Late last month, as Greta Gerwig’s critically acclaimed film “Lady Bird” premiered in Sacramento, Mayor Darrell Steinberg landed in an awkward conversation about the arts with the father of Gerwig’s childhood best friend.
Tim Mickiewicz had been proudly discussing how Sacramento’s community theaters had influenced his son, Connor, and Gerwig. Both had been theater kids in school and both had gone to college in New York, where both went into acting.
Gerwig stayed on the East Coast and went into filmmaking; Connor Mickiewicz returned to the West Coast and, in 2009, founded the New Helvetia Theatre on R Street. It earned great reviews, but lived and, in 2015, died on a shoestring budget.
Is stodgy Sacramento sufficiently supportive of the arts, both for upstart artists and for established institutions? And just what does “support” ideally mean?
Just then Steinberg walked up, chatting excitedly about his plans to help the city’s arts scene.
“Where was the support for the arts when my son’s theater needed it?” Mickiewicz demanded only-half-jokingly. “He could have used a little help and he got zero, zip, zilch. Nothing. If it hadn’t been for the small theaters here, Greta wouldn’t be in the movies.”
Caught off-guard, the mayor mentioned an initiative or two, and then gave a serious answer. “What you’re telling me is that there are a lot of Gretas in our community and we’ll never know unless we support them?”
“That’s right,” said the father.
“Well, money isn’t everything,” Steinberg said, “but it’s our job –”
“Money,” the father gently interrupted, “is everything. Everything.”
“– it’s our job,” Steinberg continued, “to make sure there’s a sustained source of funding. And you can hold me to that.”
One can forgive the aspiring artists of Sacramento, and their loved ones, for some skepticism. For years, such promises have been made, and they’ve not come to much.
Meanwhile, the most pertinent questions have remained: Is stodgy Sacramento sufficiently supportive of the arts, both for its upstart artists and for established institutions? And just what does “support” ideally mean?
If Tim Mickiewicz is right and money ultimately is the measure, the answer is no. The Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission’s budget was slashed during the recession and the City Council has yet to restore it. And the city’s ability to attract the attention of sports leagues hasn’t translated into a similar draw for foundations that overlook the capital city as a place worthy of big grants.
But it’s not as if Sacramento does nothing for the arts, either. In fact, some kinds of support have improved in the nearly two decades since Gerwig graduated from St. Francis High School, and even in the two years since Connor Mickiewicz lost the lease for New Helvetia.
Following Steinberg’s lead, the City Council recently voted to infuse SMAC’s budget with $500,000 over the next two years. Part of that money will go toward arts education in local schools, critical for creating the next generation of creative leaders.
Council members also set aside $500,000 for the Creative Economy Pilot Project, a new program designed to seed work by small, relatively unknown arts groups. In the first round, 57 applicants got grants ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, which they’ll use to host comic book workshops, haiku lessons, pop-up digital art installations and even street cabarets.
The goal, city officials say, is to help make Sacramento more of an arts hub, a point underscored not long ago by the mayor, who banged publicly on a bucket drum, stumping for more street performers. The gritty Art Hotel and Art Street exhibits have helped demonstrate the city’s creative potential, as have the excellent Wide Open Walls mural festivals. (We won’t discuss the hodgepodge of spray-painted projects decorating The Sacramento Bee’s parking garage lately.)
Meanwhile, work on the Sacramento Community Theater is set to begin in earnest in 2019. The L Street venue, home to the ballet, philharmonic and opera, got the green light for $83 million in upgrades after almost two decades of talks.
The B Street Theatre also finally secured a new digs. The Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts is rising at 27th and Capitol, using a $3 million forgivable loan from the city, multi-million-dollar gifts from Sutter and the Tsakopoulos family and hundreds of donations from B Street regulars.
And in yet another sign of how things have changed, when the small, African-American community theater Celebration Arts recently lost its lease in East Sacramento, Director James Wheatley assumed the city would never help. On his own, he got the California Automotive Museum to host a fundraising gala. But when council members Rick Jennings and Steve Hansen got wind of the theater’s troubles, they vowed to try to help Wheatley land a Creative Economy grant. The plan is for Celebration Arts to move into B Street’s old home in midtown.
“This is the beginning, not the end,” Steinberg told a member of The Bee’s editorial board. “Our commitment needs to be greater and long term, and it will be.”
We will hold him to that. Despite all of the recent good energy in Sacramento, the needs of the arts community are great and growing, particularly as relative housing costs have drawn a wave of Bay Area creative types.
To address this, the city has been holding public meetings to draft a citywide Arts, Culture and Creative Economy Plan to nail down priorities for investment. High on the list seems to be a need for smaller venues – from theaters to music halls – so artists can practice their craft and hold shows without going completely hungry. A push also has emerged to ensure resources don’t just go to the usual, old-school suspects, but also to young artists of all races and ethnicities.
“How many young Greta Gerwigs are in the diverse neighborhoods of Sacramento waiting to be discovered?” Steinberg asked, clearly still digesting his premiere night conversation.
Perhaps, with more support for the arts, in more ways that matter, we’ll have the privilege of finding out.