With rain pouring down on his blue suede shoes, Mayor Darrell Steinberg on Sunday stepped inside a cavernous warehouse on lower Broadway hoping it contained the answer to an image question that has plagued Sacramento for decades: Will this city ever be cool?
The building is the site of Art Street, a sequel to the unexpectedly popular and experimental Art Hotel that last year drew more than 13,000 visitors and turned away thousands more, according to organizers.
The 10-day show took over the condemned Jade Apartments near Golden 1 Center two months before its demolition. Art Hotel used the Jade’s rooms, hallways and public spaces for a collaboration of more than 130 visual and performing artists that was edgy by local standards.
Art Street will expand the concept when it opens on Feb. 3, relying on a $25,000 pledge from the city for about 20 percent of its budget, according to organizers.
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That money would be the first piece of a Steinberg economic development plan aimed at sparking an economy of cool. The new mayor will ask the City Council on Tuesday to dedicate $500,000 to experimental food, technology and arts projects in Sacramento. He said growing underground and street art could be an “intangible” boost to the local scene and support larger plans to increase the city’s attractiveness for business and tourism.
“We have to be willing to take risks,” Steinberg said. “I know this more as a politician than a patron of the arts, but there is a value, a social and economic value, to the arts that is real.”
Steinberg plans to use money from former Mayor Kevin Johnson’s innovation fund that last year gave $1 million in seed money to local technology entrepreneurs. But rather than aiming money at job-seeking millennials and the startups they want to work for, the goal is to create the underlying cultural draws, often gritty and under the radar, that have turned other cities of similar size like Oakland, Nashville and Austin into hip places.
“I think they’ve realized from Art Hotel how impactful a project like this can be,” said organizer Clay Nutting, who also planned the TBD music festival and co-founded LowBrau restaurant. Nutting said cool exists in the “nooks and crannies” of Sacramento, but “it’s an interesting thing for someone in a civic position to say ... ‘let’s experiment with this money.’ ”
Steinberg also wants the city to make it more convenient for project organizers to obtain permits and inspections – as it has done with the Art Street site, which will serve alcohol and may draw up to a thousand visitors a day. That includes the possibility of time windows dedicated for students to visit on field trips, organizer Shaun Burner said.
“Even that line of communication being open makes all the difference sometimes. The Fire Department, the Police Department, they’ve all been here, and sometimes having an advocate in City Hall saying, ‘We believe this is important’ makes all the difference,” Nutting said.
Underneath the curved wood ceiling of the former door factory at 300 First Ave., Steinberg took a first look Sunday of what the city’s contribution will buy on Art Street. Stepping past air compressors, power saws and cathode-ray televisions, he meandered through a construction zone that within three weeks will become a maze of walkways with “shops” containing art installations from more than 100 artists.
The site will also contain two bars, including one designed with a ’40s motif, as well as music performances, a collaborative kitchen from some of the area’s top chefs and an outdoor exhibit space that doubles as the entrance.
The art theme will draw from 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire and 20th-century German cultural critic Walter Benjamin: The explorations of a flaneur, a cultural dandy with time on his hands and a penchant for noticing the exceptional in the everyday, according to organizer Seumas Coutts. Visitors are meant to linger and lounge and “slow down,” he said.
Looking slightly confused by Coutts’ concept and describing himself as more into sports than fringe arts, Steinberg said he believes the project and others like it need to be a part of economic planning. He hopes the $500,000 the council will consider leads to greater support for the arts that could include increased funding from hotel taxes and an arts education component for schools.
Burner, who has worked 16-hour days for three weeks on Art Street, said that he would do the project with or without city support and points out that “every city, there is somebody trying to do something like this.”
But in Sacramento, it’s “unique,” and having city support helps.
“It’s a beautiful thing. What more could I ask for?” he said. “It’s nice to know that folks in different walks of life are seeing what we are doing and are willing to support it.”