Sacramento artists bring forth community-centric solutions at city arts commission meeting

The Wide Open Walls mural installation on the exterior of the WellSpace Health building in Little Saigon, that previously depicted culturally inaccurate art according to Sacramento artists, pictured on March 13, 2024. (Photos by Steve Martarano)

Artists reconvene to further discuss Wide Open Walls following failed mural project

By Hannah Ross

Artists of all stripes gathered for the monthly meeting of the Arts, Culture and Creative Economy Commission on March 11, anticipating the discourse around one item on the agenda: the improvement of Sacramento’s creative climate following an ongoing debacle with a recent Wide Open Walls’s mural project. 

Artists in attendance also sought to publicly voice their frustrations and suggestions to the commission, an advisory body that can offer leadership on arts issues but has no enforcement arm, as Chair Priscilla Enriquez pointed out during the meeting at City Hall.

“I just want to be clear what the purpose of the commission is: We provide advice and recommendations for promoting, encouraging, fostering the arts, innovation and tourism in the city,” Enriquez said. “Our job is to act as a liaison between the city, local artists, cultural groups and the community at large. … This includes discussing items that influence the overall climate for creative vitality.”

The discussion stemmed from a mural installation the nonprofit Wide Open Walls facilitated of five “unique interpretations of the Year of the Dragon,” as shared on their Instagram, painted across a 500-foot stretch of the Wellspace Health building in Little Saigon. It was set to be unveiled during an event in February, but instead, the reveal was canceled after the project set off a firestorm of criticism

Critics said the art, which was supposed to celebrate both Tết and Lunar New Year, instead was culturally incompetent, insulting and inaccurate. 

At the March arts commission meeting, members of the local arts community were interested in figuring out what the commission can do to ensure incidents like these aren’t repeated, and how the city might offer support to artists through fiscal transparency and resource sharing.

“While we understand that the commission does not have control over a private organization such as WOW, you do have the power and influence to help reduce the hold that WOW has over the Sacramento art scene,” muralist Jolene Russell said. “We are ready to work with you to create a more open, fair and equitable arts community in Sacramento.”

Wide Open Walls founder and CEO David Sobon said in an emailed response to Solving Sacramento’s request for comment, “We value feedback and continually strive to learn and improve, closely monitoring public comments to inform our actions.” 

‘We want to be an active group’

Photo by Steve Martarano

The subsequent cancellation of the February mural unveiling due to rain, as cited by Wide Open Walls, catalyzed a collective call-out by artists and members of the Little Saigon community at a Feb. 12 arts commission meeting. The session brought forth a substantial amount of criticism of WOW, and called into question the role of the commission and the position of the city in addressing unaffiliated arts projects that may be problematic. 

Last month’s meeting concluded with a motion by Megan Van Voorhis, Sacramento’s director of Convention and Cultural Services, to add a discussion of the issue onto the agenda for March’s meeting.

On March 11, the commission suggested a series of actionable items they could adopt to ensure due diligence from their end, including drafting set rubrics for grant authorizations built into the city’s Creative Edge plan — a strategic plan for bolstering arts and the creative economy in Sacramento — which would ensure all organizations that receive their approval for funding meet basic compliance with governing standards and pay equity. 

“While we may not have enforcement authority, we do have compliance authority, so we can ensure that they comply with the standards that are in place, especially those regarding racial and cultural equity,” said District 4 commissioner Cruz Naranjo. “We don’t want to be perceived as window dressing, or rubber stamps. We want to be an active group that participates and engages in the community, which is our whole purpose, so I would hope that today we would fulfill that and take some kind of progressive positive action to address the concerns of the public.”

Van Voorhis offered further clarity on the commission’s relationship with Wide Open Walls.

“[The Little Saigon mural] was a contract specifically between a private organization, Wellspace Health, and a nonprofit organization, Wide Open Walls, a contract specifically between those two entities to produce those murals on private property. So in that particular case, there’s no standing for the city to intervene. We have no standing in that case,” Van Voorhis said. 

In his emailed response for comment, Sobon said, “Wide Open Walls faced a tight deadline for the Little Saigon mural project, necessitating swift artist selection based on availability and willingness to meet the timeline. Rather than a traditional call for artists, which typically spans months, we reached out to numerous artists from diverse communities, including the API community, from our extensive roster.” 

He declined to provide names of the artists contacted “to respect the privacy of those conversations.” 

In addition to public questioning of how the organization selected participants for the project in Little Saigon, many took offense to the content of the mural, citing inaccurate and offensive representation of “superficial stereotypes.” 

Sobon wrote that, “Artists submitted sketches for the mural designs, which were subsequently approved by our private client. The building owner was responsible for fulfilling the request for mural design and content.”

A representative from Wellspace Health, the building’s owner, could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts. 

During the March meeting, Van Voorhis did note that in March 2023, the commission voted to recommend city funding for Wide Open Walls by approving a grant of $41,639 over two years through the 2023-2024 American Rescue Plan Act Arts and Cultural Nonprofit Recovery Program.

The commission selected 38 recipients through the program, and the purpose of the grants were to “ensure ongoing access to arts and cultural programming throughout Sacramento County” by maintaining the viability of these nonprofits after the pandemic. The grants were to be used for operating expenses and were calculated based on each organization’s operating budgets. 

Marching forward 

Photo by Steve Martarano

During public comment, artists approached the podium to offer further actions the commission and the local arts community could take in response to the WOW project. Several commenters used the term “exploitation” to describe how they felt WOW treated artists.

“The question that comes to mind is, how do we prevent the exploitation of artists from happening again?” asked muralist Franceska Gamez.

Some suggested that the commission could make a statement condemning Wide Open Walls and could help facilitate healing workshops in Little Saigon. Many echoed the adoption of professional training and resources for artists, suggesting that the commission could assist artists’ ability to self-advocate by providing a best-practices toolkit for organizations working with local artists.

Many stressed the need to adopt pay equity standards in response to claims across public comment that Wide Open Walls does not compensate artists adequately for their work.

“This would guide the commission’s recommendations for partnerships and investments moving forward, to ensure that they are aligned and accountable to transparent compensation policies and fair wage standards for artists,” Gamez said. 

Sobon sent a statement to CapRadio last month highlighting the organization’s commitment to equal compensation of artists, regardless of experience or size of the project.

“Everyone receives the same stipend, with travel and accommodation expenses covered for all participants. From the outset, artists are informed of their level of compensation to ensure clarity and avoid any confusion. While the monetary compensation may not be substantial, we cover all expenses including paint, equipment, materials, and insurance,” he said. 

In his email to Solving Sacramento, Sobon added, “Wide Open Walls ensures pay equity by offering the same compensation to every artist, with agreements established in advance. … Unlike the majority of festivals nationwide that often don’t compensate artists, Wide Open Walls stands out by ensuring fair compensation for all participating artists, underscoring our commitment to recognizing and valuing artistic contributions.”

Since its inception in 2016, WOW has led to the creation of over 600 public art installations across the Sacramento region, attracting both local artists and ones from other countries to convene for an annual mural festival in August, which draws hundreds of visitors to see these creators in action.

Visit Sacramento President and CEO Mike Testa did not have economic data on whether WOW has directly driven tourism, but he did say, “In my experience, the initial two or three years of the event generated a fair amount of outside media coverage on Sacramento, which was a good spotlight for the city to fall under from a tourism standpoint.”

Taking matters into community hands

As the shifting legacy of Wide Open Walls, and its place in the Sacramento art scene remains up for debate, artists look ahead, asking themselves and each other what an equitable and thriving arts scene looks like in Sacramento. 

Faith J. McKinnie, the founding director of Black Artist Foundry, stressed the importance of harnessing the momentum of collective action like the Wide Open Walls call-out. 

“It’s never a resolved feeling, it’s always: What’s the next step?” she said, noting that the commission’s Creative Edge Plan is a clear indication that Sacramento needs its artists. “This is our time.” 

McKinnie has been meeting with artists Gamez, Shawntay Gorman, Jaya King and others weekly to strategize the next steps and changes they’d like to see across Sacramento’s art scene. Both Gamez and King have participated in Wide Open Walls mural festivals before.

“The commission can only do so much and I feel like they were very vocal about that today, about what they could and could not do. We kind of still need the support of the commission but also need to look elsewhere,” Gorman said. “So we are building relationships and we’re even talking about [creating] an artists’ union.” Creating a network of support and industry standards, she added, is, “something that is obviously needed in Sacramento.”

McKinnie pointed to the recent strike by Writers’ Guild of America that successfully negotiated new contracts with major Hollywood studios as an example of the power unionized artists can have in establishing their worth in creative economies. 

“We have a blueprint of what that can look like,” McKinnie said. “I know that’s the thing that stops a lot of creatives because there are so many different styles — there’s architecture, there’s visual, there’s music, there’s performing arts. … I think there’s opportunity for every sector to come together and say ‘This is our standard.’”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19. 

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