A controversy involving Verge revealed deep cracks in Sacramento’s art scene — and left many wondering why it had to go down like this

Verge Center for the Arts has been embroiled in controversy since the nonprofit arts organization, located on S Street in Sacramento, evicted two artists of color from their studio spaces in March. (Photo by Nick Shockey)

By Hannah Ross

The Sacramento arts scene may be on the brink of transformation. Since a pandemic that had threatened to gut local arts scenes globally, the community has worked tirelessly first to survive, and then to rebrand, shift, change — to become the dynamic and inclusive creative space the city envisions for itself. 

But the reformation is not without its growing pains. 

Following the public call-out of Wide Open Walls over an ill-executed cultural project in Little Saigon, Verge Center for the Arts has come under scrutiny over the evictions of two resident artists from their studio spaces.

Those artists, Daniel Alejandro Trejo, who had leased a studio at Verge for about seven years, and Esther Marie Hall, who had a studio there for about two years, were notified of the evictions from Verge’s Studio Artist Project on March 15 via a letter from Verge board member and general counsel Phillip Cunningham that alleged Trejo and Hall “work(ed) internally to ruin [The Project] for everyone else.” The letter also noted that the evictions were to ensure “the safety of its staff and the good of its program.”

The two artists claim they had simply been asking questions about a grant awarded to the arts center. Verge disputes that those questions led to the evictions, but rather the evictions were the result of multiple complaints made by staff and other studio artists against Trejo and Hall, who, according to Verge, made threats to deface Verge property and dismantle security cameras on the premises. The threats were captured by a camera in the loading dock at the back of the building, according to Verge.

But the claims around the evictions have since devolved into dueling narratives, accusations of racist and anti-queer behavior, claims of axes to grind, and a workplace violence restraining order against curator and art critic Faith J. McKinnie by Verge — leaving other local artists feeling like they have no choice but to pick sides. Several people have done so quietly, worried about how they will be viewed, which has created a chilling effect across the creative community. As one source who asked to remain anonymous described it: The local arts community is eating itself.

Then in a turn of events, Verge dropped the protective order against McKinnie on Wednesday, April 17. 

In a statement, Verge said: “Verge remains committed to encouraging, supporting, promoting, and preserving art through programming that is accessible and inclusive to all communities.” It noted that neither the two evicted artists or McKinnie had physically returned to Verge “to further their threats or targeted harassment of Verge Staff or Verge’s community,” leading the organization to not pursue the protective order “as long as this continues to be the case.”

McKinnie said she thinks the legal action was an attempt to silence her and an angered art community. 

“They don’t even realize that even all the energy that I had to put in: time, energy, labor, not just me, but everybody to write letters and to organize,” she said. “It feels like it was a tactic to pull us away. And then at the last minute, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re not going to do this.’ It’s actually angering me more. I think they should have just went through with it. I don’t think they had any intention from the beginning, or they didn’t think I [and] people would be this loud.”

What’s become clear is that frustration with Sacramento arts nonprofits has been years in the making. Artists, city officials and other stakeholders are not ready to give up the fight to build the kind of arts ecosystem they believe Sacramento deserves. And before toppling over the brink, maybe they can hear each other out to co-create a better future.

Verge and the Museum Grant 

In 2023, Verge received a $474,588 grant from the California Natural Resources Agency Museum Grant Program. The grant was intended “to support and enhance small capital projects in museums that recognize the importance of making art, science, history, and culture available to the residents of California, with an emphasis on previously underserved communities,” as stated in the staff report for the California Cultural and Historical Endowment board meeting, when the grant was approved.

According to Verge’s Founding Director Liv Moe and the state agency’s approved funding recommendations, the organization intends to use the funds to construct four more artist studio spaces and two offices, expand teaching spaces, and improve the kitchen/break area for artists, and installation of HVAC system, along with various functional updates to their S Street building.

Trejo and Hall’s evictions came two months after they raised questions about the CNRA grant during Verge’s monthly studio-artist meeting in January, Hall said. According to Hall, who identifies as Filipinx and queer, she and Trejo, who identifies as Latinx and queer (and who had previously been critical of Verge in a 2021 article for SFMOMA), asked about how the funds were being spent and questioned the authenticity under which they were secured.

“We were essentially evicted due to institutional critique and once you start questioning the validity and ethics of a place, they really don’t like it nor do they want to be held accountable, so their response was to eliminate the folks who were trying to do so,” Hall wrote in an email to Solving Sacramento. 

Trejo, also in an email, wrote, “I asked reasonable questions regarding facility usage and the intention of each artist and their relationship with the space, especially since they self-proclaim to be the leading Contemporary Art Institution in Sacramento, and asking sincere questions about the environment I engage with was perceived as ‘bullying’ or ‘harassment.’”

Two other sources present at the meeting along with a documented account of the meeting by another source, note how there was a “feeling of high tension” — tension that some said had been building since around October when the war in Gaza began.

Gioia Fonda, an artist resident at Verge since the gallery first provided artist studios about 14 years ago (when the organization was located on V Street), also attended the January meeting. She said these gatherings were usually social events, with information sharing, normal housekeeping, networking and refreshments. 

“It was clear these residents came prepared to ask questions,” Fonda said. “That’s not bad on the face. But the tone was really sort of accusatory and it didn’t go over well. It felt like it shifted the focus of what the meeting was for. … I think a lot of us were taken aback by how it was brought up.”

Fonda said “Liv got defensive at first,” but then answered the questions about the CNRA grant. Later Trejo pointed out how he had provided first aid kits, a broom and other basic tools for the broader studio community. “I’m thinking, it’s kind of on you [the artist] to have your own first aid kit and broom,” Fonda said. “It’s kind of like asking your landlord to provide your Aspirin. It didn’t resonate with me, and I’ll admit some of the requests being made came across as entitled to me.”

A Verge staff member who also attended the meeting and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation said it felt like Hall and Trejo brought up the CNRA grant to try to have a “gotcha” moment. “They hijacked that meeting. They were immediately accusatory against staff and Liv. They were basically accusing us of stealing that money. It’s a reimbursement fund. We haven’t received anything. … This wasn’t institutional criticism. They were accusing us of lies.”

Then in March, Verge leadership viewed security camera footage that they said led to the evictions. The building has three security cameras in public spaces — two at the back of the building (with visible signage noting their existence as a crime deterrent) and one in the lobby (with no sign previously posted because Verge said that the lobby is a public space where there is no expectation of privacy). In that footage, sources say, Hall and Trejo looked directly at the camera and made threats about defacing the building and destroying the cameras.

The conflict spiraled live on Instagram, where dueling accounts of the events populated feeds. Artists and activists pointed out what they considered a lack of transparency between Verge board members and artists, what they saw as the tokenization of BIPOC artists from the majority white-led Verge (founding director Moe is white) to get grants.

About a week after the evictions, a petition was started by Heather Galloway, an artist unaffiliated with Verge, but who several sources confirm had applied for and been rejected for jobs and a studio space with the organization. She said she collected complaints about the organization from the evicted artists, another artist contracted to work at Verge, and a past employee (who she declined to name), adding a handful of her own suggestions as well. The petition titled “Sacramento Artists Holding Verge Accountable” has garnered 990 signatures as of press time.

The petition’s 20-plus demands include: annual reporting on how money is being spent; more opportunities for all resident artists to exhibit work; “all artists, patrons and staff be made aware if they are being visually or auditory recorded while on site;” more BIPOC representation in artists studios and administration; a human resource professional available on-site; and a letter of apology to the evicted artists.

“We hope that Verge Center for the Arts takes this opportunity to show the community that they are a part of the Sacramento art scene and not above it,” Galloway wrote in the petition.

Moe, Verge’s director, said the petition is grounded in false claims.

“Heather has never had a studio here,” Moe said. “She’s never worked here. She has no direct information or knowledge of this organization at all. And then she wrote a petition with ‘factual statements’ and challenges to us. What she’s basing those things on, I have no idea.” 

An eviction boils over

On the afternoon of the evicted artists’ move-out day on Saturday, March 16, McKinnie said she received a call from Trejo asking for emotional and physical support in moving out of Verge. The move-out process was reported as emotional and tense by various sources present. 

McKinnie, curator and founding director of the Black Artist Foundry, has been vocal in her critiques of Verge since the evictions, sharing her recurring “#faithsartnotes” on Instagram and YouTube

“It’s cause for concern when two of the very few BIPOC queer artists ask questions, then they’re evicted,” McKinnie said. “There’s so many levels to this: A lot of boards don’t do the organization justice when they are not diverse, in gender and sexuality and experiences. … The demographics of their board also looked like their staff and like the resident artists.”

As public outcry over Verge’s decision to evict Hall and Trejo grew louder, Verge remained silent until March 26, when they made a public statement on their Instagram. Verge asserted that they had been the subject of “online efforts to tarnish its reputation.” Though they affirmed the validity of freedom of speech, Verge urged its critics to act with “civility, openness, and honesty in that expression.” 

Even supporters of Verge said that the statement was a misstep, and only fanned the flames. “I wish Verge would have sent, first, a better statement and I wish they would have sent it out sooner,” said one former resident artist.

In the same post, Verge announced they had filed a workplace restraining order against McKinnie, with Moe and an extensive list of board members, studio artists and class instructors listed as people in need of protection. Many artists listed later publicly said that they had not been contacted for their consent before being added to the list. Verge sources said that’s how this type of protective order is done — with all people affiliated with the organization automatically included.

Faith J. McKinnie, founder of Black Artist Foundry, has been vocal on social media with her critiques of Verge Center for the Arts and its director, Liv Moe. (Photo by Andrew Calisterio)

In its 55-page petition for a protective order, Verge alleged that McKinnie had “engag[ed] in targeted harassment directed at staff that included threats of public character assassination, physical harm, and untrue inflammatory accusations” through the move-out process, and cited memes she had later posted as evidence of “a detailed misinformation campaign proclaiming her desire to ‘burn Verge to the ground’ and destroy the reputation of its director Livia Moe.” 

A current employee of the City of Sacramento’s Office of Arts and Culture and former Verge deputy director, Susanna Tu, was named in the restraining order as “a former disgruntled employee” who was present during the evicted artists’ move-out process. In response to a request for comment about Tu’s involvement, a city spokesperson said “the City does not comment on personnel matters.”

Under Verge’s Instagram post, artist Franceska Gamez wrote, “… taking legal action over listening, being accountable, and building common ground with the artists you’ve made a livelihood off of … is very telling that you’re not as progressive as you claim.”

Ember de Boer, artist-in-residence for the City of Sacramento, wrote, “Organizations that claim to benefit artists should answer to the artists. You fundraise in our name, on our behalf; these artists deserve a voice in the quality of your service to the community.”

In response to the mounting comments, Cunningham offered his own comment under Verge’s post: “VERGE is not and never has been an institution composed of artists, run by artists, or operated for artists. Rather, it is an organization which is intended to promote an appreciation of contemporary art and the work of contemporary artists, all contemporary artists.”

Many of those people in support of Verge said the Instagram statement was a major gaffe — a missed opportunity to stop and self-reflect, and engage the community before the situation got worse.

But despite a far-from-perfect public statement, some say that is besides the point: “We don’t deserve to be harassed and bullied like this,” said a Verge staff member who was on-site during the evicted artists’ moving day in March. “They’re trying to spin the narrative that we are scared of BIPOC people. It’s just not true. We don’t deserve to be harassed in our workplace.”

The restraining order testimony indicates that the moving-out process dragged on for many tense hours. “They were recording us with their phones,” the staff member said. “They could have just left and moved, but they didn’t. They chose to stay.”

McKinnie acknowledges that while tempers may have been running high, a lack of willingness to discuss the issues exacerbated an already tense situation. “Folks of color, we get passionate about things that we care about and, obviously, [after] seven years [Trejo] cares about his studio,” McKinnie said. “They could have said we need to listen, even if, you know, people are passionate. Everyone needs to take a beat and listen. And that didn’t happen.”

Multiple sources said that while some of the larger systemic criticism lodged at Verge might be valid or have merit, it didn’t excuse how the staff present as move-out day were treated. “This was not criticism, but threats,” the staff member said, saying this move-out was the culmination of a pattern of negative behavior by the evicted artists.

Look beyond Sacramento’s legacy arts institutions

Verge has operated as a nonprofit since 2010, offering 36 artist studios, one subsidized residency, classes to the public, and a gallery space showing contemporary work. Verge is also the host of Sac Open Studios, a regional studio tour that started in 2006 by Verge’s predecessor the Center for Contemporary Art Sacramento.

On their site, in grant applications, and across promotional material, Verge describes itself as a “community” of “artists and creative professionals, as well as educators, families, youth, and adults who seek to engage with the arts in a meaningful way.”

Over the past few months, the controversies surrounding both Verge and Wide Open Walls have unearthed many artists’ long-simmering frustrations with the Sacramento arts scene. Many feel these moments are an opportunity to course correct and expand beyond the scene’s current parameters. 

Artists are hungry for affordable creative spaces to work and build community in Sacramento. But what this community looks like, and who defines it, is still taking shape. 

“What does community look like?” McKinnie reflected, “I think if Verge asked themselves that question, it would not look like the people that got evicted.”

But Moe maintains that Verge does serve an important community role — and it’s a big reason why she became part of it 14 years ago. 

“The thing that initially attracted me to Verge was that I saw an opportunity to establish something that I had not seen evidence of prior to, in terms of the place where somebody could get an affordable workspace and be part of a community that felt like an extension of the kind of community and thought exchange that you have in grad school,” Moe said. “Also to provide a platform for exhibitions. … There weren’t a lot of places where you could see work by artists that are relevant on a broader stage — national or international —  that were coming from communities and backgrounds that weren’t what you would normally see [in major museums].”

Moe saw an opportunity to build this in Sacramento, where she saw few spaces like what she envisioned at the time. 

“Even with Verge, the visual arts resources here are pretty anemic,” Moe said. 

McKinnie, who’s worked to create creative spaces through Black Artist Foundry and her own curatorial work, agreed — in part. “The idea of Verge — this ideation that started as a space for artists and to see art, and artists having studios was [great]. We need that. We cannot afford to lose another one in this community,” McKinnie said. “We need these spaces. It’s very important to the community, to the Southside Park community, It’s important to [have these spaces] outside of Midtown and the grid … but we do not need that leadership … holding on to that way of thinking of not being held accountable and not having to answer and collaborate with community, especially artists.” 

Though Verge picked up the Center for Contemporary Arts baton, the scene has grown markedly in the last roughly 15 years. Sacramento hosts a handful of new collectives and co-working spaces with low-cost studios for artists like the Broad Room Creative Collective and Atrium916. The Art Studio, Arthouse studio, and galleries across the grid continue to carry the Second Saturday torch. The City of Sacramento also offers nine artist-in-residence positions geared toward artists and community collaboration, as well as a year-long emerging curatorial fellowship. The collective Axis Gallery has shown contemporary work for 35 years. Axis pays a reduced rent to Verge to locate in its building on S Street. (On April 13, Axis issued its public statement: “Axis Gallery stands in solidarity with the artists and community members who have been harmed by Verge Center for the Arts’ recent public actions,” it read in part.)

Sol Collective, Latino Center for Arts and Culture, Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum are all spaces, McKinnie sees, where artists have built authentic communities in Sacramento. “We’re working in objects and mediums that need to be expressed. So these are spaces that actually have space for that, that feel safe, and … the impetus, the foundation of these organizations were built around artists and community.”

A long-time local arts advocate, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Verge has done a good job of broadening the city’s exhibition perspective and bringing in diverse shows, attributing much of this work to Moe. “We would not see the art that Verge has anywhere else in Sacramento,” the arts advocate said. “We’d have to go to S.F.”

Many sources noted that there’s still room for more local galleries, and for ones that help broaden the cultural tapestry.

Liv Moe, second from right, is the founding director of Verge Center for the Arts. (Photo by Cristian Gonzalez)

The City of Sacramento could be well-positioned to lead in this way. Launched in 2018, the city’s Creative Edge Plan set six key goals: provide arts education for youth, advance cultural equity, build up the creative economy, support artists toward thriving in their work through creative leadership, “infuse” all districts with arts and culture, and expand the city’s investment in the arts. The 7-year plan offers an extensive list of how the city is achieving these goals, including re-establishing the Arts, Culture and Creative Economy Commission’s Race and Cultural Equity Task Force, developing cultural equity policies, establishing a cultural trust fund and creating a “dedicated public revenue stream” by directing 10% of Measure U funding to arts and culture.  

Jason Jong, the city’s cultural and creative economy manager, said he and the arts commission have positioned themselves in a supportive role for the community, offering the monthly commission meetings as a forum for artists to express their concerns and ideas for improvement. 

“The best solutions are generally going to come from the community and not traditionally, from a top-down ‘government knows best’ type of approach,” Jong said. “We have very mindful, thoughtful, conscientious folks on our team, but we can be a part of that.”

Yet, the contemporary art scene still struggles to sustain itself in Sacramento. As we’ve gained some, we’ve also lost important fixtures. The Brickhouse Gallery shut its doors this February after director and curator Barabara Range left the helm after 14 years. The gallery held exhibits and annual festivals that spotlighted Oak Park’s diverse community, and offered low-cost studios for artists. 

Justina Martino, a newly appointed Sacramento arts commissioner and director of Art Tonic, agrees that there needs to be more affordable spaces — both studios and housing — to support local artists, so they can afford to live and work here.

She points to the example of Warehouse Artist Lofts on R Street as providing an affordable living workspace for artists that benefits Sacramento as a whole. “As you see by all the activity on the R Street Corridor that has happened since the WAL [Public Market] was built or installed, there’s been a ton more artistic and creative activity and new businesses popping up around there,” Martino said. “So you really see how [artists] can revive a community.”

More funding for the arts

One of the big problems facing arts organizations of all stripes is lack of funding — but this is even worse for organizations led by and for people of color.

McKinnie served as an inaugural leader for Cultivate, a division of the Sacramento Region Community Foundation, that works “to nourish connection and collaboration among leaders of color at local nonprofits — and close pervasive fundraising gaps that affect them.” Through Cultivate, she helped smaller arts nonprofits without in-house development teams prepare for their Big Day of Giving fundraising push in May 2022. She saw the challenges these organizations face in securing necessary public and grant funding once legacy arts institutions enter the mix.

Nationally, nonprofits led by people of color receive less funding than those led by white people, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Sacramento Region Community Foundation’s in-house data reflected this metric: “People of color raised 38% less on average and received 30% fewer gifts than other similarly sized organizations,” during their 2022 Big Day of Giving, they reported. 

“Organizations with budgets, we know this, have more flexibility when it comes to who they are hiring to write grants, so they may have more resources,” Jong said. “I think part of the way that we can address that is to consider ways that we can support all arts organizations and specifically those who may not have been at the table. How can we encourage … them to be competitive in these processes? Because some of these processes [are] competitive, especially when it comes to limited resources.”

According to its CNRA grant proposal, Verge has worked to bolster Sacramento’s arts community through low-cost studio space, the facilitation of Sac Open Studios, and including and uplifting artists of color in their work, directly inviting them to participate in their annual fundraising art auction. 

In the CNRA proposal, Verge notes that “Since 2020, 10% of the net proceeds from the auction have been donated to Black Artist Foundry (BAF).” Verge donated 10% of proceeds from the November 2020 auction to BAF, in the amount of $4,222, but that has been the only year a donation was made. There was one more auction before the proposal was submitted in March 2022, but no donation was recorded for 2021.

However, they still collaborated together. For 2021’s Sac Open Studios, Verge partnered with Black Artist Foundry and Downtown Commons to provide temporary studios at DOCO for about a month in late summer (where the Golden 1 Center is located) for Black artists to participate in the studio tour program, which is the largest in the Sacramento region.

Also in its grant proposal, Verge stated that 42% of its staff identify as Black, Asian, Indigenous people of color; 25% are LGBTQ; and 17% are disabled; and that 28% of its board is BAIPOC.

The CNRA grant is a reimbursement grant, meaning Verge did not receive the funds upfront to pay for the project’s activities, as several sources have alleged. Verge must cover costs involved, and then CNRA periodically reimburses the organization throughout the course of the grant project. 

Megan Van Voorhis, Sacramento’s director of Convention and Cultural Services, said the OAC is working to clarify grant rubrics so that they are more accessible for all applicants, and developing support resources for those interested in serving on peer review panels. 

“Transparency is a big part of that as far as our work with community and the people that we fund,” Van Voorhis said.

The OAC ran internal data analysis to assess their distribution of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) funding for individual artists by race. Since examining where their investments were being made, and into what communities, they have been able to make strategic funding pivots. In the City’s Creative Edge Plan, they committed to conduct annual equity audits with results available to the public.

“For folks out in the community, when you’re talking about this subject, sometimes there’s fear upon examining your data and examining your decision-making. I don’t share that [fear]. I think that the data is a tool for decision-making, it’s a tool for progress. It’s a way to be able to advance the lofty goals and aspirations we have to make sure that we are moving in the right direction around this work,” Van Voorhis said. “For me, I think that is critical.” 

In addition to seeking more transparency in unpacking the complicated metrics of grant funding, artists also reported in the March arts commission meeting that they often feel under-compensated for their labor — especially by Wide Open Walls. 

One artist told Solving Sacramento that he made $2,500 in 2017 for the WOW mural festival. Another artist told us he lost money on his mural because the compensation did not match the amount of time and work involved. Sobon previously told Solving Sacramento that, “Wide Open Walls ensures pay equity by offering the same compensation to every artist,” regardless of mural size.

Martino echoed that by having more paid and equitable opportunities where artists feel respected and valued, Sacramento can improve its arts scene. 

“I know a number of artists who work in high school and by the time they’re done being with high schoolers all day, they just don’t have any more bandwidth for art,” Martino said. “I think that stems from a lack of paid opportunities and funding in the arts for artists to actually have time to focus on their own work. I think a lot of artists are not able to make enough money off their art to have that be their prime focus.”

Artists have suggested that the OAC adopt Pay Equity Standards. On Our Team, a Chicago-based nonprofit advocacy group, developed a set of these standards to put arts organizations on a path to better pay equity, pay transparency and fair working conditions for arts workers across all sectors. 

On Our Team Co-founder Elsa Hiltner said she sees their standards as a rubric that local governments, foundations or other funders can reference when evaluating grant applications to ensure recipients are “centering pay equity.”

“Because it’s where the rubber meets the road of equity and access and diversity in our sector,” Hiltner said. “If we’re not paying people so that they can devote time to their artistic craft, we’re really limiting who can make art to the folks who have enough privilege to practice their art and not have to have a full-time job or deal with child care.”

Beyond the suggested implementation of pay standards and building more equitable funding distribution among arts nonprofits, other new strategies have emerged to address the systematic inequality in the arts, a historically underpaid, and undervalued field. 

In the vein of the successful Depression-era Federal Art Project, which was the first federally-sponsored arts investment in American history, the OAC has looked at launching a similar guaranteed basic income for artist program. OAC Program Manager Melissa Crione wrote that “the program is currently being evaluated and we have no exact timeline to provide at this time.” Meanwhile, ​​Stockton piloted a universal basic income program this past year that offered a valuable case study of what direct-to-people funding can do for community growth. 

Building power with artists

Many artists have taken the events of the last three months as an opportunity to shift the power dynamic in the scene, taking advocacy into their own hands. Sacramento Art Changemakers, a community group, says it aims to advocate for inclusivity, diversity and fair pay in Sacramento’s arts scene. One of the founding artists, Shawntay Gorman, said they sought to build solidarity among artists during the Wide Open Walls call-out. The group’s founders also include McKinnie, Jamie Cardenas, Jaya King and four others.

Gorman said that on the group’s Instagram, there’s a form where anyone can submit anonymous tips about their experience in the arts — be it accounts of mistreatment or anything else they feel is crucial to them as an artist. The Instagram post prompts people to share their  “negative experiences.” 

“There’s no revolution without people being uncomfortable,” Gorman said. “I think that the best thing that is going to be able to come out of this is that artists, whether it’s your vetted, legendary, quote-unquote, artists here in Sacramento, or your upcoming artists, you’re gonna be able to have a safe space where you could come and talk, or tell us your stories [and] gather support.” 

In 2019, CA for the Arts successfully lobbied to make April Arts Culture & Creativity Month, “to raise visibility and awareness about the value of our sector, to empower arts advocates to take action, and to spur greater investments in our industry and workforce.”

At the CA Arts & Culture Summit on Tuesday, April 16 at The Sofia in Sacramento, experts across arts organizations discussed the work of “centering the artist” as an important guiding principle for institutions facing pressure to restructure from their community, and as a means of uplifting the often undervalued work of artists in our culture.

Nataki Garrett, keynote speaker and co-director of One Nation/One Project, stressed that “artists can reconnect us to our ability to be compassionate and empathetic to each other,” further noting that many institutional calls for change that have sparked since June 2020 and continued to unfold are, “for the good of society as a whole.”

Across recent incidents, artists have wondered at the city’s role in mediating and auditing nonprofits that cropped up to fill gaps the government cannot. 

As the city continues to make promises about Sacramento as an art and artist-friendly city — many wonder if it’s just about perception, or if Sacramento can truly “center” its artists in the strategic and long-term developments. 

Build transparency, trust and accountability

Artists have said they want leaders in charge of Sacramento’s legacy arts organizations or well-funded nonprofit groups to do two things better: listen and be transparent.

“It infuriates me because [for] the last four years all of these organizations and all these people are supposed to be listening,” McKinnie said. “2020 gave us all of these cases of what not to do. So many of our organizations in Sacramento had their ears closed, their eyes shut during that time. There’s no reason that we should be here in 2024 experiencing this with Verge, which is our leading contemporary arts center, like it or not. That’s the embarrassing part of it, that we’re having an experience like this from our leading arts institution.”

Funding transparency and accountability were also key demands during the ongoing call-out of Wide Open Walls, who has since quietly deleted its original Instagram post that launched the fall-out and the subsequent apology. At the city’s arts commission meetings in February and March, artists requested the city be transparent in their fiscal partnerships with nonprofits, and serve as advocates for artists, platforming their concerns with other city officials.

Hall, one of the evicted artists, said she wants Verge to take accountability. “At this point in time, I believe a public apology needs to be made, not only to Daniel and I, but to Faith McKinnie … and the whole community,” Hall said, adding that she wants to see, “a more culturally competent” executive director appointed. 

Several sources voiced support of Moe in this regard, saying that Verge has done a good job of exhibiting diverse work, organizing diverse panels, and having a diversity of resident artists in terms of race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, stage of career and type of art mediums. The former artist resident who asked to remain anonymous said his experiences with Verge and Moe don’t track with the racist and anti-queer allegations. “I’m an activist, but this doesn’t fit,” he said.

“Liv gets the blame for a lot of things. … She is a very big person in the community,” he continued. “She had to make hard decisions. She gets mansplained to all the time. She has to turn exhibitions down. Anybody that ever had an issue with her, or ever had an issue with Verge, has joined together.”

When it comes to a nonprofit’s transparency, Fonda points out that artists have a range of perspectives in terms of how much they care to worry about how an organization is internally run, or how much an organization like Verge does to help their resident artists. Several sources said there’s also a general lack of understanding about how nonprofits work — and their inherent limitations.

Fonda sees a “mismatch of what people expected of this experience to be like versus what it is actually like. Of course, more could be done, but I think most of us are just grateful to have what we have there, and we generally understand that the budget and staffing are almost always tight, resources are limited.”

Trejo wrote in an email to Solving Sacramento that his critiques came from what he saw as an under-investment in the studio project. “I’ve been there for a little over seven years, and didn’t really see any changes other than the expansion of the classroom, addition of a kiln room and storage (for education/figure drawing/kids camp) — but these seemed to be related to the community programming and also belonged to two artists (they were studio spaces cleared out), rather than the studio project,” Trejo wrote, adding that he felt more of his rent money should have gone specifically to studio project improvements.

Trejo paid $300 in monthly rent for his studio space and Hall, who had a slightly smaller space, paid $250, according to a source with direct knowledge.

At Verge, Fonda said, the feeling of community waxes and wanes over time, as different resident artists come and go. “You have four square walls to do your work in and that’s a real privilege,” she said, describing getting to create art as the meat and potatoes, and everything else as the gravy. Fonda said the Verge studios are “far nicer” than other ones she has used in her career.

Several sources described Verge as an under-resourced arts organization that — like most others — is always struggling for long-term sustainability. Despite being considered a prominent Sacramento museum, with the Crocker Art Museum as the biggest fine arts institution in the city, Verge’s annual budget in 2023 was about $865,000. 

“There’s not a lot of understanding how long it took the building to get to this place, so I think it is easy for folks in the community to take it for granted,” Fonda said. “There’s frustration with the whole world right now and I get that some people want to burn it down, start afresh, but this place and the people who make it happen are not the enemy. I know it’s not perfect and I do feel some of the critiques are warranted, but overall Verge is a net positive for our community. I know Liv has done a lot of work to build this place. She cares about this community, she cares about art, she cares about showing and serving a wide diversity of artists within that space.”

About a week ago, in what might seem to many like a long time coming, Verge posted a “Community Update” on its website, noting three steps it plans to take in response to feedback. Those include establishing systems to better reach and engage with diverse audiences, creating a scholarship solution to increase accessibility; and increased artist representation on their board of directors.

“These are only our first steps — moving forward, we commit to a practice of accepting feedback with grace and a desire to grow with our community in mind,” the statement reads. “With humility, we hope that we can count on all of you for advice, encouragement, and patience as we continue to develop into the organization that this community deserves.”

What now?

With such a deep rupture created, how does a community repair? 

McKinnie said she is planning her exit from the Sacramento arts scene. “I’ve said my piece. I’m gonna fight this fight, and I’m really going to hope to push and work with some folks that we can get funding for our own space. But I think that for me, it’s exit stage left. … This really took the wind out of me,” she said.

McKinnie, who has spent the last four years working various roles across Sacramento arts institutions, said she feels disappointed and exhausted by “[having] to fight up against the largest art institutions, just on basic humanity.” 

Perhaps, also at the center of this whole incident and fall-out is a friendship lost. At one point not that long ago, McKinnie and Moe were friends or collegial, at least, to have collaborated together, with two others, to curate the “Coordinates: Ice Pac” temporary exhibition in March 2022, when 35 artists activated a condemned building in the Ice Blocks before it was set to be demolished. It was also the last time the two worked together. 

Until at least March 31 of this year, BAF included Verge in its “Special Thanks To” portion on its homepage. Verge’s logo has since been removed. Several sources told us that this whole thing felt like personal grievances that exploded.

When asked how Verge plans to move forward, Moe reported staying focused on the execution of their construction plans and the rest of their day-to-day work.

“I just keep backing up and trying to stay focused on the big picture and here’s this special place that a lot of people worked really hard to create,” Moe said. “And a lot of people are still working hard to keep alive.”

Several sources expressed concern that a realistic end to all of this is that Verge ceases to exist, leaving many to wonder: Has this all been worth it? Is this what the Sacramento arts scene deserves: infighting, accusations, ruined friendships, reputations tarnished, possibly even the loss of Verge and its 36 affordable studio spaces? Verge has been the reluctant stage for a handful of hot topics simmering just beneath the surface of the scene, but now that these issues have surfaced, the community could look toward conflict resolution and engaging all voices in the community, with intention. And in figuring out how to constructively improve the arts groups that it already has.

Everyone is actually on the same team here, said Fonda, the long-time resident artist at Verge. Even if they don’t quite see it yet. “The goals do overlap. They need to connect the dots. Arts organizations are not in competition with each other. There’s a scarcity mindset in this town,” said Fonda, adding that the more arts organizations there are the better for everyone. 

“The answer is,” she said, “we are going to have to work together.”

Additional reporting by Keyshawn Davis and Sena Christian.

Edited by Katerina Graziosi, Sena Christian and Scott Thomas Anderson. 

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and 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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12 Comments on "A controversy involving Verge revealed deep cracks in Sacramento’s art scene — and left many wondering why it had to go down like this"

  1. watching this all go down has been fascinating. criticism is almost always warranted. verge needs to leash their lawyer who only made things drip with privilege and exacerbated the situation.

    kudos for this extremely thorough article and unbiased reporting!

  2. Great job! Within the first four paragraphs I could tell this was going to be a through balanced and well-done story. I think it got a little too broad and long after a time, but kudos for taking all that on. Just one quibble: Verge is not a museum like Crocker – the standard definition of a museum is a collecting institution; Verge doesn’t collect.

  3. Just throwing it out there that about 15 ex-employees who worked at verge and most directly with or under Moe also were in support of the evicted artists and wrote a letter to the board of directors. It’s worth looking at its employee retention rate as well, there are good reasons people don’t stay, specially people of color.

  4. Verge should cease to exist as it is. The board needs to be reassessed as does upper admin. The building and programming are the most important things that can stay in place. There are great orgs to look at in less diverse cities that run circles around Verge. Look at Redline in Denver as a shining example of how things can be done right.

  5. This was a lazy analysis with an apparent aim to pucker up to someone.

  6. Dig a little deeper on Verge. You have only scratched the surface [*edited]

  7. So Verge was called out by artists from within its own community, but instead of being transparent with them about how grant funds were being used, they evicted them, filed a protective order against a local curator their own director used to partner with, had online petitions with over 900+ signatures calling for accountability and transparency, then waited a month to withdraw the protective order and to be transparent about the aforementioned grant? And only to reporters? Cool, cool, cool. I totally didn’t even need to hear about how past studio artists, current studio artists, and former employees all shared shockingly similar stories [*edited]. Let’s only hear from personal friends of Moe + anonymous staff members who have only worked at Verge for less than two years. Nice!

  8. What a sordid stew of ugliness. Perhaps Moe should use the lack of gratitude from the whiners as a reason to close Verge and move on to better endeavors. Sacramento may always be an artistic desert when artists care more about indulging identity politics than ART.

  9. Verge Center for the arts hosted a class/ seminar on how vinyl record are made. It may have been 8-10 years ago. For $20 I attended and was educated as well as entertained on how the process is basically the same as it was in the 1950s. What a great opportunity at a bargain price, and getting to see young people (I am 62) take an interest in the process. There were records recorded and record covers designed and printed by aspiring musicians that were for sale at this event too, works of art unto themselves. As a self proclaimed record geek as well as someone who is interested enough in art to have gotten an Associates degree in it from Sacramento City College, it pains me to see people fighting in a place in which I had a really positive experience. I thought the venue was forthright and without pretense, this class not being in “high art” but maybe just a small niche of art. A positive in the community. I have not made my living from my art, maybe have sold 2 pieces and that only to friends, not at auctions or shows. My partner lives in the bay area and has sold her pieces in various locations like Live Worms, Studio, etc. We attend shows at Moma, the Legion, the Crocker (where I am a member), but value art done by the disenfranchised and outsiders or those with little money. Not sure where I am going with this. Does all art need to reflect the latest politics to be valid? I have a thing for the punk movement of the late 70s early 80s when so many album covers were protesting Ronald Reagan but those days are gone, and these days will move on to something else too. Some art should disturb and call to mind recent goings on, but maybe some can just be aesthetically pretty, or exist for some other reason? I purchase art from the mentally disabled occasionally. There was a place in the old Country Club mall I found that sold it. I am not close with those involved in this dispute but it seems the evicted persons are claiming rascism/ sexism as the cause. What did they contribute artistically? What did you create? The article doesn’t say, other that some persons were involved in this or that organization within the Sacramento art scene. Good, I am glad if it made more art available. As a full time blue collar worker who got his degree taking night classes, I appreciate places like the Verge being around. I am truly sorry if genuine discrimination is what they are facing. I hope these people can work this out. Maybe the Verge has accomplished what it is supposed to. Maybe its supposed to be a bad example of what not to be. In my respectful opinion based on the few times I went to the Verge, is was a place to showcase art from our city’s citizens, not some superstars, and I thought it helped a lot of people to gain exposure. It should either close or those involved may need to effect some give and take for the place to evolve. I am bothered by the way the people evicted chose to voice their displeasure, a bit reckless. The world doesn’t owe anyone anything, and lifes not always fair, but people should not be making physical threats to somebody, especially if that someone is giving you some kind of opportunity. The world has changed so much in just my own lifetime. What once seemed cutting edge or progressive can now be called -ist, you fill in the word. This goes for song lyrics, politics, everything. The same Sting who astutely sang “there is no political solution” in “Spirits in the Material World” also sings “My fine young son has turned out gay” in “On any other day.” I don’t even like him that much! The point is he was progressive from the point of view of the rockers before him but now lyrics like that could have him “cancelled.” Older folks may not always see things the way the younger generation does and they can be wrong but deserve some kudos for having survived this long. Have some patience with the staff at the Verge, I am sure they are not that unreasonable.

  10. Sounds to me like a case of what happens when adults decide to take charge after the kids are in the process of wrecking things for everybody else. The responsible party (the one attempting to put things back ‘on track’ gets accused of (X, Y, Z ‘culturally-insensitive’ actions) while the accusers bask in their newly established victimhood. Meanwhile, all forward momentum to fix the damage gets put on hold indefinitely.

  11. Not sure why this is getting so much coverage. It’s a he-said/she-said dispute, no firm evidence, so the reader can’t really form a judgement – and so not sure why the general public should know or care about it all? Does SNR generally cover intra-office hiring/firing disputes like this?

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