Art of the Mall

These upstart artists turned retail wasteland Downtown Plaza into a cool, creative hub. So, what happens when construction starts on a new Sacramento Kings arena?

Danny Scheible makes sticky business from his “Tapigami” art, currently on display at Exhibit S, an art gallery, studio and retail space located in the Sacramento Downtown Plaza.

Danny Scheible makes sticky business from his “Tapigami” art, currently on display at Exhibit S, an art gallery, studio and retail space located in the Sacramento Downtown Plaza.

photo by lovelle harris

Lovelle Harris contributed reporting to this story.

Forever 21, for those of you whose fashion sense doesn't skew fountain of youth, is a popular mall-rat destination with nearly 500 stores worldwide. At Sacramento's Downtown Plaza, it's the place where 16-year-old girls pay $7 for chain-link necklaces emblazoned with words like “ghetto” or “OMG.” But lately, at the dying mall, these divas-in-training don't just get a bling fix while shopping: They also get a dose of modern art.

This summer, a temporary gallery exhibit moved in next door to Forever 21’s first-floor location. You can’t miss it: It’s a showy, 12,000-square-foot space called Exhibit S. On a recent Saturday, window-shoppers stopped to peek inside at Danny Scheible, a long-stalked, bearded artist who’s often there making live-art, origami-style sculptures out of masking tape. A few storefronts down, there’s also Flywheel, another new hub for creatives, designers, craft makers and more.

These two art spots arrived at the mall on the heels of other locally owned art and music shops. What happened was: The national brands moved to the malls in Roseville and the Arden Arcade neighborhood, the Downtown Plaza vacancy rate shot up, then artists moved in to take advantage of bargain-basement rents.

And, like Orange Julius in a blender, the mall’s creative juices went vrrrm.

“The mall was kind of dying at that point, and I think that they were trying to spice things up.” That’s how artist and musician Bryan Nichols describes his arrival at Downtown Plaza, when the local opened Zuhg Life Store, a music, arts and craft shop named after his funky jam band, on the second floor in 2011. Back then, he was already booking live gigs at the mall; one day, former owners Westfield Corp. asked him, “Hey, do you want to open a store?” (At the time, Plaza had less than 50 percent occupancy.)

“I’d never [run] my own business,” he said. He thought, “But why not?”

After Zuhg, a tattoo and arts spot called Art 4 Art Sake opened, plus other events and exhibits took root. Downtown advocates held fundraisers at the mall, which helped pay for new murals on K Street. There was even a guy who showcased his personal collection of hundreds of elephant stuffed animals and figurines inside one store.

Out with the J.Crew, in with the artsy, weird and new.

Today, the mall-arts scene is kind of the only reason to go to Downtown Plaza, and creatives use the mall as actual studio space. At Exhibit S, the owners invite artists from across the globe to the mall for their artist-in-residency program. One visitor from the East Coast, an artist named Erika Lipkes, who goes by the moniker “Lady Beaver,” liked it so much, she decided to move to Sacramento.

Kari Shipman, the fashion blogger and curator from the website Juniper James, runs a store out of Flywheel and uses the mall to interact with local talent. On a recent weekend morning, for instance, an upstart designer named Mike Lenny came to Shipman’s store to deliver his bags. They’re not just any JanSport sack: The guy apparently went to a slaughterhouse, asked what it did with the extra leather, and now handcrafts inimitable, high-end leather accessories. Right here in Sacramento.

“I used to never go to the mall,” Shipman admits. Now, she has anxiety about working her first holiday season ever. Her store represents more than 20 artists, all local brands, not your typical mall fare. She calls the fact that she has a store at Downtown Plaza “ironic.”

It’s a common sentiment.

“I was never a mall rat in high school,” shared Tre Borden, who helped found Exhibit S. “But here I am, almost 30, and I’m in the mall every day.”

It’s a great local-arts success story: Crappy mall that no one wants to go to rolls the dice on broke innovators who construct towering sculptures out of used cardboard. Corporate consumer culture assimilates positive, transformative Sacramento aesthetes into its death rattle, urban-mall milieu. The Downtown Plaza’s new owners, JMA Ventures, even put the new shops on the mall-directory map. They’re legit! And it’s likely not happening in any other city in America.

Too bad it will all be over soon.

“This whole thing was supposed to be temporary,” says Borden. “That’s why we call it ’Exhibit.’”

Indeed, this coming spring, JMA Ventures hands the keys to the mall over the Sacramento Kings arena-development team. Flywheel, which enjoys free rent at the mall because of its partnership with the Arts & Business Council of Sacramento, will close its doors. Ditto Exhibit S. Next summer, ground likely will break on a new Kings arena. By 2016, the mall will be blown up and mostly arena-fied.

Where will these artists go? Will Sacramento’s oft-called “creative class” have a place at the new, redeveloped and revitalized downtown?

The city and arena developers say yes. They’ve even included having an “arts presence” as one of the project goals for the new arena. But this is often just code for stuff like murals, not studios at the mall; artists likely will be priced out of the Downtown Plaza 2.0.

Shelly Willis, current executive director at the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, says the first step is to create an art plan. That’s going to take some time—but they do have a couple years to get ready. “We’re starting to gear up. It’s very, very exciting,” she says.

Chris Jarosz, who co-owns the new Wicked ’Wich restaurant in the mall’s food court and is an advocate for the arts, says the new arena will need Sacramento creatives if it wants to succeed. “The arts community, specifically, is very active in driving activity downtown, so I think that’s going be a necessary component to making it successful.”

Leon Willis, a screenprinter and artist who collaborates with Exhibit S, told SN&R that he would like to see the city “create some sort of educational space inside the mall for the arts.” Like a college, an idea Mayor Kevin Johnson has been fond of over the years.

SN&R asked JMA Ventures about what’s next, but the company’s policy is not to discuss future plans with media at this time. All that’s known is the moving date sometime around next April.

Which raises the question: What happens to the actual pieces of public art at the mall, some of which have been there for decades?

From afar, the artwork on Downtown Plaza’s walls along Fifth Street resembles monochromatic, uninspiring wood carvings. Up close, though, you’ll notice that the reliefs are actually unique ceramic works. And you’ll also notice that people use the art as a trash can, shoving napkins and even soda cups into the sculpture.

Which is depressing, because these brilliant panels, more than 40 years old, were painstakingly installed by the mall’s founding architect and a designer with the now-defunct Hans Sumpf Company Inc., renowned for its clay ceramics.

Willis with SMAC says her organization is “in the process of doing all the research” on the public art at the mall, which includes sculptures by Yoshio Taylor and Kathleen Kasper Noonan. Like the living, breathing artists at the mall, she hopes they will find new homes where everyone can see them.

And then, maybe, Sacramentans will spend their money and time on art. Not cheap, fake-gold necklaces.