By Dakota Morlan
As a lifelong percussionist, Jason Jong knows the value of having a creative outlet. He grew up performing with the Sacramento Mandarins, a youth drum and bugle corps formed within the city’s Chinese community in 1963. The group has since earned national acclaim, and Jong went on to manage the corps’ professional drumline at Sacramento Kings games for nearly eight years.
Now, as Sacramento’s new cultural and creative economy manager, Jong is uniquely positioned to revive and diversify the city’s creative scene post-COVID. He asks, “How do we make the arts accessible to all? What are we doing to create those systems that encourage it?”
Speaking about the pandemic, Jong said, “It showed that we are interconnected in unexpected ways, and it also showed us the ugly face of racism. It taught us that there are new ways of working and being. … It taught us we need to be more empathetic human beings. That’s also, coincidentally, what art does.”
Part of his job is to oversee the continued investment of Federal American Rescue Plan funds — $10 million dollars in total — that were allocated by the city to reinvigorate the creative economy after the pandemic. A portion of those funds will go to creative-based businesses and cultural nonprofits, providing financial and technical support.
“Historically, we haven’t invested in community-serving arts organizations to the same degree that we have invested in traditional operas, ballets and major museums,” said Maya Wallace, local arts advocate and former vice chair of the city’s Arts, Culture and Creative Economy Commission, the community advisory body to the Office of Arts and Culture (OAC), which Jong oversees. “The demographics of the state are changing, and obviously the demographics of the city have changed. It’s really apparent now that there’s so much more art being done and led by people of color than there was even five years ago. I think Jason is perfectly poised to bring all that together and carry it forward.”
The OAC is a division of the Department of Convention and Cultural Services that serves as a connection point between the city and its creative economy. Responsibilities of the OAC include creative economy grantmaking, educational programming, the city’s Art in Public Places program and the Sacramento Film + Media Office, as well as producing an annual report on Sacramento’s creative economy. In late August, the department released its first music census, the result of nearly 1,400 responses from the local music community.
“The arts connect us to our sense of who we are,” Jong said of the importance of having a dedicated arts division. “Creating a sense of pride, a sense of place for our existing residents, for our existing neighborhoods and communities, improves the outlook in so many other areas — not just the economy.”
Jong hopes to build upon the work of the OAC’s previous Cultural and Creative Economy Manager Megan Van Voorhis and other like-minded predecessors, serving as a bridge to marginalized communities. He promotes the phrase, “Nothing about us without us,” and aims to support organizations that are already working to “move the dial.”
One aspect of his role will be to advance the city’s plan for arts, culture and the creative economy, known as Creative Edge, which he said is due for an update. As a major player in the plan’s next iteration, Jong seeks to build systems of interchange between the city and its diverse communities. “I don’t have all the answers, and I believe that the most significant input is going to come directly from folks on the ground who have been doing the work,” he said.
Jong understands the challenge in collecting that level of data. “We’re not all concentrated in Midtown,” he said, “but wherever you go, I think you’ll find parents who care about quality of life for their children and care as much about making Sacramento a wonderful place to raise kids.”
Children have been shown to benefit from early exposure to the arts. Having grown up in Sacramento, Jong remembers enjoying better access to creative exploration prior to 1978 and the enactment of Proposition 13, which reduced funding for California’s public schools and slashed arts programming for youth. There is now hope that Proposition 28, passed last year, will revive youth arts and music education.
Although Jong did not complete a bachelor’s degree, he was involved on student boards and in nonprofit work, a passion that began during his John F. Kennedy High School years. “I had, to be honest, unfortunate racist incidents in college,” he said. “I decided I needed to find out more about my Asian American history, and that’s, I think, where a lot of my community and political activism comes from.”
As a young adult, Jong traveled to Japan and studied taiko, a range of Japanese percussion instruments. He considered becoming a full-time performer, co-founding an Oakland-based pan-Asian jazz and percussion group called Asian Crisis (which is still active). He also volunteered with the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, where he would later become a publicist and curator. Not long after that, he was offered a program coordinator role for the City of Oakland’s Cultural Arts and Marketing Division — a position he held for 10 years. “So I had no time to go back to school,” Jong said. His nearly 30 years spent working in various board, staff and advisory roles in the Bay Area and Sacramento include seven years with the California Arts Council, where he focused on initiatives for vulnerable communities.
Upon moving back to Sacramento, Jong saw a need for increased cultural visibility, particularly among the Asian population. “What I missed was the progressive outlook that was surrounding me everywhere in the Bay Area. I missed the political activism, the connectivity, the support, the urgency of the arts scene, and I saw that the Asian community was perhaps self-siloing or fractured a little bit, and I wanted to do what I could to address that.”
In response, Jong and his friends founded the Sacramento Asian Pacific Cultural Village, which produces an annual film festival and the Asian Pacific CultureFest — both widely popular events.
“He’s already got these deep ties to the community, and he has this strong administrative background, and I think he can really help the staff and the commissioners be good ambassadors and advocates for the arts in Sacramento,” Wallace said. “I think that Jason will really be good at bridging conversations with communities that are still marginalized in the arts and getting the council to support those initiatives. At the end of the day, it really comes down to what they’re willing to put on the budget for the arts.”
Jong believes that art is for everyone. He says his core mission as cultural and creative economy manager is to “ensure that all of our residents have access to celebrate and to find that sense of belonging.”
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19. Take our reader survey.