Twenty, hindsight

Sacramentans share thoughts on two decades of arts, music, literature, sports and city culture—and how to support artists during the next 20

What once was a bustling Thursday night market on K Street turns into a blighted strip, but then grows into a burgeoning nightclub hub, complete with visions of mermaids dancing in someone’s head. The region’s most popular all-ages music venue disappears, but the resulting fenced-off lot gives way to another hangout. Someone’s favorite restaurant turns into a corporate burrito chain—but a new favorite eatery emerges elsewhere.

These are changes Sacramentans know all too well.

The city’s lettered and numbered Midtown and downtown streets, once belonging to a few that dare go out after sunset, are now a bustling after-hours destination. Locations change. Faces, too. These transformations didn’t happen overnight, of course; Sacramento takes its sweet time, no doubt. But give the city a couple decades, however, and something—everything?—is bound to evolve.

So, after more than 1,000 SN&R issues, Sacramento’s writers, poets, musicians, artists, chefs and familiar faces—many whom have appeared in these pages—celebrate SN&R’s 20 years by looking back on two decades of Sacramento arts, music, poetry, literature, culinary happenings, sports, theater, dance and urban life.

It’s impossible to remember everything or everyone, and if someone says hindsight’s 20/20, they’re a liar. Nevertheless, the following reflections, insight and memories, while not comprehensive, offer not only glimpses of the past, but also clues for the future—what Sacramento might become.

On art

When SN&R asked local artists how the Sacramento arts and culture scene has changed over 20 years, the consensus response was a variation on “for the better, but something’s missing.”

Ianna Frisby, who opened Tangent Gallery in 2007, notes the entrepreneurial spirit of gallery owners—many of whom are women. “I really like what Kim Curry-Evans is doing over at 40 Acres Gallery, Tricia Talle and Dave Dave over at BrickHouse Gallery, Cheri Ibes project ‘Block’ and Allen [Denault] over at [Gallery] Horse Cow,” she explained.

Liv Moe, local artist, Verge Gallery co-director and editor of Midtown Monthly, shares Frisby’s enthusiasm. “I feel like the local art community is a lot more diverse and ambitious than it was 10 years ago, which is great,” she says, attributing this newfound “energy” to Second Saturday.

Ron Cunningham took the reins as artistic director of the Sacramento Ballet the same year SN&R came to town. “It’s hard to encapsulate in a few words, but what’s been most memorable about the arts scene … is that we’ve all grown up together,” he explains, likening Midtown as “reminiscent” of New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Cécile Mouette Downs, co-founder of the Sacramento French Film Festival, cites opening night at the Crest Theatre as a moment that surprised her. “My most memorable artistic moment in Sacramento is the opening night of the first Sacramento French Film Festival in July 2002,” she explains. “We were expecting a small crowd and ended up with a sold-out screening!”

Painter John Stuart Berger, showing this month at Upper Playground on J Street, recalls when there were even less galleries. He remembers one show with Steve Vanoni and Paul Richards on Del Paso Boulevard, where the three artists transformed an old St. Vincent de Paul’s building into a giant music and art expo. “The space was huge, and the three of us managed to fill the whole thing with our art.

“Some of the people who were at that show will occasionally still come up to me and mention that show.”

This is not uncommon and speaks to the cultural fabric of the city’s arts community: Everyone sticks together. There’s a similar fellowship within Sacramento’s theater scene.

Longstanding SN&R theater critic Jeff Hudson has witnessed firsthand the theater scene’s evolution. Hudson’s list of those that made a difference—Tim and Buck Busfield of B Street Theatre; James Wheatley, notable Celebration Arts actor; actress Stephanie Gularte; Gregg Coffin; octogenarian actor Mitch Agruss; actress Janis Stevens; River Stage’s Frank Condon; producer Richard Lewis; Ray Tatar; actress Elisabeth Nunziato—is only a tiny peek at the thousands who’ve made the theater scene buzz over the years.

Life is a stage, too, and those who make the arts scene happen also have passionate ideas on how to improve Sacramento’s culture.

“I am not going to be very original when I say that what local arts organizations need are better funding, both by the city and county and by private businesses and individuals,” Mouette Downs plainly states, noting a wealth of local artists and desire for more arts culture, but not enough “financial means to survive and grow.”

Local artist Skinner echoes her sentiments. He moved to Sacramento more than a dozen years ago, but when he arrived, the arts community was a completely different beast.

“There were venues that were not shut down and harassed, but flourishing. Every day of the week people were out at shows or … just out ready to do shit,” he says of the counterculture vibe. “[It was] almost as if downtown was allowed to be the place where music, art and energy could exist, and I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a P.F. Chang’s or a Mikuni anywhere to be found.”

Skinner laments the disappearance of the punk and youth scenes, something other artists—Moe, Stuart Berger, Aaron Winters—share.

Artist Dan Samborski, who once covered local arts for these pages, perhaps put it best: “Sacramento needs to exploit the huge population of creative artists living here,” he began. “Am I the only one who sees what an untapped gold mine the local arts are?”

On words

When it comes to Sacramento poetry, B.L. Kennedy is a name that comes to mind. In 2006, Kennedy, along with his then-partner Linda Thorell, released I Began to Speak, a documentary film on Sacramento poetry spanning nearly five decades. Kennedy’s seen poetry “go from a highly experimental state of being” to what he calls the watered-down mess it is today.

He’s joking, of course. Well, no, he isn’t.

“Twenty-somethings can rarely accept any writing outside their own sorrowful work,” Kennedy says. Harsh words, yes, but there are exceptions. Kennedy points to poets like Do Gentry, Tessa, Rachel Leibrock, Becca Costello, Robert Grossklaus, Miles Maniaci, Thomas Montoya, Terry Moore, Andy Jones and Lytton Bell for their innovative work; and poets like Dennis Schmitz, Ted Finn, Ann Menebroker, Joyce Odam, Jose Montoya, Ben Hiatt, C.B. Davis, D.R. Wagner, Arthur Butler, Frederick J. Mayer and Steve Vanoni for paving the way.

Kennedy also attributes some of Sacramento’s poetic vibrancy to another longtime host of Jose Montoya’s Poetry Unplugged at Luna’s Café & Juice Bar, Frank Andrick, who in the past 10 years has also seen changes, pointing to a heavily feminist influence with the now-defunct Whet and Her-Story literary magazines.

Andrick also praises Kennedy’s Java City poetry marathons, as well as the diverse spoken-word events, featuring poets like Michelle Tea, Beth Lisick, Tara Jepsen, Neeli Cherkovski, Diane di Prima, Jack Hirschman and many more, held at The Book Collector and Luna’s.

Andrick sees the Poetry Unplugged reading series and the publishing of La Luna, the anthology via Rattlesnake Press, as milestones in Sacramento poetry. Kathy Kieth and Rattlesnake Press is vital “for what they have done by publishing, informing, educating and allowing voice to the totally disenfranchised poetic voices,” Andrick says.

What could be better? Well, the only downside is “all the little silly poetry contests and awards, blue stars, gold stars … and faux academics,” Andrick laughs.

Undoubtedly, it’s the words that last.

On music

“There are way more bands. Some of them are pretty by the numbers, but there are also people trying different things. Way more tattoos, too. Those are all by the numbers.”

Jed Brewer knows the local music scene as well as anyone. His band Thornucopia opened for Nirvana back when Brian McKenna and Jerry Perry—who still book shows—were dominating the scene and programming the Cattle Club on Folsom Boulevard. He’s seen, and probably gigged, most of Davis’ and Sacramento’s venues come and gone.

And he, like punk-rock promoter Ken Fury, is still riding out the tide.

“Midtown has changed a lot. It feels like it’s become less native-friendly,” says Fury, who argues that the things that once made Midtown charming are being moved out.

Brewer concurs. “The city needs to stop being so afraid of anything that’s slightly edgier than a slick bar with cover bands,” he says of the city officials’ discriminating iPod. “Just because there is a live show with a small crowd of young people with embarrassing tattoos standing outside a cafe doesn’t mean that all-out anarchy is about to happen.”

Jazz artist Ross Hammond, however, is hopeful about the future of area jazz music, despite its sketchy local past.

“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were some good venues to play/watch jazz on a regular basis, where the musicians could actually work,” Hammond says. But sometime during the mid-’90s, perhaps after On Broadway closed, the jazz scene all but dried up.

“There were still musicians, but nowhere to play,” he says.

The bright side? “There are more venues to play [now] … and pretty good support from the public,” Hammond says. “I think the jazz scene now is much better than 10 years ago, but we still have a bit of work to do before we turn into 110th Street.”

The diversity of the jazz scene is what Hammond is particularly proud of. “We have some incredible musicians in Sacramento playing all different styles,” Hammond says. “Obviously there’s the holy grail, like the Capital Jazz Project, Steve Homan, Darius Babazadeh, Steve Gundhi, Gerry Pineda, etc. Then there are some pretty happening jazz vocalists: Brady McKay, Shelly Burns, Francesca Homan.

“Tony Passarell, Randy McKean, Adam Jenkins, Tim Metz, Alex Jenkins, Harley White Jr., Kairos [Quartet], Clark Goodloe, Victor Contreras, Joe Berry and the Capital Garage crew, etc.,”—Hammond’s list goes on and on.

A list of rock and hip-hop acts that made a difference would take up this entire section, too. But Christian Kiefer, former SN&R scribe, says that Luna’s, a multipurpose arts hangout, continues to nurture the scene through the years. “[Art Luna is] a big-hearted man for that,” Kiefer says.

Oh, and there’s another guy Kiefer gives props to: Jerry Perry. “Without [Perry], I sometimes wonder if we’d have a music scene at all here,” he says.

But Moe reminds that it’s the youth that makes a scene. “Our music scene has had some fits and starts in the past few years, as a result of a drop in all-ages venues,” she explains. “Although that too has been alleviated in recent years by venues like the Javalounge, Fools [Foundation] and Luigi’s Fun Garden” and house shows.

“I feel like there is a youth culture doing a lot of impressive shit around here lately,” she says, which is encouraging: Kids will write the city’s next soundtrack.

On sports

“I don’t think it’s really changed that much,” says Grant Napear, commentator for the Sacramento Kings, of the local sports culture. He’s a Maloof employee, so it’s no surprise when he argues that the Kings are the only show in town, but he’s right: They’re still Sac’s only professional sports franchise.

Napear joined the Kings 21 years ago, just before SN&R’s first issue. He’s covered sports around the world—Europe, China, Mexico—but says no city is like Sacramento when it comes to appreciating its professional athletes.

“In a small community [like Sacramento] … people feel like they have a bond with the players. … I don’t see loyalty like that in other cities.”

Napear’s favorite Sacramento moment?

“Oh, man. My greatest memory was probably Game 3 [in 1996], when the Kings played Seattle and it was the first home playoff game, not counting the first year when the Kings moved here from Kansas City [Missouri],” he says. The electricity inside the arena overwhelmed him. “I was literally standing on the court getting ready to announce the game and—I’m not kidding you—teared up. I had chills in my body. Without questions, the greatest moment in 21 years of doing the Kings. I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live.”

Say what you want about pro sports and big-money athletics, but when you leave Sacramento, the average out-of-towner knows Sacto only for its Kings.

On food

Of all the major cultural evolutions during SN&R’s 20 years, there’s one advancement that stands out bar none.

“More places to eat late at night.”

A handful of interviewees championed the city’s after-hours culinary development, a sign that Sacramentans are as much devoted to sating their appetites as they are to building them up.

Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers is quick to recognize numerous local chefs and restaurateurs—Randy Paragary, the Fat family, Biba Caggiano, Kurt Spataro, Patrick Mulvaney, Rick Mahan, Mai Pham—who’ve opened excellent restaurants and made a commitment to Sacramento.

According to Pham, the local culinary landscape has changed quite a bit. “Most of it I think is a reflection of what’s going on in our society, in terms of people’s interests, curiosity for new flavors—all these things that are constantly evolving, but more quickly in the last decade than the previous,” Pham explains, noting that the Internet, health concerns and travel has enlightened diners’ palates—which has benefited her restaurant, Lemon Grass.

SN&R food writer Ann Martin Rolke says she’s definitely seen an increase in the number of eateries, especially in “mid-level places,” or affordable but high-quality restaurants. “It seemed heavy on the Biba vs. burrito choices earlier,” she quips.

Stuart Berger agrees, though he laments the loss of mom-and-pop style places, like Greta’s Cafe, where musicians and artists who now can hardly afford Midtown’s rents used to enjoy an inexpensive, healthy meal.

On the future

Everyone’s looking to the city government—and each other—to keep Sacramento arts thriving.

“I’m thrilled that folks are finally catching onto to the concept of walkability and density,” Moe says of Sacramento’s urban development, though she doesn’t hesitate to point out that “strong metropolitan centers have strong, well-supported arts communities,” something Sac lacks.

Artist Aaron Winters is a bit more to the point: “More art collectors, less ‘free wine’ drinkers. More all-ages venues, less valet parking.”

Most artists agree that the city has to fund the arts. “We have as much good stuff to offer as other larger cities—our art, our music,” Skinner reminds. “We have it, and it would be nice if we could all really take care of it and foster it.”

Tangent’s Frisby says the city needs to help out up-and-coming art entrepreneurs. “It’s next to impossible for people/artists to start out with new and fresh ideas,” she says, citing Gallery Horse Cow and Fools Foundation as big-impact art sanctuaries that could thrive with the city’s support.

But City Hall’s idea of what makes Sacramento relevant has never been really been in line with local artists. As Samborski puts it: “I could never understand how having a pro sports team makes us a world-class city?! Who goes to Paris to watch sports?”

Then again, an artist finds inspiration in the unexpected places. Consider Skinner’s most memorable Sacramento moment: “When Doug Christie punched Rick Fox in the grill.”

Eye of the beholder, indeed.

Josh Fernandez, Jeff Hudson, Nick Miller and Kel Munger contributed to this story.