Arts & Theater

Sacramento at a tipping point for arts, culture

Jody Ulich, Sacramento’s new director of convention and cultural services, says she likes to wear jewelry by local artists. Here she’s outside the Sacramento Convention Center, which is one of the complexes she oversees.
Jody Ulich, Sacramento’s new director of convention and cultural services, says she likes to wear jewelry by local artists. Here she’s outside the Sacramento Convention Center, which is one of the complexes she oversees. rbyer@sacbee.com

Jody Ulich’s new office at 1030 15th St. sits at just about the center of her domain. As director of convention and cultural services for Sacramento, Ulich oversees the Old Sacramento Historic District, the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento Convention Center Complex (Sacramento Community Center Theater, Convention Center and Memorial Auditorium) and the Sacramento Zoo.

It’s a diverse and significant compilation of Sacramento institutions and amenities, but that’s not the half of it. Also under her purview are the Center for Sacramento History, Discovery Science Center, Sacramento History Museum, Historic City Cemetery, Fairytale Town and the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.

That’s 245 staffers and a yearly budget of $18 million the energetic, forthright Ulich manages as she navigates her way through the tree-lined maze of Sacramento arts and culture and the politics of finding support for them.

From her relatively fresh vantage point (she started the job Sept. 2), Ulich sees Sacramento as a city on the move, but one still perhaps needing a little shove.

“There’s a lot of great things that are getting ready to happen here, and that’s one of the things that drew me,” Ulich said during a recent interview at her midtown office. That day, the quiet, underpopulated Convention and Cultural Services space was itself in transition as Ulich was bringing in the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission staff to work there from what has always seemed like a distant orbit on Del Paso Boulevard.

“From the outside looking in, Sacramento in my opinion is getting ready to hit the tipping point,” Ulich said.

That outsider sense of Sacramento on verge of something – and the desire to be a part of it – was what brought Ulich here from Fort Worth, Texas. There she had been president of the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, a position she had held since 2007. Before that, she spent 10 years as the cultural services director for Tempe, Ariz.

In Fort Worth, Ulich helped the Arts Council grant funds to more than 40 arts groups, allowing them to serve approximately 2.7 million people per year. She also successfully fought city budget cuts in arts grants funding made through the arts council, which led to a shift in city funding sources for those grants.

She met her husband, theater consultant Chip Ulich, when both were attending Oklahoma City University. They married in 1986 and have two daughters: Heather, who lives in San Francisco; and Jennifer, who lives in Fort Worth.

The job Ulich inherits will not be quite the same one her predecessor Barbara Bonebrake retired from after more than 40 years. Ulich’s strengths and experience indicate a redefining of the job’s duties, emphasizing programming along with the administrating. There are assets such as the Crocker, the zoo and Fairytale Town that have their own leadership and programming staffs, and there are buildings requiring management, such as the Convention Center, Memorial Auditorium and the aging elephant in the room, the Community Center Theater.

Consensus is that something needs to be done with the 2,500-seat facility on L Street across from the state Capitol. There are a couple multimillion-dollar rehab options being considered; then there’s the bolder vision that the considerable money required should be put toward a new state-of-the-art facility. The question is where would the money come from and, to a lesser degree, where exactly would a new building be built.

A City Council task force made a preliminary report to the council last month on the feasibility of a new performing arts center. Another update with more details is planned for February and a final presentation in April.

“My background is in arts, culture, planning, doing new programs, creating new programs,” Ulich said. “I think bringing me here is a shift away from mostly (running the) convention center and a lot of other stuff, to really doing something.”

Ulich said her early sense is many people feel the city’s assets are under-utilized. Ulich suggested she’d like to see more programming at places such as Memorial Auditorium and its smaller Runyon Theater.

City Manager John Shirey, who hired Ulich for the $160,000-a-year position, said her varied experience set her apart from other candidates and complemented how he wanted to refocus her position.

“She had worked in settings where she worked, in effect, in local government,” Shirey said. “But also she had worked in nonprofit organizations, and all of these were arts-related, so I felt like she could operate in our world where it’s an organization that is obviously part of city government, but we also oversee nonprofit organizations and work with nonprofit organizations.”

Shirey has recently trimmed elements from the job, such as overseeing the Sacramento Marina, he didn’t think were “particularly relevant to the core functions of the department.”

“We have in one place these various activities related to convention and cultural services, and mostly Jody’s going to be focused on how we look down the road at positioning ourselves better in these various areas,” Shirey said.

Ulich said her job over the next few months will be finding out what really goes on here. And while she’s an outsider now, it won’t stay that way for long.

“What I’m trying to do is meet people and listen. Just listen,” she said. “I think it would be irresponsible to tell you what I think we need to do. I don’t know. The worst thing anyone from the outside can do is to say, ‘We’re gonna’ fix you.’ Sacramento’s not broken.”

Yet with the idea that Sacramento is at a tipping point comes the notion of what exactly pushes it over. For Ulich, it starts with a certain outlook. “In order to tip, you kind of need to say ‘We’re not going to settle anymore,’” Ulich said. “The question is, can you put a new vision in there? Are we ready to take a little bit of risk, and is putting me into the mix going to help us do a little bit of entrepreneurial thinking or strategic risk-taking?”

The energy and confidence Ulich exudes have the people she’ll be working with looking forward to the engagement.

“I think she seems to have already a pretty good grasp on Sacramento and is anxious to make a real difference in the cultural scene here,” Crocker Museum Executive Director Lial Jones said.

Richard Lewis, executive director of California Musical Theatre, agrees. “She’s got the right mindset and a fresh perspective,” he said. “She’s got a good, strong personality, and if she reaches a point where she thinks ‘This ought to happen,’ then I hope I’m in agreement.”

Lewis will certainly be a stakeholder in the Community Center Theater conversation, as it’s his organization’s home theater. And from the frequency the topic now gets raised by civic leaders, what happens with the theater likely will be a defining moment for the city.

Ulich isn’t shying away from it, and has made herself available to consult with the task force researching the issues.

“It’s time to say we want the best, because we are a world-class city, and I think one of those things is an amazing visual and performing arts center,” Ulich said. “If I’m going to put my eggs in a basket, I’m going to say we don’t want to fix up something we settled for.”

Ulich realizes the fortitude and finesse she’ll need when working with what Shirey calls a “multitude of interests,” but her outlook seems wholly unguarded.

“I have not heard from anyone anything but incredible optimism for the future – they really feel like this is Sacramento’s time,” she said. “Everybody feels that way.”

Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.

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