The phantom of the arts

Genie McChane, curator of the roving Phantom Galleries, builds an arts scene one night at a time

Photo Illustration by Don Button and Jill Wagner

Vacant properties and empty storefronts typically are seen as an indication of economic stagnation and a form of blight—exposing a need for community revitalization efforts. Seldom are they regarded as an opportunity to promote cutting-edge arts and culture. But, for Phantom Galleries’ program coordinator Genie McChane and the North Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, the vacant storefronts along Del Paso Boulevard are being embraced as an opportunity for community revitalization by arts and culture.

The Phantom Galleries appear once a month as a roving arts attraction on the Second Saturday route. Always at a different venue along the boulevard, the one-night art exhibits are intended to provide a low-overhead venue and a conceptual vehicle to showcase Sacramento artists. They also bring creative juice into an area that calls itself the “Uptown” district but that historically has been pigeonholed as a struggling community.

It has been more than a decade since the Del Paso corridor was reconceived as an arts-and-culture district by the North Sacramento Chamber of Commerce’s then-president, Bob Slobe. The Phantom Galleries, modeled on a similar program in Tucson, Ariz., have been part of this art-centered revitalization effort since the beginning. McChane spoke with nostalgia about the early period for the North Sacramento arts scene. “[It was] very much a street-carnival atmosphere, with live music and performance, visual arts, food and drink—and not just on Second Saturdays,” she said.

But while Tucson’s Phantom Galleries program has been credited with revitalizing that city’s Main Street within two years of its inception, it’s been much slower going on Del Paso Boulevard. Amid the vacuum of downtown gentrification and the ebb and flow of a punch-drunk economy that continues to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots, efforts to jump-start an arts district in North Sacramento have generated only shaky momentum. The old stigma of public-safety hazards and the seedy reputation preceding the “Uptown district” label continue to haunt the area. It’s tough to compete with a densely populated downtown, bristling with trendy new restaurants and vibrant nightlife. Although Del Paso is a relatively short trip across the river from downtown Sacramento, this may not offer the kind of close proximity required to sustain a sidewalk arts culture.

McChane already has managed to draw some fresh attention since coming on board with the North Sacramento Chamber of Commerce in August 2004. She has organized shows monthly since October. Phantom Galleries collaborated with the California State University, Sacramento, Chicana Arts Collective in November. In December, McChane scheduled a doubleheader. The Creative Couples show included work by couples in which each member was an artist with a different medium—painters dating vocalists, models dating photographers, and so on. At the same time, Phantom Galleries featured a group exhibit showcasing the work of CSUS graduate students, hosted by the Casa Bella Galleria. “December’s two shows were packed,” McChane said with a big smile.

Indeed, things are beginning to vibrate anew on Del Paso Boulevard, despite the recent loss of the MatrixArts gallery and the Center for Contemporary Art. Steve Vanoni’s Gallery Horse Cow remains an anchor for the kind of raucous happenings that are essential for any hip arts district. Surreal Estates, an artist’s cooperative housing development, broke ground in November. After years of planning, construction finally will move forward this winter.

In addition, the Brazilian Arts Center recently relocated to the Uptown district from its original downtown location just north of Broadway near 16th Street. The center hosted December’s Creative Couples exhibit, which included musical performances and exciting demonstrations of capoeira, a traditional Brazilian art form that combines drumming and dance with martial arts. The Phantom Galleries show that evening served as a kind of early grand-opening event for the center. “Capoeira, drumming and dancing … there is so much potential up here,” said McChane, as she expressed her intention to help recapture some of that early street-carnival magic.

“I’m really passionate about this neighborhood,” McChane added. She came to her job with the gallery from a career in social work, which she feels gives her “the ability to relate to the challenges faced by low-income communities and an appreciation for their rich cultural fabric.

“It’s all social work,” McChane continued. “It’s about strengthening culture and generating new opportunities for people to excel. It’s also about preserving the diversity and grassroots elements of a community.”

McChane seems to have paid her dues tending the grassroots, with her previous experience as the director of the Sacramento Area Emergency Housing Center (a homeless shelter in Oak Park) and in operating after-school programs for children in Sacramento’s Hmong and Russian communities. In addition to making the Phantom Galleries happen, McChane currently works part time at the Del Paso Heights public library. All of this experience has helped McChane develop a good idea of what it takes to help restore a struggling neighborhood to health.

These days, McChane is coupling her insight into community development with her personal connections to the arts—combining live music with the visual arts and bringing her own dynamic energy and vision to the Phantom Galleries. There are multiple facets to her artistic connections: McChane is a self-taught visual artist, working mainly in mixed media and collage. (Her work can be viewed online at She also is married to singer-songwriter Scott McChane. A longtime fixture in the Sacramento music scene, Scott was a member of the Mac Swanky Trio and was the host of Mood Swings, a weekly series of round-robin songwriting showcases at Luna’s Café. The McChanes were one of the “creative couples” in December’s art show. “It was a blast for both of us,” Genie McChane confessed, “despite the frenzied challenge of pulling off two shows, while participating in one of them, and celebrating my birthday on the same night.”

One ongoing challenge for McChane and the North Sacramento Chamber of Commerce is convincing more local property owners that hosting the Phantom Galleries could benefit them. Despite the Phantom Galleries’ long run in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood, some skeptics remain. According to a puzzled but positive McChane, “It is turning out to be a hard sell with some of these spaces that would make great venues for a Phantom Gallery.”

McChane’s pitch to venue owners rolls off her tongue with a ring of logic she hopes will excite property managers. “Hey, let’s take your storefront property that has been vacant for several months and pack it to the gills with foot traffic by opening it to the public for an evening of exciting arts and culture!”

The original idea was for Phantom Galleries to inhabit vacant storefronts, but this concept has morphed into Phantom being hosted by existing establishments. Some business owners, like longtime supporters Rhoda Santamaria and Shane Curry of Casa Bella Galleria, have recognized that generating the visual buzz of an art exhibit and attracting evening patrons presents a low-cost form of exposure. It’s a way of creating a “destination” that could result in new interest from the local neighborhood and surrounding communities, as well as potential entrepreneurs and small-business owners.

“There is so much of this that is about relationship building … getting to know people and establishing my own credibility,” McChane said. “I started working on Phantom Galleries in August, and I have some high hopes, again, just because I think this is such a great neighborhood.”

McChane pointed to her calendar of shows, which was mapped out with compelling themes for the next several months’ exhibitions. Next month’s show is scheduled for February 12 at Sol Ceramica, located at 1001 Del Paso Boulevard. It’s a multimedia art show featuring music, visual art and poetry with a graffiti theme. April brings the Recycle-Art Kids Show, followed by the Family Art Show in May. The Serna College Show happens in June, and there’s the Found Object Show in August. “I only have committed venues for a few of them,” McChane admitted, before optimistically adding, “but it’s really early!”

To keep up with Phantom Galleries’ upcoming haunts, visit