Foon Rhee

Sacramento wants to boost the arts. So why not a citywide festival?

Images of dancers are projected on the facade of City Hall in Barcelona during its La Mercé festival in September.
Images of dancers are projected on the facade of City Hall in Barcelona during its La Mercé festival in September.

As pulsating music played, oversized images of dancers were projected on the facade of the historic city hall. A small orchestra of young people played both tango and ABBA classics on a main public square. Singers, dancers and food trucks drew huge crowds to a city park.

While I had only a small glimpse in late September of La Mercé, Barcelona’s end-of-summer citywide festival, I was impressed. Named for the city’s patron saint and organized by the city government, it’s four days of art, music, street theater and other entertainment that takes over much of the popular tourist destination.

I don’t want to be one of those annoying people who always returns from vacation with ideas of what their hometown should do, but I can’t help but wonder: Wouldn’t it be marvelous to have something similar in Sacramento, even on a smaller scale?

Sure, we have music and food events of one kind or another. What we don’t have is a citywide festival that celebrates and features local arts and cultural groups.

How wonderful would it be if the Sacramento Ballet and Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera performed under the stars before big and diverse crowds? Or if local high school bands could play for more than just their parents and classmates? Or if lesser-known homegrown performers got their chance in the spotlight?

Some performances could be inside Golden 1 Center, where the city can hold nine civic events a year. They could spill out on the plaza outside to help it become a real public square (the idea I came back from Venice with last year). They could be in Old Sacramento, or in midtown and at Cesar Chavez Plaza. The possibilities are vast.

At this point, however, the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission says it doesn’t have any plans to put on such an event.

That’s too bad, particularly for the ballet and philharmonic, which could use a boost. After canceling parts of performance seasons during the Great Recession and still struggling financially, they need to expand their donors and audiences beyond the usual fine arts crowd.

Yes, both the ballet and philharmonic are putting on smaller public performances in a wider variety of settings. On Friday, Beer & Ballet starts a three-weekend run, while the philharmonic is announcing plans to perform at the bus shelter next to the Community Center Theater.

Still, both groups could use bigger events to raise their profiles and draw a younger and broader audience. Headlining a citywide festival seems to fit the bill.

“We look forward to finding any opportunity to partner with other arts organizations in our community to broaden our musical footprint,” Raymond James Irwin, the philharmonic’s marketing and communications coordinator, said in a statement.

Large free performances would also be a way to give back to the public, who are financing a long-overdue overhaul of the Community Center Theater, their main stage, and also contributed to the new E. Claire Raley Studios for the Performing Arts, the ballet’s home office.

And a festival would be another opportunity for Sacramento’s corporate and business community to support the arts through sponsorships and grants.

It’s good that there’s more attention on transforming Sacramento into a more vibrant city for arts and culture. The arts commission is working on a plan.

My two cents: Put a citywide festival high on the to-do list.