Exit through the peanut gallery
The artists behind the enormous Art Street installation hope to make their mark on Sacramento—then, the world.
Lately, dozens of local artists have gone bananas. At a drafty warehouse and patio in Upper Land Park, a rotating cast of more than 100 artists and 150 volunteers has combined its brute force, daring visions and borderline-unhealthy perseverance to assemble a temporary installation dubbed Art Street.
Building on the success of last year’s Art Hotel, which was located downtown, the same team expanded this second experience to be larger and open longer, running from February 3 to 25. Like Art Hotel, it’s also free and open to the public. Exhibiting artists include mixed-media specialists, like Franceska Gamez, and painters like Waylon Horner, but they’ve all been challenged to step outside the comfort zones of their usual medium or method.
To walk into the 65,000-square-foot, ambitious explosion of the arts—culinary, visual, sonic, theatrical, literary—is like meandering through a microcosm of the DIY city of your dreams. But it took a lot of hustle and strife to get to that point.
A couple of weeks before its public opening on February 3, the scene felt slightly more … feral. The plywood skeletons of installations were strewn about the floor as table saws sliced through the echoes of the Cocteau Twins and Radiohead on a distant speaker. Artists warmed themselves with cigarettes.
Late one night, artist David Stone was crafting his contribution after tucking his son into bed, and before going to work at his day job in the morning. As he was putting the final touches on a painting in his installation, the unthinkable happened: His phone dropped between the installation and a wall.
Art Street founder Seumas Coutts was among those helping to fish it out with a light.
“Of course, the light we were using then fell behind it,” Coutts says. “We had to tell this artist, ’Sorry, you have to cut through the wall to get this stuff out.’”
“Some open-heart surgery,” adds muralist Shaun Burner, Coutts’ co-conspirator at the nonprofit making things happen, M5 Arts.
“Of course [David] kept saying: ’This wasn’t my plan. This wasn’t my plan today,’” Coutts says. “He stays until 2, and then he gets up in the morning again and does the whole thing. So people are really devoted, especially the artists.”
Not surprisingly, the artists, most of them local, have developed a sense of camaraderie in their crazy-inducing, 12-plus-hour days ever since the warehouse opened to them two weeks behind schedule, in mid-December. To catch up, they stay until what Burner refers to as the “witching hours,” around 2 a.m., when loopy painters and sculptors sing the call and response to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
“A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh,” sings painter Wel Sed to demonstrate, in between sawing wood panels. “This is like family … Me and Frankie [Franceska Gamez] have a really cool handshake. … When the morale’s high, we’re laughing and having a good time. When shit needs to get taken care of, we’re like curmudgeons.”
Wel Sed transcended his usual, microscopically detailed paintings to assemble a “post-internet church.” The shotgun-style room shrouds one of his portraits with a mysterious curtain and a projector, and he’ll only escort randomly selected people during the exhibit to see the artwork up close.
“My whole point of it is questioning whether or not we need sacred spaces for art,” he says. “That’s why I chose a church. Like, do we need these sacred spaces anymore now that we see things digitally on our phones, and is it enough to have a proxy experience? Do we actually need to go and experience?”
As a whole, Art Street’s answer seems to be a resounding “yes.” The official theme explores Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur, the dandy who wanders the city in search of everyday wonder. Coutts hopes that Sacramentans slow down and become mindful of their surroundings in this menagerie of sensation—and heck, maybe even walk around this lovely, flat city of trees and rivers more often.
The unofficial theme: collaboration and human connection. Artists help saw wood for others’ sculptures. Volunteers sweep up the cigarette butts in the aftermath. On the patio, local chefs and cooks will work together in a project called KiCo (“Kitchen Collaborative”) to serve the public meals for around $10, along with libations. The members of the free-form nonprofit M5 take on the roles that suit them best, without a firm hierarchy.
“Our organization is rather organic and small, and it allows us a lot of flexibility,” Coutts says. “Sometimes it can bite us in the ass. If I’m struggling to pay rent, then the other people can step in and help me, or maybe not … because they’re struggling, too. It’s this kind of reciprocal relationship we’re trying to develop not only on our team, but with the city, with the artists. It’s like, we’re all in it together.”
Recently, the city made good on that end of the bargain with a $500,000 fund for the creative economy, starting with a $25,000 grant to Art Street. The team also raised $18,877 on Kickstarter, plus roughly $10,000 from individual patrons and $15,000 from sponsors, according to Clay Nutting, the other co-founder of M5 Arts. Still, those totals pale in comparison to the arts funding Coutts saw during his time living in Germany.
“A lot of people are going to hate me for saying it, but [Sacramento] has a provincial mentality,” he says. “And it doesn’t have to have that, but it also needs to behave in a nonprovincial way.”
Many of the M5 members have left Sacramento for bigger cities, only to return.
“People get out and go to a big city, and they say, ’why can’t we do this here?’” Coutts says. “This is the capital of California, for Chrissakes. This is the sixth-most powerful economy on the planet. We should have art like this all the time. And I’m not talking about just us. Sol [Collective] could do it, Verge [Center for the Arts] could do it, Beatnik [Studios] could do it. We should all get together and create something massive. If that were to happen, we wouldn’t be the world capital of art, right? But we sure could give them a run for their money.”
Verge is on board, according to Executive Director Liv Moe, but she says these temporary sites need a sustainable vision for funding. She also pointed out that some of these organizations are already collaborating: Artists with low or no-cost studios at Verge are among those participating at Art Street.
“Seumas is absolutely right,” she said. “There needs to be more temporary, site-specific work, and it’s seriously lacking in Sacramento. Our arts commission has been struggling for years. … At this point, funding is super-limited.”
After Art Hotel’s more than 13,000 visitors, the Art Street crew hopes to prove to Sacramento that they excelled at their “sophomore album,” as Wel Sed calls it, to attract more support. Then the big, starry-eyed dream: Art City or SaBi—Sacramento’s first Biennale.
“This is just the beginning of the snowball,” Burner says.
Though artworks are for sale at Art Street, none of them will be marked with a price tag, in an effort to prioritize conversations about the ideas and the artists, who determine the costs themselves. While the installation’s creators and many others say they are alienated by capitalism and the internet, not to mention the fate of our democracy, Coutts hopes to create a haven.
“We’re trying to say, ’Hey, let’s just get together and be human once again,’” he says.
Together, the artists exercise that worn-out muscle of optimism, even after working at full speed until the witching hours. Juggling school and work, artist Alicia Palenyy says she had quit Art Street multiple times. She came back to struggle toward their collective vision for the future of Sacramento.
“I want people to gradually take our side,” Palenyy says. “There are many people who will blatantly tell you we don’t need art.”
She admits that food and shelter are priorities, yes, but photography, music and movies and the other creative disciplines are necessities in their own right.
“Sometimes [art] is what makes us happy or keeps us sane or gets us through the day,” Palenyy says. “And we don’t have a culture of supporting that here. And my hope from this festival is that that’ll change, however gradually.”