The artists behind Exhibit S turned a vacant car dealership into a creative wonderland, but now their future is in flux
On a recent afternoon at the Sacramento Downtown Plaza, the sound of heels clicking on pavement and voices echoing against high walls make it seem like the handful of people wandering through the open-air mall's few remaining shops comprise a far bigger crowd than what it actually is.
In short, it’s a virtual ghost town around here.
Past the tumbleweeds, however, there’s a mirage shimmering where a young group of artists have claimed an empty Hyundai dealership and transformed it into an art gallery and studio.
This is Exhibit S, the brainchild of business manager Tre Borden and local artist Danny Scheible. The pair, along with several resident artists, have devised the space as a means to bring culture downtown, revitalize the mall’s energy and blow away ghosts of its troubled past.
Too bad its own future may soon be one for the dusty history books. Construction for a sports and entertainment arena—the new home for the Sacramento Kings—is slated to begin next spring, threatening to displace many of the mall’s current occupants, including Exhibit S.
But Borden’s not thinking about it. Well, not too much, anyway. There are day-to-day details to worry over, after all, including the launch of a new art show, Confluential, on Thursday, November 21.
Right now, for these kids on the mall, it’s still just art for art’s sake.
“We have one of the nicest spaces in Sacramento,” says Exhibit S resident Maren Conrad, whose cheeky works depicting the wives, girlfriends and lovers of California governors past and present were famously pulled from a Sacramento restaurant this summer after an influential patron complained the pieces were inappropriate.
Borden echoes Conrad’s point. Where many people can’t see past the mall’s many shuttered shops, he says, his crew recognized opportunity.
“You have this run-down mall that everyone thinks is closed or ghetto, but because of that, [we also] have this awesome space,” Borden says.
And the space is awesome. Floor-to-ceiling windows, originally designed to showcase cars, now frame Scheible’s “Tapigami” pieces—a vast miniature city constructed from tape that sprawls out across the studio’s floor. At any given time, passersby can wander by and watch Scheible working, his tall frame hunched over a table, while his nimble fingers fashion Seussical towers, whimsical flowers and alien creatures out of the sticky material.
“People who leave Forever 21 [walk by] and are like, ’What the hell is this?’” says Borden of the scene.
And that was, at least in part, the appeal for Borden and Scheible, who saw a chance to expose people to art as they shuttled between Macy’s and Panda Express, Claire’s and Hot Dog on a Stick.
“We wanted to bring art and culture [here],” Borden says. “Every type of person is [at the mall].”
In addition to Scheible’s work, the art here is bold, colorful and provocative, and walking through the collective’s automatic glass doors makes for an experience akin to what Alice must have experienced falling down that rabbit hole. There’s Erika “Lady Beaver” Lipkes, often found here at odd hours making prints of stripper kangaroos (yes, you read that right). There’s also Matt Brown’s space, filled with tech gear for his digital-imaging work, and, further back behind closed doors, there’s the nook where the artist known as The Believest makes promotional videos and works on graphic design.
And then there’s Conrad—the first person Scheible and Borden approached to join Exhibit S. Stationed behind a large table, Conrad spends hours here, pouring resin in layers to create large glossy images of koi fish, leaves and ladies in gardens.
Conrad says she likes the exposure brought about by the gallery’s odd location.
“We have people from all over come and say they have never seen this before,” she says of those who wander in, attracted to the offbeat offerings of Exhibit S. “Sacramento wants cool things in Sacramento.”
This venture between artists and a seemingly abandoned mall started when Borden and Scheible asked the plaza’s management to take a chance on upstart artists, and gave them a financial deal for use of the storefront.
“[We] had the vision of having a place where a bunch of different artists came and worked together [to] create a platform of creative talent,” Borden says.
Now Exhibit S not only showcases art, it also houses a retail area where local vendors such as hip baby-clothes maker Ana Apple sell wares. There’s also a classroom space and events, such as the monthly beer-centric Kulture Keggers party.
If you want a place to pop, put a bunch of artists in there, says Borden.
Conrad sees the mix as a motivational force, artistically speaking.
“Having a resident videographer, a printmaker, digital imager, painter [and] a sculptor creates a dynamic tension. And there isn’t competition,” she says. “We all try to make better art.”
Lipkes agrees. There’s something different about this hub, she says. And fact that it’s a mall—the very symbol of consumer culture—doesn’t bother her. Instead, she likes the idea that people who may not have ever visited an art gallery can walk in, curious about her work.
Still, she admits, being here is somewhat bittersweet.
“There’s this expiration date looming in the future, where the city is going to build this arena, and we only have so much time,” Lipkes says. “How much time do you put into promoting a space that’s temporary? That’s the constant in the back of all of our minds.”
Arena construction looming, the artists are working against the clock to vitalize a space despite its hazy future. Exhibit S’ lease, signed before the arena’s location had been finalized, is only good through February 1, 2014, and the collective’s future remains fuzzy.
“We probably won’t be open very long,” Borden says. “Hopefully, we can take what works in this space and move to a different location.”
Once construction begins, there’s a possibility of moving to a different location on K Street, or perhaps a few blocks over to R Street, Borden says. Until then, the goal is to lay the foundation of a new downtown.
“It’s the heart of our city,” says Borden. “It’s really important to associate downtown Sacramento with arts and culture. There is something happening [here] that isn’t happening anywhere else in the world.”
For now, the artists seem resigned yet determined.
“We are just making sure that we are documenting everything we have done here, just in terms of what is working well, what we would like to recreate,” Borden says.
“We are working 100-hour weeks, … but we are able to do something culturally relevant and impactful,” he adds. “That’s really what I want the legacy of Exhibit S to be. If we close in [the spring] and go our separate ways, we have made a difference and shown what is possible.”