Go inside the Beacon public art project in Sacramento
Tre Borden has teamed up with muralists Sofia Lacin and Hennessy Christophel to animate humdrum spaces such as the underbelly of a concrete-gray freeway that forms the ceiling for a thriving Sacramento farmers market.
He’s contracted with developer Ali Youssefi to find artists who scooped up bushels of midtown soul and rhythm, then carefully distilled that spirit into artwork that enlivens the Warehouse Artist Lofts.
Right now, he’s partnering with Cranbrook-educated filmmaker Jessa Ciel and developer Nikky Mohanna on a larger-than-life video commentary called Beacon that is spotlighting social issues on the panes of a downtown building at 10th and K streets.
Borden, 32, sees vast potential for such projects in the city where he grew up, though he never really expected to return here after receiving a degree in East Asian studies from Yale University in 2006. The prestigious Frank H. Buck scholarship paid for his entire education.
Borden talked with The Bee about the work his company, Tre Borden / Co., is doing and how he ended up in the business of place-making.
Q: What kind of work does your company do?
A: Place-making is about getting people excited about where they live and who they are in the space. But it’s also about how we get traditional companies and organizations and city agencies to own the transition of a space that is not working.
When you say, “We own this space,” it truly means the “we.” It doesn’t mean I’m the owner and I own this space, I own this neighborhood and I own this project. Sure, your name might be on the deed or your name might be on the property signage, but if it’s going to be successful, everyone who inhabits that space is going to have to feel like they own it, and in order for that to happen, you have to open the gates a little bit to get input.
Q: I use the new pedestrian bridge that connects Curtis Park with Sacramento City College, but I was dismayed recently to see graffiti on it. What do you think would prevent that?
A: Having something that has a use is great, but when you see graffiti, it signals to everyone what the asset means to the community. Vandalism means there’s not a lot of ownership.
I would ask, “Who uses it? What do they care about?” If it’s about bridging communities, how could you establish that visually or with programming? How can you get people on there – not just because they want to get from Point A to Point B – but because they want to enjoy this asset?
Take, for example, Bright Underbelly, the mural created by Sofia and Hennessey, under the W-X freeway at Eighth Street. That idea came from a trip we took to Buenos Aires when I was at University of California, Davis, and we saw a pedestrian bridge that connected a park to a law school.
It was beautifully muraled. It was a gateway into an arts-driven district with a lot of students. I said, “Wow, way to turn something perfunctory and utilitarian into a real asset that shows where we are and why people here value where they are.”
That was the whole idea for Bright Underbelly. There are so many spaces here in Sacramento that are serving a purpose, but they’re not telling people anything about the community or getting them excited. We picked the farmers market site because it was already a gathering place for so many people in our community.
With the pedestrian bridge, you talked about the view of downtown, so how can we emphasize that? Maybe you actually paint the bridge. Maybe you have benches along it, so people can sit and watch the sunset.
There should be something that makes people cherish that space. Then they’ll take care of it. You don’t have to station a policeman there. If the people using it feel like it’s valuable, they won’t vandalize it. With Bright Underbelly, people send me music videos that they’ve shot there and photos of fashion shoots there.
Q: Can we afford not to do place-making projects?
A: It’s a missed opportunity. That’s one of the reasons we focus on underutilized spaces. If a space is already here, how can we do more without spending a ton of money? How can we get it to be better utilized?
Realizing potential drives a lot of the projects that I want to do. The Beacon project is an example. How can we call attention to the potential of this vacant property and engage people who use the K Street corridor? What if we tried to help people understand the moment in time that our community is in, that our country is in, and put something in there that is really engaging and has a byproduct of making people more aware of a property that’s open for tenants?
Q: How did this become what you wanted to do?
A: I’ve had to navigate a bunch of spaces where I didn’t have the edge. At Yale University, I was a black, gay kid from Sacramento. Somehow, I managed to end up being class president my senior year.
It wasn’t because I was the smartest person or the most handsome or anything like that. It happened because you have to learn to take your ego out of it and listen to someone and come up with a solution that you both feel good about, that makes you both feel like you won. That’s been what I’ve been really good at.
When I came back to Sacramento, I did not know I wanted to do this work. I moved back here about a week before Obama was elected the first time – and Kevin Johnson was elected mayor. When I would peek my head out, I was like, “Hmm, more things are going on here than I remembered.”
I ended up meeting with the former dean of the business school at the University of California, Davis, and I got into their master’s program. At the same time, I ended up working for Mayor Johnson, who had this skeletal staff. I got access to a very high level of what was going on in the city.
After graduating from Davis, I took a job at SMUD, but it wasn’t a good fit and I left. Danny Scheible was a childhood friend, and he was doing this really cool art form that he calls Tapigami (pronounced Tape-uh-gah-me), but it was really difficult for him to get the traction, visibility and clients to become sustainable.
I had been bugging him about finding a manager or a gallery or something, and he was like, “Well, you ain’t got a job. Why don’t you try it?” I said, “All right.”
We set up our first display around Christmas 2011 at Sierra 2 for their holiday craft fair. Here’s me with my MBA from Davis and my Yale degree, and I’m like, “Wanna buy some tape earrings?” But I could translate what Danny was doing and explain its value. I said, “I’m going to do this for a year and see where we can take it.”
As a result of that, Michelle Alexander, who was then the head of the Arts & Business Council, hired me. She was like, “We want to do one of these cool incubators, and we see what you’ve been doing with Danny. Can you do that on a larger scale?”
We produced Flywheel, and that’s when I met Sofia and Hennessy and Eben (E.B.) Burgoon and reconnected with Connor Mickiewicz. That gave me the exposure to the whole creative scene. I had authority and a reason to be in the room. The artists are the ones who are thinking deeply about what this community means to them and are infiltrating spots that a lot of people don’t see.
Q: Your passion for this is extreme, and you seem to be channeling your mother, civic leader Carol Borden who died in April.
A: What’s helping me through this terrible personal time is that I’m the evolution of what she was. She would say, “This isn’t going to get done if I don’t do it, so I’m just going to do all of it.” She had a lot of great ideas, and she had an unparalleled work ethic. You knew if Carol was on it, you didn’t have to worry. But she ended up doing everything.
She also did it on a volunteer basis. I got to see how much that wears on a person, when you take that much on yourself, and there was no compensation. People who contribute to a community actually are performing a highly productive, economically productive service.
Why should they create value and not capture any of it? Artists get exploited like this all the time. All creatives do. You have better ideas if people are actually compensated for their contributions. You get better contributions.
It’s short-sighted when people say, “Oh, let’s see who we can get for cheap.” You want the best person doing this, and the best person is the professional and the professional costs money. You’re investing in this not to do us a favor but to benefit your project. Everyone stands to win in that ecosystem.
This interview was edited for content, clarity and space.