Randy Pench / rpench@sacbee.com

The red rabbit called “Leap” at Sacramento International Airport may be succeeded by art at the planned downtown arena as the city’s most visible public artwork.

Editorial: Arts commission has crucial tasks on its palette

Published: Thursday, Jul. 24, 2014 - 12:02 am

The Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission doesn’t get much public attention, quietly funding groups large and small and promoting arts in schools. But it’s about to take a much higher profile.

Next week, it will start the process for choosing public art for the new downtown arena – probably its most visible artwork ever. It’s a big challenge to pick art that wins national notice – that is even provocative – but isn’t an object of controversy, or even ridicule.

At the same time, the commission is launching the region’s first long-range cultural plan, which will take on such hot-button issues as whether to build a new performing arts center and whether to seek a new revenue source. It’s about time that Sacramento joins Denver, Portland and others in having such a blueprint, but a bad plan could be worse than none at all.

There’s no shortage of information on regional arts, say the joint city-county commission’s Chairwoman Cheryl Holben and Executive Director Shelly Willis. What’s missing, they told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board, is a vision shared by arts, business and political leaders – and a plan of action.

During the next 18 months, a steering committee will survey the Sacramento arts landscape and hold public hearings. While it will look at a wide range of issues, including arts education and diversity, there are two urgent ones.

One is the state of arts facilities, Sacramento’s Community Center Theater among them. City Hall is having architects draw up construction plans for $11 million in legally required fixes on disabled access, plus an option to spend an additional $25.5 million on limited renovations so the 40-year-old building can be used for another decade. But the City Council also created a task force to examine the possibility of building a new arts center. Since that task force is to report back late this year, the timing of the cultural plan may not quite work.

Another is the state of arts funding. Like many other nonprofits, arts groups struggled during the Great Recession; the Sacramento Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra merged last summer, but are still having a tough time making ends meet. Lately, arts organizations have benefited from an uptick in local philanthropy – especially the online days of giving in May this year and in April 2013 – but leaders are looking at the total level of funding and potential new sources.

Earlier this year, some arts leaders were part of a coalition pushing a countywide sales tax increase to fund civic amenities. After controversy over the inclusion of a possible new soccer stadium, the coalition decided last month to pull back; it’s unclear when they will try again, possibly in 2016.

The timeline on the arena public art is more definite; it is to be in place when the arena opens in October 2016.

A nine-member selection panel is to hold its first meeting Monday. It has plenty of money to work with – a budget of $5.5 million, or 2 percent of the construction cost.

While the City Council has traditionally not weighed in on art design, it would not be a surprise if it did this time, given the arena’s importance – just as the county Board of Supervisors did in a 3-2 vote in 2008 endorsing the red rabbit at Sacramento International Airport, the most controversial public art in years.

Holben said there are no constraints on the arena art – how many pieces there are, whether local artists are involved, or whether the art is tied to the arena (though the selection panel includes the arena’s lead architect). Willis said she wants artwork that “puts Sacramento on the map.”

It’s the commission’s job to make sure it’s in a good way.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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