Studio Sacramento: Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission

Scott Syphax: The
Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission is a public
agency devoted to supporting and advancing the arts
in Sacramento County. The Commission provides
funding to local artists and arts groups through its
outreach and educational activities. Created in 1977, the
Commission celebrates its fortieth year of promoting
and supporting the arts. Former Sacramento
Mayor, Phil Isenberg, and former Chair
of the Commission, Susan Willoughby, join us to
share their perspective on the history and impact
of the Commission next on Studio Sacramento. James Beckwith:
At Five Star Bank, we create thoughtful
solutions to help the capitol region thrive – from
economic development and education to public health
and safety – issues that are vitally important to
Sacramento’s prosperity. We’re proud to be part of
the conversation and hope you’ll join in. ♪♪ Scott: Before we
begin our conversation, let me first
disclose two things. KVIE has been a recipient of
funding from the Commission and while I’m a volunteer
in my role as host, I should
disclose that my wife, Celestine Syphax, is
a volunteer Citizen Commissioner. Susan, what is the
importance of the arts in our community? Susan Willoughby: I
think that if you were to take away every piece of
music and every dance and every painting, you
would find a pretty arid, dry community. I think that
what adds life to, um, our, our world, um,
a personal kind of life, not a technical one, um,
one that hands on experience that people can
actually enjoy, I think this makes us
alive and it makes us vital. Scott: A, and
I’m curious, Phil, when you were mayor
and you decided to take this on as an initiative, why? Phil Isenberg:
I like the arts, um, I like the
visual arts, I like, I like music, I, I like a
wide range of things and Marilyn and I have, uh, have
maintained that for a very long time now.
Um and I like artists, as troubling and difficult
as they can be. I like artists because they
talk to society about things in a different way and
they liven the spirit of a community. So, one of the, one
of the things that, that attracted me was a
chance to do something about art; but, it wasn’t just
starting at one thing. I mean, if you look
back in time Judge, uh, Judge Crocker
was vacuuming up, uh, most of Europe, uh,
on buying trips in lo, late 1800’s
delivering, you know, boxcars full of art to
what’s now the Crocker Museum. The, the, they regional
art institutions at academic places UC
Davis, CSU, the co, the community colleges have
been building up a cadre of artists and talented
students for a very long time and, um,
by the time, uh, Susan and I got involved
in city activities in the 1970s, uh, we had
started with a bunch of miscellaneous things. An artist employment
program was authorized by the federal government. You either hire artists
to mow lawns as Susan says
or you hire artists to do works of art,
much like the WPA during the Great Depression. And so, that program was
existing in the City of Sacramento. Um, nascent relationship
with the city was there but at the point in time where
the new city council came in district elections were held
and we had a more diverse council. Uh, you had somebody
like Burnett Miller, uh, whose family’s
been here since the very, very start of Sacramento
and deeply interested in the arts and
educated in the arts. He was on the City Council. So, all those things
just worked and it’s fun. That’s basically
why I like the arts. It’s fun, it’s
interesting, it’s exciting, you meet people you’d
never meet any other way. Scott: Now, at
the time though, was it common for
communities throughout the country or certainly
throughout California to have formal public bodies
whose whole role was the advocacy and
expansion of arts? Susan: Uh, it
was, it had happened, it was not common place,
um, San Francisco is a good example, Seattle is a great
example and what we tried to do when we thought about it
in Sacramento is go look at those great examples
and see what was working, so we actually had, there
were some other leaders. Um, but, not very many. Um, I mean, I think people
have since that time have looked at Sacramento as
being one of the great leaders. Scott: It’s interesting
to go back to 1977 and you think about some of the
common notions related to Sacramento, a cow town, a
somewhat provincial and the arts, uh, tends to
be associated with, you know, Phil: Controversy Scott: Well, controversy,
urbane sophistication, that sort of thing, tell
us about Sacramento and, and the world in which
you both were creating this commission
at the time. Phil: Well, the city
council in the 1970s had, had, had changed to
district elections. So, all of a sudden, we had
a much more ethnically and socially diverse population
and all us young folks, at least at that time, Scott: (Laughter) Susan: (Laughter) Phil: You know, we
always, every, every new
generation thinks the old generation are old fogies
and should move aside, but a bunch of pe, a bunch
of people got elected and got involved and we just had
kind of a revolution of art. The, the CETA artist program
the Comprehensive Employment and Training program was a
little start and then we began to tinker based on the
Seattle example of art in public places with the
notion that public buildings should have, as a
matter of course, public art and significant
size buildings in a community that are
privately owned, particularly if they receive
city support should also donate a portion
of their work. So, the parking garage
down near the Macy’s store, down near, the now, near
the new arena is kind of a classic example
of public art. All those things
happened, but, of course, government
officials are not used to dealing with the problems of
public art works and all of that. So, we were sitting around
and during the 1975 mayor’s campaign, when
I got elected, Susan had kind of done a
working draft of what arts programs should look
like in Sacramento. One of the ideas was a metropolitan arts
commission. I don’t know if
that’s the name you used. Neither of us
can find the memo. Burnett Miller was deeply
interested in the idea and it just started
to work, mainly, also because smart city
staff and some smart city managers realized they
didn’t want to handle the art related commotion city
staff weren’t trained for it. You’ve got to move
faster in the arts. It’s much more private
sector and entrepreneurial. And so, the notion of
a governmental agency, a commission,
whatever it is, became attractive. And, of course, I sucked
Susan into being an unpaid special assistant to
the mayor for arts, the first ever… Scott: Ah… Phil: And she did it for
six years and all she ever got for it were business
cards which she would hand out; but, she kind of
orchestrated all of this stuff that was going on.
So, Scott: So, you were
a unpaid volunteer working in the office of the Mayor. Susan: Yes. Scott: Okay, hmmm. Susan: And, and there
wasn’t a salary but that business card did allow me
to get in a lot of doors that I might not have been
able to get into otherwise. Um, so, in knowing that if,
if all of this background work were done
that there was will, particularly on the city
council to actually make this happen, made it
actually a pretty rewarding experience. Phil: Mmhm. Scott: And
your efforts, uh, uh, the efforts that you
made as a volunteer were, (cleared throat) were kind
of fundamental for creating the Commission in
the first place? Susan: You
had to bring, yeah, somebody had to
bring people together, had to sit down in a room. Fifteen people were
appointed by the city and county to actually hash
out all the details like how many commissioners
there would be, how often they would meet,
who would be responsible for funding them. So, all that had to happen
before a draft could even go to the council Scott: It’s just ironic
because our last Mayor, Kevin Johnson, was
criticized for having unpaid volunteers working in his
office but obviously that, your efforts and the
high wage you were paid has resulted in a, an
institution that has stood the test of time.
Tell, tell Susan: But you have to
go back to the time that the mayor only had
one secretary, that was the only staff that
she had Scott: The mayor only
had one secretary Susan: No council
member had any staff. So, yes, I was unpaid,
but that was the only way something was
going to get done. Scott: So, when, when you
first took on this initiative Susan: Mmhm. Scott: For Mayor
Isenberg at the time Susan: Mmhm. Scott: What was the
response in the community as you were trying to pull
together the will to put this commission in place? Susan: I think there was
a lot of general support, um, but each of the players
also had a private agenda, you know, so all of that
had to be sort of meshed together where everybody
could feel comfortable about the structure that was being
organized but there was a lot of support. Scott: Hmm and when
you first launched the Commission, I’m
curious as to, was the fight
typically when, when new initiatives like
this are put into place, the fight is not only who’s
going to be on it but where the funding
comes from. How did you, how
did you tackle that? Phil: Well, because
there were supportive members of the city council
and open minded city manager and supportive staff,
supporting and supportive and bemused staff members of
the city who thought it was kind of an
interesting idea, uh, and the city
council support, Burnett Miller’s
support in particular, made it all possible because
he spoke to the business community in a
way I could not, uh, Scott: That’s a,
that’s interesting though, because, you
know, today, um, there, there almost
sometimes is this, sort of bipolar
nature where, um, there’s an
argument among, uh, people who promote
fiscal conservatism, “we shouldn’t be spending
money on things like the arts!” Uh, “we should be spending
it on roads and all, all, all fine things.” But then, at the same time,
if you talk to business leaders, one of the
things that they talk about, about attracting and
retaining employees and creating a
level of commerce, uh, that we all aspire
to, is a thriving arts community, that, that’s a,
a consistent conversation. Was it that way at the time? Susan: Um, I think if
you had people like Burnett, that was fine. Uh, when we worked through
our first requirements that there be art in
public places, um, elements for private
developments that ha, were building in
their redevelopment area, I think initially every one
of those developers thought it was a two percent tax
and really resented it. By the time we were through
the whole process and their building was up and
they saw what we had done, that just vanished, I mean,
they realized this was a really good investment for
them financially as well as aesthetically. Scott: So, from, from
the time when I was much younger, the one arts in
public places project that I remember most was there was
a controversy surrounding something called
The Fox heads. What was that? Susan: Okay, this is,
this is the library galleria project and, um, the… Scott: This is
Doctor Peter McKune… Susan:
Doctor Peter McKune, yes, um, he was involved in
building the office building and that was actually making
possible a renovation of the Main Library. Um, in his office building
he was creating what he thought was a grand
place for Sacramento. And he wanted to do that
in the library building as well, um, but he was, that
was not his private money. And the other people that
were on the official board making decisions said, “we
don’t want all this fun, we want to have a
counterpoint to all this elegance,” which was not
what Peter had in mind so, um, he said,
“okay I’m bowing out, I don’t control this,
so you guys go ahead.” So, there was a little,
you know there’s always when there’s a private-public
partnership there’s maybe always a little bit of
resentment but I want to go back to what Phil
started with, with, um, funding this because he
has left out the fact that the County of Sacramento
was actually involved with funding as well and
Sandra Smalley who was a, a member of the Board of
Supervisors at the time was the real key, um, point for
the entry into the county and she had been supportive
of this all along. I mean, she was the person
who carried it through the Board of Supervisors. Scott: Well, well
sticking on funding for a second. If you both were able to go
back and turn the clock back 40 years and do a reset,
knowing what you know today, is there anything that, that
either of you would have done differently in
setting up the funding, not only for the
commission, but, on a broader level,
the arts in Sacramento? Phil: I guess my answer
would be maybe but the important thing is, a, a
big deal like the Arts Commission today and
all their activities, started really small. I mean, you, you
look at the meetings, minutes of that first
meeting and it was I don’t know, 12 people
got together Susan, the first commissioner, the
mayor’s secretary is taking notes, they all get together
and immediately upon taking the oath, they start
being assigning things. Oh, “”hi, here’s the city
garage where murals are going to be going, you
guys have to handle it.” It’s, you know, was it that
meeting you transferred the CETA artists which
was one of the…? Well, it was a great
program Scott: Please, no, no, come on. Phil: It was
a great program, but when you get a whole
bunch of artists involved who are producing art
works for the public, they are, they
have to be managed. They want to do their art. They don’t want to fill out
forms or report to anyone and they’re certainly not
used to city accounting rules so somebody, Susan,
or the Arts Commission, eventually, has to handle
all the mechanics behind all that. Um, there was a
representative of the, uh, Carter, Holly, Hale
Development Company there talking about the, making
some reference to the pending art in public places
requirement. It’s a, for something that
started with no particular amount of money, a whole
bunch of duties got imposed to, was there one staff
member working for…? Susan: There
was no staff member. So, eleven commissioners are
appointed by the city and the country, right? They meet. There is not a staff
person; they have no staff. They will not have staff for
another four or five months while the city figures out
how to hire a staff person. Um, so actually,
they did pretty, we did pretty well, I think. Um, but um, but there were
these charges and there were these programs that were
almost really in place. So, they had a
lot to work with, um, but they
also became, um, almost full-time
employees, on their own, until staff was
able to be elected. Scott: As you look back,
point out for us some of the works of art that we
all pass by every day, uh, within the county and
city proper that we might not know would not
exist were it not for the establishment of
the Art Commi, Arts Commission. Susan: Ok, so, if you’re
walking down 9th street in front of the Main Library
you have these gorgeous bronze cougars
out there in front. Without a city ordinance,
that wouldn’t have happened. Um, if you walk, if you s,
if you go down Capitol Mall, you get in front
of a building, which is like at
3rd and Capitol, um, there’s a great big
wonderful waterfall Scott: That’s in front of the
Emerald, Emerald Ci Susan: The
Emerald Building Scott: The Emerald
City Building. Susan: Yeah. Scott: Mmhm. Susan: That
was done by, um, an artist who at the time
was chairman of the art department at
Yale University. That kind of thing would
not have been there without, without that
kind of ordinance. Um, I think that
the, the Caesar Chavez, um, if in capital, in city
park in front of City Hall. Those things
wouldn’t have happened. Uh, so, I think
those are sort of, sort of some big pieces that
people probably don’t even think about how did
it they get there. Scott: I think that many
of us take for granted some of the things
that we walk by, we interact
with and we enjoy. Phil: If you
walk down the mall, if you get passed the
construction and in front of the Holiday Inn, you, you
walk through and by the Indo Arch and talk about
controversy that was a oh… Scott: Really?
Tell lus. Susan: (Laughter) Phil: Well, the
Sacramento Union, Sacramento Union was
then the second daily newspaper
in Sacramento and they, they started the crusade
against public art and they didn’t like the Indo Arch
and so it went on for six or nine months
and all of that. But, it got finessed because
it was all as a result of a public process kind
of orchestrated by, by Susan, but
everything done in public to essentially ratify the
notion that you want to have a beautiful city,
not simply a boring, sterile city and, and you
know you’re going in the right direction if there’s
some controversy involved. Scott: It, it’s
interesting to me, um, that you both created
along with the Council, and the County
Board of Supervisors, at the time, this commission
to act as both container and uh, uh,
presenter, you know, uh, uh, supporter of the
arts because at the time, one of the things, when,
when we talk to people who study history in Sacramento,
this was a time of some of the worst
architectural decisions, uh, in Sacramento’s history. And, so, do you find it
interesting at all that you all and the group of folks
you were working with were creating this arts
commission to celebrate a beauty and aesthetics and
its impact on the human spirit at the same time that
we were really creating some fairly boring architecture
or destroying great old architecture
around the community? Susan: One
of the reasons, not only in Sacramento but
in other cities the arts commissions got started
was that after World War II, there were all those
re-development projects that tore out all these great old
buildings and put in other buildings that were
very functional but pretty sterile. This didn’t just
happen in Sacramento, it happened in a
number of places. And so, people began to go
to European cities and say why do these cities that
have plazas that have been around for 5-hundred years,
why do they still work? Well, one of the reasons
they work is because of the mand of hand
there, mand of hand? Scott: Hand of man Susan: (Laughter )
The Hand of Man, sorry Scott: (Laughter)
Phil: (Laughter) Susan: But there is this sense
of, of, of a real phys, of, of special presence… Scott: Mmhm. Susan: …and they thought that
maybe that’s one of the things we should be doing in cities, is
requiring that kind of thing to happen and they knew they
had to require it. You couldn’t just say, “It’s
a great idea.” So, that’s why these present for
our programs began here and everywhere else. Phil: Well, at the same
time, uh, the preservation movement for historic homes
in, in grid Old Sacramento, the Victorians, Scott: The wealth, the grand
old ladies… Phil: Yeah, the uh, the, the,
the old City Association and all of their activities, uh,
led to the adoption of, of regulations attempting to
preserve the most architecturally interesting
and valuable and significant of those buildings. All
that, all that ferment of neighborhoods and community
and taste and art was going on – in colleges, on campuses,
in cities and counties and, and the remarkable thing is
that we have a bipartisan agreement, uh, uh on art. When you talk about Sandy
Smoley who was in and out as Chair of the Board of
Supervisors or Susan Peters and they are, they are
people who had an interest in the arts themselves
but are willing to be open-minded about it. And the other thing is, the
Arts Commission never got much money from anyone. Even in the halcyon days
that the staff all looks back on, I don’t know, did
they ever break five million dollars, I mean for staff? I doubt it, I doubt it. Right now, they’re down to
about three point five or something, I
don’t know, and, and for a city budget, which
must is in the hundreds of millions of dollars,
that is pretty small. The impact of the
Commission is significant. Their relationship with the
artist themselves is almost positive; although, there’s
always an argument if you don’t get, if you don’t get
awarded the Arts Commission, you know, you’re mad at ’em
for a while but because it’s been done
fairly, reasonably, because we’ve had really
stellar staff including Shelly Willis, the director
who just stepped down. Uh, we’ve been able
to do it kind of, I hate to say it this
way, but done on the cheap. I mean, this is not a
big government program; it is a small government
program with a high energy level. Scott: Incidentally, what
were the, uh, concrete statues on K Street Mall
a public arts project? Susan: No. Phil: Oh, now, wait a
minute, Susan, it was a public arts project.
The Down… Susan: Way before
the Arts Commission. Phil: The Downtown
Business Association, these are the business
guys, guys like you. They decided they
wanted to beautify the s, K Street Mall. So, they hired some
architect who designed a scale model of the State
of California with all the mountain elevations varying
and water and all of that kind of stuff which became
the tank traps on the K Street Mall. Um, the, that’s in the
60s as I remember… Scott: Okay, so, I,
I, I can’t hold you both responsible. Susan: No, we’re
not responsible for that. Scott: For that one. Phil: Yeah, you could. Scott: But it,
but it came out, didn’t that come out
at around the time the Commission was
being established? Phil: Um, it came
out when light rail, uh, uh, light rail got to
Sacramento with a bunch of uh, uh, activity
later in the 70s and the 80s and trading and trading in an
old freeway designation near the uh, the… ÷Scott÷ Uh, we talked, you
talked about bipartisan. Phil: Right. Scott: The Arts
Commission actually, uh, and the arts community
also has many layers of partisanship and one that I
wanted you all to comment on is we’ve been talking a lot
in this conversation about what are some of the project
that we all walk passed and sometimes don’t acknowledge
that would not be there if it weren’t for the programs
and the efforts of the Arts Commmission and it
being established in the first place. But one of the, one of the
things that also points to is that visual arts tends
to be permanent in nature, but performing arts also has
a significant role in the Arts Commission’s work. How did that discussion take
place as to where the money goes, because I’m sure
that the visual artist said, “Hey, invest in us,
you’ll have something for eternity.” Um and the
performing artist would say, “yeah, but it’s
inert and dead.” So, you know, how did
you all rationalize that particular conversation? Susan: Well, there’s
actually kind of an easy answer for part of it and
that’s because an art in public places
program funds itself. I mean, there is a
percentage of the, of the money that goes for
any particular project takes care of the staff
for that project. Phil: Not public
money, but project money. Susan: Project money,
so that, so that that kind of
makes it a little easier for grants to go out to, uh,
things other than those being public art projects. Phil: I, I, I can
remember from city council days the other attraction of
letting the Arts Commission handle requests in arts is
the Council is constantly barraged by every group in
Sacramento that wants money and if you can say well,
we’re going to allocate twenty-five
thousand dollars, “Commission, you
decide who should get it.” Scott: Very smart and
we’re going to leave the conversation there
and that’s our show. Thanks to our guests
and thanks to you for watching
Studio Sacramento. I’m Scott Syphax
see you next time, right here, on KVIE. ♪♪ James Beckwith: At
Five Star Bank, we create thoughtful
solutions to help the capitol region thrive – from
economic development and education to public health
and safety – issues that are vitally important to
Sacramento’s prosperity. We’re proud to be part of
the conversation and hope you’ll join in. Scott: All episodes of
Studio Sacramento along with other KVIE programs are
available to watch online at

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