The creative class, cheap living, big money, and Sacramento’s bold and daring art evolution
As the Verge Center for the Arts launches its new contemporary-arts center this week, it signals a major cultural tipping point for the city
Sometimes Liv Moe is amazed to have even reached this point.
“I keep looking back,” she says, walking through the Verge Center for the Arts on a recent morning. “And it’s a miracle.”
After a nine-month closure, Verge will reopen on June 5 with Champagne, an exhibit curated by Yarrow Slaps, a San Francisco-based visual and performing artist.
It’s not just any opening. Inarguably, Verge’s relaunch cements its status as the region’s most important arts destination outside of the Crocker Art Museum.
And it signals a major tipping point, not just for local artists and enthusiasts, but the city as a whole.
Certainly, there’s no other place like it around. And while Verge has long earned notice at home, nationally and abroad, this next chapter just further boosts its profile.
At nearly 25,000 square feet, the center boasts two exhibition spaces and 37 artist studios, making it a centerpiece in Sacramento’s Southside Park neighborhood—one poised to help revitalize this sleepy, tree-lined row of blocks into a creative enclave.
But first, there’s still much to complete: Moe makes her way through Verge, dodging ladders here and checking light fixtures there. The building booms with the sound of hammers, saws and yelling construction workers, who must rush to turn this landscape of drop cloths and heavy equipment into a finished canvas.
No easy mission, especially since the contractor’s just informed her the interior paint crew is actually only available for one day.
And yet, amid the chaos, Moe remains easygoing, philosophical even.
“The deadline will come and go either way,” she says with a shrug.
In other words, Verge will open and continue to do what it already does very well.
Shelly Willis, executive director for the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, says this next phase is vital.
“A healthy visual-arts scene relies upon a contemporary-arts center—which is what Verge is,” she says. “It’s essential for any city.”
Moe shares a similar view. Sacramento already has much to recommend it to artists: It’s pretty, easy to navigate and, importantly, affordable.
But, she adds, that’s not enough.
“It needs more in terms of building on and refining resources that we’re offering,” she says. “It’s about striking more of a balance between supporting who you have and then bringing in [new] things.”The art economy
On any given Second Saturday, Sacramento can feel overrun with artists’ receptions. But while complimentary cheese cubes and Two Buck Chuck may lure people into galleries, such things don’t necessarily make for a vibrant arts community.
It’s one reason why Moe envisions Verge as a place that promotes a sense of “ownership.”
“The way the art scene and the art world have been shifting, things are more integrated, and people want to have more participation,” she says. “We wanted to establish a space where people … could be involved and do something—not just come here for a little bit and then leave.”
To that end, Verge offers lectures, classes and workshops, including labs with Myrtle Press, the only printmaking facility of its kind in the region outside of a college setting.
“It’s increasing, but historically, there haven’t been a lot of artist resources in the community,” Moe says. “I wanted to establish a place where people could rent a studio and have an educational experience.”
Verge’s model is a fundamental necessity, SMAC’s Willis says. “[It’s] a multifaceted place to show work that is of the moment; with it you have this energy that is created.”
But that’s just one component, she adds. A scene also requires education, museums and a robust commercial gallery scene. Sacramento has the Crocker, of course, as well as acclaimed programs through UC Davis, Sacramento State University and area community colleges.
Still, its art economy lacks.
“We don’t have a strong buying community here yet; we haven’t reached critical mass,” Willis says.
Getting there is crucial.
“You want artists to be able to stay here because they’re selling work,” Willis says. “You need [that] to get to [be like] places like Portland and Seattle—all those great, visual cities that we talk about. It’s the whole story.”
Local artist Gioia Fonda agrees. She’s been with Verge as a studio artist since its inception, and says Sacramentans aren’t accustomed to buying art.
“There’s the disposable income … but people aren’t quite trained to think about what art can do in our lives,” she says.
As a nonprofit, Verge’s success doesn’t rely on sales. It’s a model many other local venues have adopted.
Beatnik Studios, located a block away from Verge, started as a photography cooperative, but now markets itself as a “space to be creative” with live music, studio rentals and even event space for weddings.
Likewise, in nearby Curtis Park, Sol Collective has established itself as a multiplatform center for the visual and performing arts.
Founder and director Estella Sanchez launched the venue in 2003 on Del Paso Boulevard. Money, she says, has never been flush, but also not a deterrent. The ongoing question was simple: How do you grow a business without money?
Her best tools, Sanchez says, were already around her.
“When I opened, I was funding it myself, paying the rent,” she says. “A lot of the programing we had came from community members, which kept our costs down.”
Following a 2008 fire, Sol Collective reopened in 2009 on a shady stretch of 21st Street near Broadway, calling on community elders, artists and former professors to help.
It worked. Modeled after Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center, it focuses on art, culture and activism with 3,000 square feet of industrial vibe with colorful, graffiti-styled art that includes a recording studio. Over the years, it’s partnered with local arts venues including Verge, the Crocker and the Sacramento History Museum as a way to develop and expand its programming. It’s also home to Spanglish Arte, a tiny gallery and retail space, and also hosts workshops, a poetry open-mic, live music and festivals, such as a recent one devoted to piñatas.
“This is a community space before anything, and art is the tool we use to educate,” Sanchez says.
Back at Verge, Moe says she admires Sanchez’s work and role in the local art scene.
Certainly, they’ve experienced similar financial struggles. In 2010, Verge relocated from its original spot at V and 19th streets; at the time founder Jesse Powell had stepped away from day-to-day oversight and still funded some expenses.
But it wasn’t enough.
“There was money to pay for the building, but not to run it,” Moe says.
And so she went without a paycheck for eight months, picking up odd jobs to pay her own bills.
“I don’t even know that it was a choice,” she says now. “It was either pay the lease or take a paycheck. I paid the lease in order to keep the whole thing alive.”‘A high tide raises all ships’
There may not have been money, but Verge was already successful from a critical standpoint. The center, which opened in 2008 as the Verge Gallery & Studio Project, quickly earned acclaim for high-profile exhibits. There was Doug Biggert’s Hitchhikers and Other Work exhibit, including a series of provocative Polaroids from the longtime Sacramento resident. Museum of Love: The Work of Daniel Johnston featured illustrations and early musical works from the celebrated Sacramento-born, Texas-based artist. And there was Nuclear Projects and Other Works, a four-decade retrospective by regional artist Stephen Kaltenbach, whose works are included in permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Crocker Art Museum.
Kaltenbach’s exhibit—Verge’s first, in fact—earned a review in Art in America magazine, while Vice magazine covered Biggert’s Hitchhikers exhibit, which also later showed in New York.
Moe, who started at Verge as a resident artist before joining its staff, says the curation of those exhibits was strategic.
“These were people who came out of the region who had big national followings but, with the exception of Steve—because he’s in the Crocker—weren’t [well-known here],” she says. “Those exhibits were about getting people to refocus on some of the things that are happening in our community that are of value and worth.”
In other words, they put a major spotlight on Verge.
That’s critical, says Fonda.
“We have a lot of local pride, but we also shoot ourselves in the foot when we don’t show artists from other cities,” Fonda says. “We’re not having an exchange; there’s a lack of dialogue.”
That shortsighted approach hurts emerging local artists, too, she adds.
“We do these things like celebrate [Wayne] Thiebaud and [Gregory] Kondos over and over again,” she says. “When those guys were in their 30s and 40s, they hadn’t accomplished anything of that importance yet—it’s time to celebrate new hometown heroes.”
That’s still a focus, at least in part, in Verge’s latest phase. The center’s front, 1,900-square-foot gallery space is home to Axis Gallery, a contemporary-arts collective previously located on 19th Street. Its members’ works will give Verge a local presence, allowing Moe to focus on national and international exhibits.
Axis president Phil Amrhein said he immediately recognized the collaboration as as a “great opportunity” for all involved.
“We’re going to bring a lot of people in for Verge, and vice versa,” Amrhein says.
There are other benefits, too, besides increased visibility. Axis’ participation was crucial to Verge’s transformation. Although the center boasts an impressive board of directors, including Powell and former Sacramento mayor and state Assemblyman Phil Isenberg, when it came time to secure a loan to purchase the building, the banks wanted to see an income stream.
That bit of red tape epitomizes the troubles Verge—and other local arts venues—face on a regular basis.
“There was a lot of frenetic energy [on the arts], but none of it really focused in one direction, and it didn’t provide any tangible resources,” Moe says. “Nothing concrete was happening.”
Financially, that meant that while Verge had its supporters, it was still in desperate need of cash.
Advisers told her to think big: Solicit large corporation donations. Without them, they said, the center would sink.
Donors, however, weren’t initially receptive.
“At that point, we were in this holding pattern: The Crocker had just reopened [after an expansion], which was kind of like a morale boost, … but the one drawback was that people didn’t realize the difference,” Moe says. “The Crocker is awesome, and we have to have it for a healthy arts community, but you also need resources for artists, you need to have emerging work. … A high tide raises all ships.”
And so Moe shifted focus, turning to the community with efforts that included a massive rummage sale and crowdfunding. The new efforts were an immediate success. Verge’s inaugural campaign in October 2012 was driven by social media, with 85 percent of funds raised coming through Facebook.
“We realized this is more of a grassroots effort,” she says.
Now, although Moe expects Verge will be sustainable, at least in part, through memberships, studio rentals and events such as the recent silent auction and dinner that raised more than $80,000, those early efforts continue to reverberate.
“This model ended up working better,” Moe says. “You’re not just focusing on small pockets of people, but instead a community behind you.”‘An amazing time to be in Sacramento’
When it comes to art, the strength of community sometimes barely feels like a match for the process of creating spaces for it.
Moe saw that a few years back when Verge collaborated with an Oakland gallery. There, the city promotes art via its Oakland Art Murmur program, which, in 2012, hosted more than 1,200 artists and 400 exhibitions and reached an estimated 84,000 people, according to organizers. With several monthly art walks, exhibits and food trucks galore, it’s an example of how art can fill a public space.
“It was really eye-opening,” Moe says now. “Verge had just cleared all of its permits, and here we are in Oakland setting up a show in an auto-body shop … with hundreds of people coming through the space.”
Moe asked the gallery curator how he got around the city’s occupancy rules.
Simple, he said. Because the program was based in one of Oakland’s less-established neighborhoods, the city viewed their presence as part of a rehabilitation effort.
“They’re not going to come down with a bunch of restrictions, because this is breathing new life into the community,” he told her.
That’s not always the case in Sacramento. For Verge, Moe spent months drawing up plans and meeting with city officials in order to get the space correctly zoned. Without the rezoning, the center would have faced even more time-consuming—and expensive—fixes.
Anecdotally, tales of what must be the 10th circle of hell reserved for obtaining various permits and city approvals abound—something local artist Melanie Bown learned firsthand when she launched Milk Gallery with a partner in 2011.
The permit process makes for a frustrating maze of applications and intricate city-code checklists, she says.
“It’s very complicated, and we never knew if we had done everything we were supposed to do. There were just a lot of hoops.”
These days, Bown is out of the gallery business—at least in the conventional sense. In addition to curating exhibits at various venues, she also stages pop-up shows.
No permits. No paperwork. Minor expenses. Less headaches.
“I don’t know how many people are actually making it anymore with just the traditional gallery model,” she says.
Candice Adams, an intern at Verge, agrees. Later this month Adams will graduate with an undergraduate art degree from UC Davis, but her next chapter remains unclear. Sacramento artists need more resources, she says. More opportunities to create, exhibit and sell.
“I’m 100 percent for more interactive spaces—spaces that thrive,” says Adams.
For example, she says, in North Carolina, there’s Elsewhere, a “living museum” that’s home to vintage objects, clothing and furniture that artists use to create new pieces and installations.
“That’s what art begs to be,” she says. “There are a lot of things happening in Sacramento, but I’m not sure if they’re the right things. There should be more crossover, more collaboration.”
Willis at SMAC acknowledges artists and venues face frustrating obstacles.
The commission, she says, can offer resources. But more important, she adds, the city’s stance toward and support for art is changing.
“We’re on the verge of something, and we have been for a long time—for five or six years now,” Willis says. “All these elements are starting to fall into place; it’s an amazing time to be in Sacramento.”
Specifically, Willis points to the Warehouse Artist Lofts, 116 low-income living spaces currently under development in the R Street historic district between 11th and 12th streets. The infill project, lead by CFY Development Inc. vice president Ali Youssefi with the Capitol Area Development Authority, will be a mixed-use space with studios and apartments offered at affordable rents for artists of all disciplines.
That’s vital for fostering a community that develops and promotes up-and-coming artists, she says.
“To have artists who live here, work here and stay here—that’s part of a healthy scene,” she says. “You don’t want to educate artists and then have them leave.”
Willis adds that the lofts’ location further creates a sense of identity in a neighborhood already undergoing something of a cultural renaissance. Located just blocks away from Verge, they’re also in close proximity to the Crocker Art Museum, Beatnik Studios, Vox Sacramento gallery, Beers Books and Insight Coffee Roasters.
Moe sees that potential, too. When it was time for Verge to relocate, she and Powell scouted numerous candidates, including spaces on Broadway and Del Paso Boulevard. The former Southside Park space, once home to a furniture store, just felt right.
“This is the first neighborhood I lived in when I moved downtown in 1994,” Moe says. “I just have a sweet spot for it.”
The reasoning wasn’t purely sentimental. Moe wanted to keep Verge on the grid, and Southside Park, unlike other nearby areas, remained affordable.
“Magpie [Cafe] had just opened, and the R Street Corridor was happening,” Moe says. “It’s sleepy and quiet, but we realized there was a ton of potential here.”
Now, Willis says, it’s just a matter of time before the neighborhood explodes with real growth.
“When you start to talk about [hundreds of] artists living in a concentrated area, then this city will see the change artists can make in a place,” she says. “Where the neighborhoods became what they are because of artists who drove the creation of great spaces and galleries and really changed the economy of that place.”A new energy
It’s one week before Verge’s reopening. The building still hums with the din of hammers, the air still smells of fresh paint, but Moe and her crew were here late the night before hanging the Champagne exhibit, and the central gallery now pops with potent, colorful pieces.
Just past the entrance, Delfina Piretti’s “Nonna Sin Eater,” a mixed-media installation, invites visitors to “feed” dried pasta to the artist’s rendering of an Italian grandmother. A few feet away, Dustin Fosnot’s “Tree Houses” makes for a dreamlike forest of trees and birdhouses. Nearby, Brett Amory’s “Waiter #9” oil on canvas looms large, its depiction of a seated corpulent man both capturing and eliciting a sense of weary awkwardness.
Yarrow Slaps, the exhibit’s curator, will be at the June 5 opening reception, as will many of its artists. In addition, the center will hold docent-led tours of its studios.
Verge will also be open for Second Saturday, and throughout the month, the center will teem with workshops, events and—always—a crew of working artists.
Manuel Rios, one of Verge’s studio occupants, welcomes the energy.
Rios, who met Moe as an art undergrad at Sac State before receiving his master’s from UC Davis, says the center reminds him of time spent in grad school.
“You get to be around a bunch of artists, and that’s a good thing—we always have a dialogue, and you can just kind of walk around and poke your head into a studio,” says Rios, whose work currently focuses on mixed-media and installations.
That’s crucial, he says.
“I grew up in a small town, in Hollister [Calif.]. It had nothing—no avenue for me to go down. There are so many things [offered] here—to put that many things in one art center, it’s almost unreal in Sacramento.”
And it’s just the start. Looking ahead, Moe’s working on several exhibits and projects. Later this month, Verge will partner with the Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento, for a summer student art camp; in September, it’ll host the annual Capital Artists Studio Tour on behalf of CCAS, a two-weekend event featuring more than 100 local artists. And in 2015, Moe will show Couch Bleachers, a giant installation in partnership with Nate Page’s Machine Project collective.
In the moment, however, Moe remains pragmatic.
“In the short term, I just want to get this open and survive the first year,” she says.
And her long view?
Work hard, diversify, start conversations, she says. Sacramento is ready.
“It can happen if you build up the infrastructure—it’s not like the people aren’t here, already doing it,” she says. “We’re just still doing it under the radar.”