An incubator for culture
HQ, a new multipurpose arts cooperative, offers a place for artists to fail and succeed
Any artist will tell you that creating something beautiful, evocative and right is an act of perseverance. The process involves a seemingly endless variety of struggle—with the work itself, with the restrictive mores of society and with one’s own conflicts and limitations. We call the successful results of these struggles—the resulting artwork—culture.
City officials in Sacramento and other places recognize the intangible value of this culture, both for attracting businesses and for raising the area’s profile to those looking to relocate or to visit. Unfortunately, these officials typically have a flawed sense of how to bring culture about. They propose shopping malls, sports arenas and multiplexes that may increase a city’s entertainment options but often detract from its overall cultural sophistication.
What does generate culture is what Richard Florida—in his book The Rise of the Creative Class … and How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life—refers to as third spaces. Florida labels home and work the first two spaces. “Third spaces are venues like coffee shops, bookstores and cafes in which we find less-formal acquaintances,” writes Florida. They are spaces where people meet, converse, challenge one another, exchange ideas and collaborate. Florida considers these venues critical to fostering the social vitality necessary to attract the creative individuals indispensable to the 21st-century economy.
J. Greenberg, the director of HQ, agrees. “Every vibrant city, every place that’s really appealing to people, those are the places that have these third spaces,” Greenberg explained. Creating a third space is the purpose that HQ, a new cooperative arts venue at 25th and R Streets, aspires to fulfill.
Set in a warehouse-style complex that includes a diverse mix of arts and culture organizations, HQ’s space opens like an “L” around a central office. A little less than a month before the venue’s March 26 opening celebration, a small brown couch, a ladder, some lights and several chairs were the only furnishings in the otherwise empty space. Greenberg sat down in the unfinished venue to discuss the plans for the space. Wearing a black T-shirt, and with short hair and glasses, he looked like a hipster from any big American city.
As Greenberg explained, HQ is the home base for four organizations: Kabinet, Greenberg’s film-production company; Asylum Gallery, a cooperative-within-the-cooperative of six visual artists organized by Beyond the Proscenium Productions founder Ann Tracy; Short Center Repertory, a theater company for developmentally disabled adults, headed by Jim Anderson; and the Sacramento Poetry Center, which officially will move from its current location at 1631 K Street in May. “Not one of us could rent this space on our own,” said Greenberg.
Each of the four groups will occupy the space on different nights, with only the Sacramento Poetry Center requiring an office for its activities. The groups chosen complement one another creatively and in terms of their logistical needs for the space.
“My hope is that having a venue devoted to regular weekly screenings will foster a stronger sense of support and collaboration in the local film community,” said Greenberg of his plans for Kabinet at HQ. “And that by sharing a space—and hopefully audiences—with organizations devoted to other art forms, the profile of local filmmaking will rise in Sacramento.”
HQ’s April calendar offers a promising start: Sundays are reserved for film screenings, curated by Greenberg; there’s a Second Saturday art opening; there’s an open-mic called Edge; and there’s a multimedia event called The Synthetic Pleasure Show with Bob Barango and the B-Sexuals. Many of the events are free. Workshops and classes soon will be integrated into the schedule, and the space is available for rent to other community arts groups for performances.
Thirty minutes into the interview, Tracy bounded in wearing purple tights, a purple shirt and a purple sweater—an outfit that regally set off her handsomely gray hair. She immediately launched into a description of a “hysterically anti-war” production with singing plumbers that she thought would make a great staged reading at HQ. She lingered to speak enthusiastically about the collaborative potential for the space.
“How do you learn to be a musician-actor-poet if you don’t have safe environments where you can fail?” Tracy said. “I don’t know if I would be where I am today if I didn’t have the opportunity to work in smaller spaces around the country and get my bad out.”
Greenberg, who also works as an executive producer for KVIE’s New Valley, met Tracy when he interviewed her for that station’s Central Valley Chronicles in 2002. Later, he became the unofficial videographer for Tracy’s Beyond the Proscenium Productions, and he cast her in Kith and Kin, a film he shot in 2004 that remains in production.
When Greenberg found out about the space, he mentioned it to Tracy and to Sacramento Poetry Center board member Richard Hansen. (Greenberg had profiled Hansen’s Poems-For-All chapbook series on KVIE’s Arts Alive.) Both Tracy and Hansen were enthusiastic.
Tracy then tapped Anderson, whom she knew from the local theater scene. “Jim showed up at the meeting saying, ‘I’m liking this. I’m liking this,’” Tracy said. Later, Hansen pitched to the Sacramento Poetry Center board the idea of moving, and the reduced rent and greater scheduling power proved compelling enough reasons to relocate. “It was very serendipitous,” said Tracy.
On opening night, a small gold triangle with a black “HQ” painted on it hung above the door. Inside, the room smelled of fresh paint. Several rows of chairs faced the center of the room on both sides of the “L”; on the longer side were several small, round tables. Two folding tables held wine, fruit, olives and cheesecake. Artwork from Asylum’s members hung on the wall: digital photos, mixed media and a series of paintings of horses. A buzz of conversation filled the crowded room.
Devin and Yoonah Davis, who came because Devin saw a flier for the event, sat at one of the tables, drinking “Two Buck Chuck” cabernet. When asked about the concept of third spaces, Devin said, “My feeling was, most people find that [third space] in Starbucks. I don’t think it’s revolutionary—the public square. As long as we’re able to meet.”
The conversation turned to the country’s political divide and then to the relative cosmopolitanism of Sacramento. “This is not much of a city, but it’s becoming one,” said Yoonah, who, in addition to living in Sacramento, has lived in Seoul, South Korea; Los Angeles; and San Francisco.
Ray Tater, who owns the building complex where HQ is located, said, “This is kind of a generating station for new work. That’s the idea around the whole thing.” He listed the other organizations in the corrugated-metal warehouse complex that houses HQ: California Stage, Alliance Française de Sacramento and Beyond the Proscenium Productions. Fred Dalkey and California State University, Sacramento, art professors Mark Emerson and David Wetzel also have studios in the complex. “On any given night, you can see an artist walking around mumbling their lines,” Tater said.
Greenberg came to the front of the room to start the program. He promised the packed house that there would be “so much going on here this summer that you’ll want to camp out here.”
First up was the Viewpoint Performance Project, which included Tracy. The group presented a highly conceptual, experimental adaptation of Medea that seemed more exercise than performance. The actors took turns reading their lines from cue cards attached to their forearms and moving about the stage in an improvisational exploration of space and movement.
Bob Stanley, secretary of the Sacramento Poetry Center’s board of directors, took the stage next. Within moments, he had engaged the audience with a poem about baseball and with a villanelle called “Blue State Blues,” but lines like “highway of life” rear-ended this goodwill into cliché. Parts of the audience peeled away.
Introducing the next performance, a short movie called Empressed by local filmmaker Bob Moricz, Greenberg evoked the Sacramento arts community, where “nobody is just a painter or just a musician.” When the projector refused to cooperate, the audience took it in stride as Greenberg fetched a TV. During the delay, poet Laura Cook considered whether she’d feel comfortable reading in the space. “What’s good for me is seeing the technical difficulties,” she said. “If you screw up, it’s OK—it’s more of a homey feeling then.”
Moricz’s film was of that category of avant-garde that makes Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous a temporarily attractive option, for both its narrative familiarity and the better-quality acting—though the crowd did seem to get a morbid pleasure out of the brain-eating sequence, and at least one audience member appreciated the wardrobe. Afterward, Moricz explained that the 10-minute film was made at his 28th birthday party: “All these people showed up, and we shot a movie.”
Then Ruebi Freyja arrived, having left early from her job of waiting tables at Luna’s Café. She immediately took the stage, wearing jeans and cowboy boots and with a heart necklace over her chest. She carried a banjo and a guitar.
Freyja’s melodic, acoustic set did that alchemical thing art does sometimes, gently taking a listener’s heart in its hands and reminding that person what it means to feel—bringing one closer to oneself and to everyone else in the room. This sort of success rises above the artistic necessity of practice and experiment to that rarefied air of culture. In Freyja’s music, Sacramento became a more livable city.
Those who look at art as a process that requires serial failures as the price of accomplishment recognize the value of sifting through the silt to get to the gold. They might feel a sense of loss for those in the audience unwilling to persevere through the experimental performances of the night in order to appreciate the gift Sacramento received with the launch of HQ.