More than murals, Wide Open Walls is a sign Sacramento has finally arrived

Hear why Mayor Darrell Steinberg loves the name 'Wide Open Walls'

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg speaks at a press conference for this year's Wide Open Walls mural festival. The festival, which runs Aug. 10-20, is expected to feature 50 artists creating 40 new murals.
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Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg speaks at a press conference for this year's Wide Open Walls mural festival. The festival, which runs Aug. 10-20, is expected to feature 50 artists creating 40 new murals.

Most days, the tree-lined midtown streets near The Sacramento Bee are quiet and predictable. In other words, boring. But on Friday, as the clock ticked toward noon, four young men piled out of “I Love Teriyaki” and craned their necks to get a look at the humongous bear that Raphael Delgado was painting on a building across the street.

Standing on scaffolding high above Jalapeños, the kind of hearty, but no-frills restaurant that Sacramento was once known for, Delgado wiped his face and stared back.

The young artist is among some 50 local and international artists taking part in Wide Open Walls, a mural festival that got under way last Thursday and runs through Aug. 20. Organized by art auctioneer David Sobon, it’s a sequel to last year’s Sacramento Mural Festival, which led to about a dozen new murals downtown and in midtown.

This year, there will be dozens more. In addition to Delgado’s California bear, a rendition of which is on this year’s official Republic FC scarf, artists have started slathering paint on walls along the R Street corridor and in the midtown Handle District. Other murals have started to take shape along Improv Alley between Seventh and Eighth streets; one will span the entire block.

Also unlike last year, the murals won’t just be in the central city. Artists are working in Oak Park, near Sacramento State, and along Power Inn Road and on Mack Road in south Sacramento.

It might not seem to be much to make a fuss about, just some color on some forgotten walls. But for Sacramento, which has struggled for decades to get out from under its reputation as a stodgy government town with no personality, murals can do a lot to put the capital city on the cultural map.

Since the late 1960s, public and street art have been integral to the revitalization of many California cities. Murals in downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco’s Mission District, for example, are cherished landmarks that attract millions of tourists every year.

What those cities learned, and Sacramento must come to understand, is that it takes years to build a sustainable arts scene. Although there’s clearly lots of talent here and, if the excitement over last winter’s Art Street exhibit is any indication, an appetite for creativity within the broader community, creating a cultural renaissance will take grassroots dedication and a commitment from government to stay out of the way.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg has been a strong proponent of doing that, coming up with a grant program and even banging on a bucket drum to push more buskers to play on Sacramento’s streets.

“There comes a tipping point where you don’t go back, and we’re crossing it when it comes to art and culture here,” he said at a news conference for Wide Open Walls. “We just have to keep going.”

That means finding ways both to incorporate the arts into mainstream civic life and to help underground creative spaces, often run by young artists with no money, meet fire and safety codes so Sacramento won’t be the home of the next Ghost Ship disaster. Councilman Steve Hansen was instrumental in making this happen for the warehouse venue, the Red Museum. Others with the city should follow his lead.

It also means that elite institutions such as the Crocker Art Museum should continue to reach out to local artists, understanding that they are the future of this city.

To Sacramento’s credit, Wide Open Walls came about organically, with community groups volunteering to host bike tours and mixers and panel discussions in hopes of getting the public to not just admire the completed murals, but watch the artists create them live.

Even in a quiet corner of midtown, that seems to be working.

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