Rhyena Halpern has led the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission through tough economic times. She leaves her post July 20.

Q&A: Rhyena Halpern reflects on tenure as leader of Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission

Published: Monday, Jun. 25, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Jun. 25, 2012 - 11:36 am

As Rhyena Halpern ends her 6 1/2-year tenure as executive director of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission on July 20, she leaves behind an organization that has evolved considerably since 2006. Halpern's new job is Palo Alto's assistant director of community services.

When she took over at SMAC, home prices were rising, stock portfolios were robust and philanthropy stable. Some arts organizations were experiencing their best years on paper. The economy tanked in 2008 and the arts world became a landscape filled with financial crisis and forced change, and reduced city and county funds.

Halpern steered the organization through the turbulent years, as SMAC evolved from a behind-the-scenes arts granting group into a high-visibility entity whose events website, has garnered the second-highest search engine rankings for local arts events, after

Why did you want the SMAC job?

I had sat on quite a few funding panels for PBS and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and I really loved the whole re-granting process. I was interested in getting involved in philanthropy.

And what did you set out to do?

I really thought that SMAC could have better name recognition and be a lot more involved in the community. I believed we could do more if we were more visible.

What was your approach?

I developed a fourth program area at SMAC with arts marketing and outreach. I put a lot of emphasis in convening and partnership to make sure that we're at that table – whether it be the discussion for a new arena or a new performing arts center.

What would you say was your greatest success at SMAC?

Raising the visibility of the arts. When you get the arts at the table with businesses, government and community groups and you partner successfully, you build a stronger community.

What would you say is your biggest regret?

My big goal was to create a new public funding mechanism for the arts. I was working on that and it was building steam and then the economy tanked. We were expanding our staff, we were doing research, lots was happening. And then there was contraction. I feel the nonprofit arts sector gives so much to this community and they're so undercapitalized. I really regret that.

What needs to change for Sacramento to be seen as an arts town?

Sacramento is an arts town, to some degree. I think we have a lot going on here. People no longer say that 'we have to go into the city.' Our site lists 600 to 700 events at any given time, and the Arts Open Daily campaign helped focus that. For Sacramento to be a successful cultural destination, there needs to be a greater commitment to civic and cultural amenities – like our public arts program. If we had discretionary dollars to do community projects as opposed to only public construction projects, we could do wonders.

How important is it for Sacramento to have public art?

Public art develops a sense of place. If you walk a downtown, any downtown, and you don't see parks, trees, sculptures or incredible architecture – that's when you're living in a sterile environment.

What's the most ideal evolution for Sacramento's arts community?

We would have a lot more public funding for the arts through a sales tax of about a tenth of a cent. We would have more cultural clusters and arts districts. It would be nice to have a performing and visual arts center downtown. We're already about 20 years behind on that. We need something that complements that Community Center Theater. Personally, my dream was always to have a facility that had television capability so that we could beam product out for pay per view, because audiences want their entertainment and their art to come to them as opposed to them coming to it.

What is the timeline to replace you?

Barbara Bonebrake is naming an interim transition team. I know there are a lot of executive directors in the country who would be interested in SMAC that may have not been interested in it before. Sacramento is so much more on the map now. I don't think that was true seven years ago. We got cut so much, and we still showed the community that we could provide valuable service and be an important leader in the community. SMAC is not going anywhere. SMAC will continue and will continue reinventing itself.

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