Sacramento’s art, race and money problem
Is Sacramento’s scene too white?
A couple of blocks off of Stockton Boulevard in a residential neighborhood, there’s a white wall that wasn’t always supposed to be white.
Back in 2007, SMUD and a now-defunct community group hatched a plan for a mural on 14th Avenue commemorating local landmarks: the Colonial Theatre, Luigi’s Pizza Parlor, an old bowling alley, a couple of churches. Three years later, local muralist Shonna McDaniels gathered a group of painters and started working on the approved design, which featured seven Caucasian, one Asian and two African-American figures.
At random, McDaniels began with the two black faces, painted with dark, dark skin. Immediately, some neighbors took notice.
“All hell broke loose,” she says. “People were running outside, driving by calling us ’niggers’ … asking, ’Who authorized you Negroes to paint images of aliens on the wall?’”
She had kids there, wanting to help but crying instead.
With neighborhood complaints mounting, SMUD scheduled a community meeting less than a week after painting began. McDaniels describes the screaming gathering as “a total race divide.” Of the 45 stakeholders present, 37 opposed any kind of mural, while the rest just opposed the particular mural being created.
And that was that.
“An entire community shut the mural down because they did not want to see images that look like me,” she says.
McDaniels is the founder of south Sacramento’s Sojourner Truth Multicultural Art Museum, which features a maze of murals depicting African-Americans such as Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Michael Jordan and Kanye West. Their bold, colorful images flow into the next effortlessly, forming a historical timeline. It’s one of a few places in Sacramento to see painted black faces. It’s also one of a few places to see a high volume of work by a black artist.
A stroll through Midtown art galleries on Second Saturday rarely—if ever—yields many pieces by African-Americans or other artists of color. The gallery owners tend to be white. The patrons tend to be white. The artists follow suit.
According to the most recent United States census data, Sacramento’s population is roughly 45 percent white, 18 percent Asian and 14 percent black—and nearly 27 percent is of Hispanic or Latino origin.
There’s a disparity, and it raises the question: Does art need to reflect the diversity of its city? Is there racism brewing in Sacramento’s art scene?
Milton Bowens, a local black artist, says the easy answer is yes. The more nuanced answer, however, requires diving into history, money and this city’s reputation in the art world.
“The Sacramento arts community really needs to look at itself and be more honest about its liberalism or its inclusion, because racism is institutional,” Bowens says. “If we have institutional racism in the country, there’s institutional racism in the art world.”‘The big elephant in the room’
Bowens always tells stories through his artwork. In one collection, he examines growing up poor and black in America through food. Giant, mixed-media pieces evoke a satirical, pop-art aesthetic, with bare-bones recipes etched beside ever-familiar logos for Crisco, Aunt Jemima and Albers Quick Grits.
He approaches art as documentarian, preserving culture and educating the public, and says it’s part of why he’s so concerned with art history and how that history is represented. But does that portrayal—and the country’s long fixation on European art—really impact Sacramento’s art scene today?
“More so than anybody wants to discuss,” Bowens says, chuckling. “It’s the big elephant in the room.”
Bowens remembers purchasing his first art history textbook, Janson’s History of Art, in the 10th grade. It is and has been required classroom reading for decades, yet its early editions never mentioned women or African-Americans. Bowens remembers seeing no acknowledgment of the Harlem Renaissance’s existence in edition after edition until 2006.
“The textbook is reinforcing institutional racism in the arts,” says Bowens, who now creates art programs for the Twin Rivers Unified School District.
Flipping through that textbook makes one thing clear: The people who control the narrative of the American art world are white, and Bowens says that extends to Sacramento. And no one can mandate a civil right for arts inclusion because art is a private industry.
In other words, gallery owners can promote any kind of art they want and create all sorts of requirements for the artists they show. They can choose to only show oil paintings of landscapes by artists with a master’s in fine arts, for example. They can decline artists with a simple, “This doesn’t fit our aesthetic.”
Bowens runs into those words a lot—even when he researches the gallery, its artists and the type of work shown and makes sure his own pieces line up stylistically. Often, he says the only significant difference is that he’s black and the faces in his paintings are also black.
So, why the rejections?
“There’s other things they can create that shield them from the real conversation,” Bowens says. “Because at the end of the day, they’re looking at the artist, they’re not looking at the art.”
But gallery curators deny that ethnic background is ever considered.
“Race has no place in it at all. We’ve never looked at what race the artist is—if anyone is doing that, that’s horrible,” says Amber Massey, director of Tim Collom Gallery in Midtown. “What it comes down to is the quality of the art.”
Tim Collom’s clean, bright space is usually stocked with traditional landscapes, abstract paintings and figurative pieces—not the sort of racially charged work Bowens creates. Curators have told Bowens in the past that his work makes people too uncomfortable. Massey has never directly worked with Bowens, but says she understands why galleries would have reservations about showing overtly political or particularly challenging pieces.
“In general, I think no one wants to take a specific side because they don’t want to isolate themselves,” she says. “Sacramento is a little more conservative, versus if you were to go to San Francisco.”
That’s why Bowens gave up on pitching Midtown galleries long ago. He says he already knows they won’t show him, and that’s OK. He gets his work regularly in the Brickhouse Gallery and arts spaces in local colleges, as well as the Bay Area and East Coast.
Erika Byrd gave up, too. The local black painter now only submits to open calls, since her face definitely won’t be involved in the selection process. It’s gotten her portraits into the Kennedy Gallery, Brickhouse gallery and art complex, Elk Grove Fine Arts Center and a few festivals, she says.
Still, she has a hard time selling any work in Sacramento and thinks it’s directly because of the color of her skin. She says if she’s standing by her work, art buyers hurl questions and criticisms at her.
“[They] dehumanize me,” she says. “If someone of a different descent tries to sell [my art], there are no problems—it’s the best thing since sliced bread.”
Painter Demetris Washington, better known as BAMR, doesn’t bother with mainstream galleries, either. He’s been told by curators that his distinct, urban style—full of bold strokes, intense colors and hidden messages—stands out too much. Instead, he opts for pop-up shows inside cafes and smoke shops.
Washington’s murals can be seen all over town, though: enormous bananas, ears of corn, carrots and tomatoes on Del Paso Boulevard; a giant hand gliding through sketched clouds with a trail of vibrant colors and contrasting shapes at the Warehouse Artist Lofts; a figure with an otherworldly eye for a head at 16th and T streets. None of those were funded by the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, rather, he seeks out commercial property and private commissions. Despite all of his successes—his work on a Blue Moon beer bottle, a Sacramento Kings mural at age 19, a studio lined with commissioned pieces—he says he’s never earned any work from SMAC when he’s applied for projects.
“I see that some artists are doing very well with them,” he says. “But I also see there are no other artists like me doing anything with them.”
That’s the biggest issue to fellow muralist Shonna McDaniels, who has also unsuccessfully applied for many SMAC-funded public art projects. She worries about representation, and not just the lack of people of color creating public art but the lack of people of color on the walls themselves.
“In order to uplift the young men and women of color in our community, they need to see images that look like them,” she says. “If they never ever see any images that look like them, they think something is wrong with them.”The diversity challenge
When the Verge Center for the Arts reopened in 2014, founding director Liv Moe received a lot of flak. That’s because Verge is very different from most Sacramento galleries. It only shows touring work, which frustrates some locals, and it specifically focuses on promoting diversity, both in terms of cultures and disciplines.
Moe remembers a scathing letter she received about six months after opening, and it still makes her laugh.
“The letter said something to the effect of, ’You need to acknowledge that art is made by more than just women and minorities,’” she says, widening her eyes in exasperation. “Like, ’Oh yeah, we’ve had the spotlight for so long, you’re probably sick of hearing about us.’”
A white male artist penned that letter, and he also complained about Verge’s video art installations. It’s clear not everyone wants change.
“I think saying that implies there isn’t good art coming out of those communities,” she says, referring to the letter’s comment about minorities. “Like [that’s] the only reason you’d give someone a show from a background that’s different than what’s typically been promoted.”
Away from Verge, Moe recalls a citywide, women-only studio tour in 2006, which wound up being decently successful. As the group planned the next year’s edition, the organizers all agreed adding men would ramp up attendance. That bummed Moe out, and she has since stopped participating in anything remotely exclusionary—even if it is promoting women.
“If you put men on it, it’ll be a normal, popular thing,” she says, explaining the group’s rationale. “But if it’s women, very few people will come, because then it’s this women’s thing. There’s this perception that somehow we’d be making art that’s just about us.”
Many artists of color feel similarly, that there’s a common belief they would only create art echoing their culture. Muralist and painter Sonya Fe thinks this plagues Hispanic and Latino artists in particular. She assumes that if curators or SMAC panelists see her name, they immediately envision Day of the Dead or Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“There’s a lot of us who feel we’re being pushed to the side because we’re not white,” she says.
Like some other local artists of color, Fe blames her lack of SMAC commissions on discrimination.
Out of the 332 artists who have had public art projects commissioned by SMAC from 1975 to 2011, seven are black, 27 are Latino and 28 are Asian, according to a review by SN&R. It wasn’t possible to determine the backgrounds of eight additional artists, but the rest? White, though some potentially have a mixed heritage.
Still, the numbers are striking. Less than 1 percent of SMAC’s public art collection was created by African-Americans.
It’s easy for artists to grow upset over the course of several rejections. SMAC is complicated, though. Public art is complicated.
Take the ongoing Sacramento Mural Festival, for example. The weeklong event links 12 artists with walls, which will each feature a completed mural by Saturday, August 27. Some locals are frustrated, though, that the festival chose only four Sacramento artists and, overall, predominantly white artists. Fe, McDaniels and Washington are among the rejected applicants who point out the lack of diversity, although there are two Sacramento-based Latino artists and one visiting Native American artist in the mix.
Here’s the wrinkle: Even though the festival is presented and organized by SMAC, the funding comes from private sources, a.k.a. the building owners. That means the owners needed to approve of the mural designs. Regardless, SMAC director Shelly Willis says decisions were chiefly made based on the applicants’ past work.
“People’s ethnicity wasn’t considered,” Willis says. “You don’t see a photograph of the artist as you’re considering them.”
That lines up with SMAC’s process for public-funded projects as well. According to Willis, no one looks at an artist’s name or résumé until deep into the decision-making period. It’s all about the quality of the artwork and proposal. Once a pool of finalists are selected, résumés come out and interviews are arranged. On major projects, such as those outside the Golden 1 Center, artists with more public art experience rise to the top because they already know how to manage a budget, hire fabricators, work with engineers and make sure the piece doesn’t fall over and kill someone.
“These are jobs. We forget that,” Willis says. “We have this image of the artist working alone in their studio making this big thing because they’ve done it over and over again. In public art, that’s just not the case.”
Some artists point to the fact that the SMAC staff is all white as a reason for the lack of diverse representation. But SMAC doesn’t actually pick any of the artists chosen for public pieces—a panel does, made up of professional artists, the architect or designer involved in the project, and representatives from the community where the work is going to be placed.
Still, do the panelists tend to be predominantly white? It might depend on the location of the artwork.
Willis says she tries to ensure the panels are diverse. SMAC, after all, has a diversity statement. But she admits actually working toward true inclusion is a challenge, particularly since SMAC’s budget was hacked into pieces during the recession.
SMAC still gets funding from a few places, but to get a sense of the loss, just look to the city’s funding. For 2015-16, the city allocated $539,325 to SMAC. In 2007-08, that number was nearly double at $950,538. The most dramatic cut happened in 2010-11, when the city also froze SMAC’s usual percentage of the Transient Occupancy Tax. Even though the economy has recovered, SMAC’s funding hasn’t been restored.
Willis says she does what she can with her limited resources, even depleting SMAC’s reserves this year. Some one-time funding from the city allowed SMAC to add a cultural equity grant last year, which spread about $250,000 across 23 small organizations that work with underserved communities, such as Sol Collective, Sacramento Taiko Dan and McDaniels’ Sojourner Truth Multicultural Art Museum.
The grant name alone, though, implies that there isn’t cultural equity in general.
“That program wasn’t created in a vacuum,” Willis says. “There’s a hole and we need to recognize that and we need to get people to understand it and pay attention to it.”
Along those lines, Willis says SMAC is actively working on collecting and interpreting data in the hopes of better serving all of Sacramento.
“We’re aware of it, and we’re trying,” she says.
For Marie Acosta, executive director of the Latino Center of Art and Culture, SMAC is just one small part of a much bigger discussion about inequality in arts funding.
In 2013, Acosta worked on a study for the Latino Arts Network of California, which analyzed Sacramento’s funding of all arts organizations. She found that in 2012-13, the city allocated $2,403,406 to the arts, but only $53,130 was distributed to organizations that serve people of color—all handled by SMAC grants. Most of the money went to the Crocker Art Museum, but the study also points out several loans and grants over the years given to the typically white-dominated opera, symphony and ballet.
Has anything changed since the study came out? Acosta points to the city’s $3 million forgivable loan for the B Street Theatre, bumped up from the original $2.5 million late last year.
“We support success, but there needs to be some sharing of resources,” she says. “Very few organizations get that kind of treatment, and it’s reflective of who historically gets that kind of treatment.”The color of landscapes, socializing and free wine
She wasn’t supposed to look, but Barbara Range peeked through the shades anyway. She saw fire, smoke and things a young teen should not see outside her home.
Range was caught in the Watts riots in 1965, sitting in darkness for days, listening to sirens.
“We all just thought we were supposed to forget about it … go back outside and play as if there weren’t tanks rolling down your street and no guy outside your house with bayonets,” she says.
And it scarred her for life.
It’s why she says she’s so affected by police brutality today—why she’s dedicated her life to social justice and activism, even as the curator at The Brickhouse Gallery & Art Complex in Oak Park. It’s a gig that came to her when she intended to retire. Now, she’s one of the most open and vocal about what she sees as an exclusionary and racist arts scene.
Located just off the bustling strip of Broadway in North Oak Park, the Brickhouse exudes a warm, community vibe: exposed brick, natural light and a lovely, shady courtyard with a pizza oven decorated with mosaic tiles. In the past, Range has shown elegant bridal gowns as part of a show commenting on gender, vintage skateboards with a street-art aesthetic made by Roseville-born Blockhead Skateboards and African-American-made quilts steeped in history and politics.
“The art I show here is very diverse, but am I gonna make sure ethnic art is shown at the Brickhouse? You’re damn right I am,” Range says.
And as a gallery curator showing such art—and because of the Brickhouse’s location just southeast of Midtown—she feels she doesn’t get support from Sacramento. Instead, she gets more interest from artists and art buyers from the Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York.
Similarly, many artists of color say they have much less trouble selling art, arranging shows or even nabbing public art projects in other cities compared to Sacramento.
Sonya Fe noted her work on a mile-long mural in Los Angeles as well as a life-sized, fiberglass cow, now on display in Orange County. Shonna McDaniels recently had three pieces in a San Francisco show, The Black Woman Is God, the sort of exhibit she says would never take place in Sacramento. Jack Hsiao, a local Korean artist who paints figurative nudes, says most of the work he sells in Sacramento actually ships out to art collectors who discovered his work while they were in town visiting.
But maybe that isn’t a problem reserved for artists of color. Maybe Sacramento is not the thriving arts hub it claims to be. Who is making a living exclusively off of their art in Sacramento because of money that actually comes from Sacramento? Few, if any, Bowens argues.
“A lot of people in Sacramento call themselves art collectors, but they worry about what art costs—then they’re not a real art collector,” Bowens says. “You can’t go to a Sotheby’s or Christie’s auction on a budget.”
And that gets to a common argument: Second Saturday isn’t about art anymore, because people aren’t going to galleries to buy art. It’s about socializing and free wine.
This whole idea that Sacramento is a thriving arts city? Bowens calls it a lie, a facade.
As such, mainstream galleries line their walls with what Sacramento is known for in the art world, and thus, what is proven to sell: landscapes and still lifes. Whoever can best mimic Gregory Kondos and Wayne Thiebaud can probably get a show: a checkerboard of greens, browns and golds depicting Sacramento Valley farmland, picturesque under a radiant blue sky; or slices of lemon, partially obscured by the shadows of other lemons, basking on a picnic blanket.
Portraits of black women? Those don’t fit the aesthetic.
So, what can be done? Is Sacramento’s arts scene stuck in the ’60s?
“This is just going to continue to be a changing process as our awareness of the world changes,” Liv Moe says.
She cites history: Women didn’t begin to enter the art conversation until the ’70s, and Chinese and other forms of non-Western art didn’t receive much celebration until the early 2000s. Cities move at different paces. Perhaps, she says, Sacramento art will diversify faster as it grows more metropolitan.
As for public art, Shelly Willis says SMAC is driven by artists. That means if artists want to see change, they should talk to her. She says temporary public art projects are the best way to fund more edgy work, but SMAC probably won’t work to create temporary public art opportunities unless there’s a demand for it.
In other words, it’s up to the people—a sentiment echoed by many artists.
“Unless someone forces a new narrative,” Bowens says, “the narrative never changes.”