here, which are a little edgy and which people are supporting. We also have a number of other theater companies doing some really edgy things — not huge audiences but people are going to see those kinds of shows. The interesting thing is that even in major cities, those shows are not playing the huge theater companies. They’re not filling 1,000 seats. They’re filling something smaller, which is actually what they should be doing, because those are intimate pieces and really don’t want to have big audiences.
How much does it impact Sacramento to have competition from slightly more suburban venues like the Mondavi in Davis and Three Stages in Folsom?
I think it actually helps a lot. There’s over 3 million people in the metro area, which includes El Dorado and Placerville and those areas. When you’ve got that many people, we can’t serve them all here at the Community Center Theater. That’s a lot of people. So in all reality, I think it enhances the cultural vitality of the area because there’s so much more to offer. Each area seems to have their own niche in terms of what they provide.
The arts are often seen as a luxury rather than a necessity. How do you help change that perception so that people understand the importance of the arts to our city’s culture?
Number one, the arts are the one area that can weave through every aspect of our lives, from education to economic impact. The arts are small businesses. They employ people, they pay taxes, and their impact is local. They buy local, they employ local, and they create economic vitality — people want to come to an area for those kinds of things. Look at the number of people who go to Chicago specifically to be involved in the arts there. Who goes to Chicago without going to the Bean or Cloud Gate? And love it or hate it, we’re going to have a Jeffrey Koons piece here in Sacramento. You’re going to have people who are going to come specifically to Sacramento to see that piece. We also have some fantastic public art here. We need to remember that when people come here, that’s where they’re going. So the arts really contribute to the economic vitality of an area.
Where do you see all of this being five years from now?
I would like to see us open the performing arts studio the city is talking about. I’m hoping we can create a gathering place for our arts organizations, where they can be together and have some synergy between them. That will also stabilize our majors, like the symphony, opera and ballet. I’m hoping that by strengthening those we will also strengthen our smaller community organizations. Hopefully in five years we will have an answer about what we’re going to do with the Community Center Theater. Something has to happen. It cannot continue in the vein it is now. I’m hoping the live-work studios we have are going for the gusto so great that other neighborhoods are going to follow suit, and become places for our arts organizations and our artists to live and work. I hope that we have more people from San Francisco wanting to come here to see our arts. I want a lot of them to come here and realize that the arts here are authentic and quality, and Sacramento is the place you want to be to see them.