Art is cool

Barry Sakata used to be a tomato farmer. Then he got the wild hair to launch his own art gallery—and Midtown’s b. sakata garo, one of the better places in town to view cutting-edge art—is the result.

Barry Sakata, inside the clean, well-lighted space that is b. sakata garo.

Barry Sakata, inside the clean, well-lighted space that is b. sakata garo.

Photo By Larry Dalton

A couple of months ago, during the Second Saturday art walk, the scene on the street was, well, nuts. People were everywhere. Along the section between I and J streets, which seems to be a hub of the activity for this monthly event because practically all of the businesses in that stretch stay open to celebrate, the sidewalk was so packed it was hard to thread your way through.

Stepping into b. sakata garo, a gallery toward the south end of the block, one could hardly move. Several friends were there, ready to strike up good conversation and enjoy the party, as was Barry Sakata, the gallery’s owner, who enthusiastically introduced the three artists whose works were on display. They were nice, but it was loud in the gallery, and it’s hard to know what to say in that situation. “Gee, I sure like your paintings,” or something equally stupid, typically comes stumbling off the lips in response.

But the art was good, and meeting the artists was a treat. Still, no one could get a chance to actually see and really feel the art that night.

But a visit to the gallery a few days earlier afforded more time and space. That’s the way to do it. If you walk into any gallery in this town in the middle of the week, it will likely be deserted. Sometimes, you’ll startle the people working there; sometimes, if you’re quiet, they won’t even notice you’re there at all. This gives you one-on-one time with art. You can spend as much time as you want with the pieces you love, and you can breeze past stuff that doesn’t interest you. You can get up close or put space between you and the work—an art-viewing luxury.

These kinds of moments are especially rewarding at b. sakata garo. The building itself is a pleasure. It’s an old brick structure that has the feel of an upper-end gallery in Manhattan. It has high ceilings and a classic glass storefront, and it’s open and airy, but the brick walls help keep it from feeling too sterile, and there’s a little nondescript sign that simply spells the gallery’s name. You basically feel like you need to know what it is before entering, or you’re going in to find out what the place does.

There are subtle touches that make the place exude quality—little stuff that’s hard to pinpoint. An experienced eye will tell you that it’s the placement of the art, the lighting, the space between pieces, and the tags all being at the same height. These are seemingly insignificant nuances, but for a gallery owner striving to make the gallery something to be proud of—a gallery he wants to see, walk into and view art in—these things are crucial. And that’s really Sakata’s goal—to create the best gallery he can.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sakata attended the University of Southern California and studied education. During that time, he began casually visiting art galleries and museums around Los Angeles. There, he fell in love with art, along with the notion of really good art.

Barry Sakata on the first rung of a spiral staircase in his 20th Street gallery.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Following that, Sakata worked as a tomato farmer in Clarksburg. In 1996, he got out of farming, he said, mentioning a “depressed economy” and various vague financial reasons. But it seems that Sakata’s heart just wasn’t into farming, because he went from that to opening a gallery in Sacramento with the desire to show a caliber of work the local art community wasn’t used to and that was a difficult sell to boot; money couldn’t have been the real issue. Opening an art gallery is not an easy or obvious way to make a lucrative living, but Sakata was gambling even more, thinking he could fill a niche that he believed Sacramento needed.

In 1997, Sakata selected a site and began work. His attention to detail and desire to make the place just right created the feel the gallery has to this day. He worked hard at making the gallery top-notch. “It’s important to have a nice place to attract good artists,” Sakata said, moving his open arms up and down and shaking his head from side to side for emphasis. In many ways, creating a good space is easier than getting quality art to come through the doors. For a new gallery, attracting great artists is an enormous undertaking. Luckily for Sakata, a friend had introduced him to a few, and he had been keeping his eye on others by being such an art fan.

The gallery opened its doors in October 1998 and, like most new businesses, suffered through some learning and growing pains. Sakata recalled a time when he had back-to-back shows but wasn’t able to sell anything. A depressing stretch for sure, but Sakata believes in what he’s attempting to accomplish. “I dig the work, even if it doesn’t sell.” he said.

Right away, Sakata was aiming for the big time, luring such local professors as Robert Brady, Jack Ogden, Fred Dalkey, Dave Hollowell and Mike Hendersen to show at his gallery. Sakata was even reaching way beyond them, shooting for William T. Wiley, Manuel Neri, Roy DeForest, Richard Shaw, Nathan Oliveira and other well-known artists. This is an area where Sakata shines: He knows what’s happening in the art world, inside and outside of Sacramento. He hits the big galleries and museums, reads all of the publications and takes names. His passion for art oozes out of him. When he mentions an upcoming show, he’ll throw names around left and right, often stopping to clarify, saying, “You know who that is, right?” So-and-so studied under so-and-so, and on and on. Information flows out of him quickly and fluidly, but he never comes off as being pompous. Sakata just assumes that everyone is familiar with the work of Neri, and that they share his feeling that Neri is great and really famous. In Sakata’s world, these artists are like pop stars. This passion is exemplified by a time when he told Wiley: “I think you are my favorite artist; I just really love your work.” Smartly, Wiley responded by saying that b. sakata garo was his favorite gallery.

Sakata believes the more famous artists don’t get represented in Sacramento. “It’s important to show these guys,” he said, trying to explain his desire to bring to Sacramento a different world, which would stand out from other galleries showing local landscape paintings. He knows landscapes by lesser-known artists have a place in the local art scene, too, but he wants to put on a show that’s different, one that appeals to people beyond Sacramento. And it’s his persistence that makes it happen. He calls, writes and approaches those artists he really admires, and he is never disappointed when he gets turned down. Sakata described writing to one extremely respected artist and asking to exhibit his work, and having the artist turn him down through a letter. And instead of feeling down about it, Sakata felt touched that the guy took the time to write him back. “Meeting these great artists who are so good and so talented” is one of the things that makes running a gallery such fun for Sakata, he said.

That passion for his work has made b. sakata garo a success. Pick up the latest issue of Artweek, and you’ll find a review of a show at Sakata’s gallery a few months back; that’s an impressive step for a Sacramento gallery. The gallery’s shows get increasingly stronger, and with a fine selection of really good artists in his stable, Sakata should be able to rest easily. But he doesn’t rest; his energy, driven by the gallery business, keeps him running around frantically—quite literally, sometimes. He loves making unusual postcards for his shows, and when describing one of them, he stops mid-sentence and starts dashing through the gallery to find an example.

These postcard show announcements are an appropriate physical representation of Sakata and his drive for his business. He started out with an oversized cardboard painter’s palette that read “Art Is Cool” on the back, with a stamp of the gallery and info about the current show. Eye-catching, for sure, but then Sakata started putting more of his own hand into it. So now, show announcements often come on thick natural-cardboard stock, which Sakata has darkened in the sunlight. On the front will be a collage of newsprint, stamp and paint. Each one is different, each one handmade—an individual piece of art sent every month to each person on his mailing list.

Once, Sakata sent out postcards to a bunch of artists. Each postcard had two boxes on the back: one with a “yes” beside it, and the other with a “no,” and there was a line on the bottom for a signature, so Sakata would know who had accepted or rejected his offer. That idea alone seemed intriguing and fun. But what made it special was how the many artists responded to the show offer. The best response came from Dalkey, arguably the area’s most talented pencil artist, who drew a picture of himself, with his head filling the “yes” box, but didn’t include his signature.

Sakata has made his idea of a great gallery come to life. He started from scratch in a city that, just a few years ago, needed a good boost in the visual-arts community. And, with a lot of hard work, he has created a niche for himself as an art dealer and has offered something special to the gallery scene.

Perhaps being a tomato farmer is tougher than being an art dealer, but that can’t be the whole reason that Sakata switched careers. Instead, doing work you’re proud of and that you believe in strongly seems to be a better recipe for success.