By Casey Rafter
Sacramento artist and writer Liv Moe is the founder, curator and director of the Verge Center for the Arts, which offers residency programs, exhibitions and workshops to artists. She also founded and edited the now defunct Midtown Monthly magazine from 2008-2012. Her own work as an artist has been shown at Crocker Art Museum, California Museum and Nelson Gallery at UC Davis (Now the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art).
Placerville native Jennifer Jackson not only owns Grigio Art Consulting, which places art in commercial and health care spaces, she is the co-founder of M5ARTS, creator of ArtStreet and ArtHotel. She’s also a co-founder of The Red Museum, a performance and art warehouse that’s welcomed acts like Steve Vanoni, Flor Vato & Art Lessing, L.A. Witch and the annual music festival, Red Ex.
Moe and Jackson met up recently at Verge to talk about the need for more spaces in the region for artists to show their work and the benefits of having a mayor that embraces their industry. Moe got the conversation started by lamenting the lack of local galleries.
Liv Moe: I think one of the big concerns I have is that we’re at an all-time low for galleries. We can’t keep a gallery open here to save our life and the idea that people wouldn’t just go and invest in a piece of art by somebody that they like is a huge concern.
Jennifer Jackson: How long have you been in the Sacramento region?
Moe: 1986. I was 11 when I got here. I moved here with my folks and then I stayed here. I mean, to be honest, that was not my intention. I thought I would probably leave for grad school and then I got this job, which is why I’m still here.
Jackson: I (was) born in San Francisco, grew up in the foothills, skipped Sacramento, went to Davis.
Moe: — I went to Davis —
Jackson: Which is a very important part of our ecosystem. And then went back to the Bay and didn’t really even know that Sacramento was a viable cultural center through all of that. Even going to Davis, it wasn’t really on the radar there, which is strange to me. I had some musician friends who moved here and there seemed to be a scene around that. So I ended up coming back here from San Francisco for affordability, honestly, I want(ed) to buy a house.
Moe: What [do] artists need to make success reality?
Jackson: Well, I think in a place like Sacramento, expanding your network is really important. It’s really a friend of a friend of a friend kind of city. That some people go to shows; that’s how people will go to openings. The more general desire to go out and experience new things that maybe you would find in a bigger city is not quite as big here and it is very homies supporting homies kind of way that you can get the exposure you’re looking for.
Moe: I really love it here — obviously I’ve stayed here — but there’s a community that I adore and I’m never bored; I always have a lot to do. But you need to know where to find the things to do and it’s definitely not like being in Los Angeles or someplace like that where, any night of the week, there’s way more things to do than you would want to do. There’s plenty to do here, it’s like an underground network.
Jackson: You have to be plugged in.
Moe: I also think, now with the dearth of publications, it’s really difficult to find where to go anymore. Social media’s algorithms are making it really hard to use that as a way to know what’s going on because things don’t come up all the time like they used to, there’s really not a lot of publications. That has been something I’ve been trying to understand recently: how to let people know what you’re doing.
Jackson: Even kind of the loss — as much as I hate Facebook; everyone hates it, but it had event features that people would really use and there’s nothing replacing that. … Growing up in Placerville, getting a physical copy of the Sac News & Review was a really big deal. Accessing that information is so difficult and when you think about how much we rely on just a few social media apps and the way that they frame the information, how we get it, it’s just kind of disturbing. …
Moe: Yeah, but then you still have to struggle with the algorithm. I have colleagues … they use Google AdWords and things like that to come up in searches, because there’s really not a whole lot of people to send a press release to anymore. I had a meeting with some of them recently and I thought, well, I’m going to ask them because I want to know what they do because I can’t figure out what to do anymore. And maybe they have some avenues that they’re sending things to and instead, they just said they don’t do it at all. The problem with that too is that, with Google search words, the only thing that people are finding is something that they may already be looking for. There isn’t that experience of just discovering a silent film playing somewhere that has music being scored by a live musician. You’d have to know the venue and follow the venue or he’d have to be familiar with that film and Googling it or something which you probably wouldn’t do.
I love that Dreamland Cinema is now publishing an actual calendar and distributing them like we used to in the old days where you would go and leave things at coffee shops and stuff because, it’s a ton more work, but at least you get it in front of people. I don’t know what else to do.
Jackson: Another great thing happening with Dreamland is that cross-pollination with the Crocker hosting movie nights that they’re curating. That’s something that is, I think, really important in Sacramento: that cross-pollination between the organizers that we have between visual art and music and film. A lot of the appreciators of those things appreciate the other mediums and we need to pull all those appreciators together into each other’s worlds.
Moe: The truth is, we all share audience. That kind of makes me nuts — when there’s folks in this community that are not more receptive to partnering. It’s silly to think that we all just have these silos that are not crossing over. A lot of times, the people who want to go out and do stuff are always looking to do stuff. It’s not like they’re just doing things with one menu. It’s not a loyalty program. … And I think, even amongst some of the institutions and the partnerships, it just depends on who they feel like they don’t lose as much skin in the game with to partner with versus who they might. That can sometimes be a hurdle.
Jackson: We put on a local music festival once a year at Red Museum. It’s hard to believe that there isn’t more than 300 or 400 people in the greater Sacramento area [who] want to go to something like that. I don’t think the audience doesn’t exist for a lot of these things that we’re doing. It really is about marketing.
Moe: It’s marketing. It’s also [that] Red Museum came up at a time that was kind of special within the city in terms of them wanting to be more flexible with the venue. They were supportive with you and I think it’s because they had been getting so much scrutiny, that when something happened with you guys for your occupancy, they felt pressured to need to help with that. There’s so many levels of things with the arts and culture scene in terms of what we really need to keep this moving.
Part of it obviously is more galleries. That really freaks me out that we can’t seem to keep them open. Also, for the music community, we don’t have the small venues that we used to have. To some degree, society is changing and the way people consume live music is changing. But also, it’s so difficult to make something happen. It’s hard to get a permit. It’s hard to get a liquor license or a one day liquor license as a nonprofit, depending on the kind of show you’re going to do. There’s all those rules with entertainment permits in terms of how many people you’re hosting. It’s thinning out the number of small and experimental venues too, which helped the ecosystem survive.
Jackson: The Mayor’s State of the City addressed the small venue problem, (of) under 500 person, lack of performance spaces. I love that that topic is being brought to that level of attention.
Moe: Me too.
Jackson: But it did still ring a little bit like we’re talking about DOCO, the [Golden 1 Center] area and the people who own that real estate wanting activation on K Street. It didn’t really feel like it was coming from a more grassroots perspective.
Moe: I think it is coming from a grassroots perspective.
Jackson: You do?
Moe: Yeah, because I was in a couple of the meetings with the consultant that they brought in. Because I’ve been doing shows in Sacramento since well, I don’t really do that kind of stuff now, obviously. In high school, I started helping organize punk shows at the Guild [Theater in] ’92. Even after I started doing other things with my life and going to art school and stuff, (I) spent the majority of my personal life in the punk scene. A lot of times, there were shows that either had to be completely underground or else they would get shut down or there were limits to how long a venue would stay open. Eventually, they would just get shut down for various infractions and then that would be the end of it.
They asked a whole bunch of us for all these different bits of feedback in terms of things that we think were frustrating or onerous or unrealistic. Of course, they bring up Austin and places like that all the time, which I just think is funny, because you go to those places and it’s so obvious how supported that music scene is. To get to a place where there would be more activity, there would have to be way more support and flexibility for how we operate. I think they’re using K Street as a motivator, because there’s so much needed there. You have so many blocks of nothing and it’s been that way for so long.
Jackson: For so long, we’ve been making it so hard that we’ve stifled something. Now we’re like, “Wait, nevermind, we want it back.” We’ve virtually killed off a lot of the energy and now we’re saying bring it back, but do it here.
Moe: That’s frustrating. When we were doing the Midtown Monthly, there was a writer that had done research on the history of the dance permit and all these other things. Some of that stuff goes back to segregation. It was a way to control what people were doing with their social lives. The fact that we haven’t revisited some of these policies and looked at why they were brought into place in the first place is really crazy to me. And like you know the things around amplified sound. What is the difference? So if you have a DJ, then that’s infinitely suddenly more dangerous. Or if your guitar is plugged into an amplifier then things are gonna go sideways. …
Also, [this] brings up a lot of discrimination and a lot of intolerance. There’s so much that needs to be unpacked there and given another look, it is frustrating that it would take an entertainment district to make some of this happen, but if it changes there, then it means that if somebody decides to open a club in Midtown or Oak Park, they’re not going to be constrained to those same old-school rules about “49 people and you need a security guard” and you know, God help you if you want to amplify your music. …
It’s still a very kind of small-town attitude. And there’s dimensions of that that sometimes I like, because it does make it easy to navigate and it does sometimes feel like a place that’s kind of knowable in the way that small towns can be. But then there’s other ways in which we conduct business and create policy, and it’s like we haven’t quite gotten to the place yet where we’re thinking of ourselves as a mature adult.
Jackson: Yeah, it feels like we’re constantly afraid of being slapped on the wrist. It’s not like we feel like it’s our place to do whatever we want. I mean, it’s a government town. I just think there’s a government regulation mentality. The major industries and employers here and the whole mindset of government, legislative — health care is a big industry here — that does set the tone for the city.
Moe: Because we have the state here and there’s already this hardwired industry here, you don’t have the motivation to divine yourself to be something else because, no matter what, there’s always a certain percentage of a population that has to be here to supply all those places with employees. It’s a blessing and a curse because, on the one hand, you have some dedicated employment opportunities. That’s a nice security blanket, but it does turn it into a government town. It makes it kind of conservative and it doesn’t motivate experimentation because you’re not trying to attract other industries because you already have this massive industry.
Have you ever doubted your commitment to your artistic pursuits or struggled with sticking with pursuing that passion?
Jackson: I’m gonna say no, because I just feel so lucky. This is a great thing about Sacramento. If you have a vision and you build a network, you can make up your own little slice here. I feel like that’s what Red Museum is, that’s (what) my art consultant business is. I feel really lucky to have those two funnels for creativity to kind of amplify. What you do is incredible here. I can’t imagine Sacramento without Verge.
Moe: Thank you. I think that it’s absolutely proximity (that) has enabled us to do what we’re doing in terms of being able to know people and do stuff. There’s two visual arts institutions in the region with budgets over 500,000 — us and the Crocker. For a city with the population size that we have, it blows my mind sometimes how few visual arts resources we have here and how many visual arts institutions. It’s just kind of weird if you’re trying to convince people of your value and what you contribute and what the richness is if there’s limits to how much you have. It means that there’s not a huge population driving demand for it. I’m in a group [of] leaders of organizations that are above $500,000, more operating: there’s two visual arts and then eight or nine performing. Why is that?
I feel really lucky to be doing what I’m doing and I love that I can come to work every day and pursue my own vision. I think that’s amazing. Because we’re not attracting people to be here to be creative or to seek artistic opportunities, you don’t have as much of a foundation to work from that are already aware of art and want to support art. You’re getting the people who are just already here versus people who have come here because it’s a cultural place to be. Art that you see emerge from this region becomes an interesting thing to follow, because it’s evolving out of the community that’s here. It’s not necessarily an exchange or a synergy of things that are coming in and out all the time. It’s what’s already here, in terms of art that’s produced here. It does sometimes limit the exchange.
Jackson: Right. Exchange is another really important topic for Sacramento; just that import-export. Touring bands or exhibits come through here. Appreciating it, making it a good experience for those artists, is important. Or else, why are they going to come back here? How does that inspiration and connection travel down into the local community? And you get those opportunities to go out into other cities and be ushered into a different scene.
Moe: That’s because of those limits in terms of the exchanges that happen. A lot of what we’re doing originates here. There’s often this very hard line, “locals only” idea about, especially, visual art. With music, there’s not this like, “how dare you have a band from San Diego playing here.” But God forbid you would be doing something with a visual artist from out of town. I just think that’s so weird. There’s not like a one-to-one opportunity removed from another person when you explore an outside artist. What if you met that artist and now you know an artist out of town? A lot of times people get curated into shows by other artists. So it would help you to know people outside of your community.
Jackson: I think it comes from people feeling so limited in their opportunities, so to lose one is a big deal, but I agree that’s not really the right framework. This is still an opportunity in a different way.
Moe: It’s definitely coming from a scarcity mindset. In some ways, that goes back to the fact that we have so few visual arts institutions in the region and so few galleries, so if you have work that you’re trying to get out there, where are you going to show it?
Jackson: I’m meeting with artists — career artists now, because I’m starting to curate for UC Davis Health, and they’re like, “Yeah, we don’t really have a gallery I’d want to show up in Sacramento.” It’s not worth it. All of the work it is to do a show and there really aren’t people buying, so it’s like, why am I gonna go through all of that?
Moe: I get it. It makes sense. … There’s a lot of people here that haven’t made that connection yet that they could just buy an original piece of art for their house. The people who have means to do it. … If they are decorating, they’re decorating with things that they bought from a department store. And they appreciate local art, they like going to art shows, they like going to Second Saturday, but they haven’t quite made that connection yet: Why don’t I buy a piece of art when I go look at that art?
Jackson: People like the experience of going out and experiencing the art scene, but there is a monetary aspect. You have to financially support it or it will stop existing.
Moe: When I started editing the Midtown Monthly in 2006, there was a lot of galleries to cover — 40 acres in Oak Park, Solomon Dubnick in the MARRS project, Barry [Sakata] is still there [with his gallery, b. sakata garo], JayJay is gone. These were all galleries that had been around for a while; like Solomon Dubnick, at that point, had been around for like 25 years. … There was a bit more of a culture of going out, going to galleries, buying a piece of art.
Jackson: It’s really not that long ago when Second Saturday was like such a big deal for Sacramento. Yes, it was based in art and galleries, but then it was like this is a night you’d go to Midtown and you spend in restaurants and spend hours in bars and then you go to a show after. There was a whole economy every month. I think people felt like it lost its soul a little bit.
Moe: There was that period of time where you could barely get down the street. And then there was a shooting [in 2010] that happened on a Second Saturday, not connected to Second Saturday, I will note. It was a show that had let out at the Memorial Auditorium. A fight broke out after the show. The fight continued over to, I think somewhere near Streets of London, and someone got shot at like 11 o’clock at night. It got dubbed as a Second Saturday shooting because it happened on that night.
Following that, there were all these rules: activities had to start concluding at dusk. Second Saturday was primarily a summer activity, which was really lame for those of us who do things year round. If you were a vendor that popped up on the street, you couldn’t sell anything that you didn’t make yourself. So that got rid of a bunch of the street vendors. They changed the rules about amplified sound.
Jackson: This is the regulation city.
Moe: It slowly killed it. And at the time, it was so frustrating because, yes, of course that shooting was a tragedy; that was terrible. It was not related to the activity.
Jackson: Again, the State of the City, talking about the shooting that happened down there. These are totally tragic events, but then over-regulating and then stifling the nightlife and then begging for it to come back?
Moe: I’m not gonna name names, but there’s bars that are known for how off the chain they get consistently. Granted, no one’s getting shot there, but it’s bad. It’s like fights are breaking out there. People are throwing up in the street, people are peeing on the street. I don’t understand where and why there’s certain places where it’s like, “This is not OK,” but we’re going to turn a blind eye to this?
Jackson: Then also, this is kind of a small city mindset. Big cities, sometimes things happen.
Moe: Yeah! Because you have a lot of people and you have people doing stuff. I think we are in a moment right now where we have to think about what our infrastructure looks like and what sorts of things need to happen to save or preserve the health of some of the things that we value, like the music scene. As far as the galleries, I’m not sure what to do. I mean, I’ve wondered if part of it gets back to the lack of publications and the way to share information. Because also, at the height of Second Saturdays, the News & Review had that map.
Jackson: I know, I loved the map.
Moe: What do you do to have people consistently aware of what’s happening?
Jackson: Your actions affect your community and your culture, right? So if you do care about these things, you have to physically go out, attend things, financial support things and make it part of your lifestyle. If you say you love the vibrancy of Midtown, you can’t go to Applebee’s and a movie on a Friday night. You got to go to a local restaurant, go to a show and be involved. And it’s also just a small enough city to where, if you really love something, there are so many ways that you can be involved, which is really where you’re getting the most out of a scene like this. Because if you’re volunteering or maybe you take great photos, come out and maybe photograph what’s going on and share it. We’re all participants in the ecosystem here.
Moe: Sharing things with other people makes a huge difference. If you have gone someplace and it was cool, mentioning it, putting it on social media or telling somebody about something; word of mouth, at this point, is just so important. We do a survey every year after the [Sac Open Studios] tour is over. And I’ve noticed that the individual sales in artists studios is going up as the attendance on the tour, which I think is amazing. It means that people are going into an artist studio, which in itself sometimes is intimidating for people … but then to do that and go a step further and actually buy work from an artist in your community is really cool.
Jackson: Something Sacramento creatives may be a little bit better at is having an online presence, having a good enough website or a landing point to where, if you did go out you’re like, “Oh yeah, I saw something or took a picture of this piece. Now I want to look up the artist and just see.” And again, that’s a big step for a lot of people to take the time to document and have a landing place for their work. But that’s a huge part of the exchange as well.
Moe: That helped during the pandemic because, that first year of the pandemic, the studio tour went online. We had a lot of artists up until that point who had been resistant to having a more robust online presence and they were really relying on the magazine that we put out and the things related to the infrastructure of the tour from Verge’s perspective. … So we really upped the resources we provided people on how to flesh out their social media, how to make it so that somebody can buy your art off of your Instagram, all that stuff.
Jackson: I could totally tell. Thank you for doing that.
Moe: At this point, there’s so much between Canva and all the different templates for websites. It’s not like the old days where, if you had a website, it cost you like $1,500 and you had to spend all this time thinking about it. That has made a huge, huge difference. I am seeing a lot more people promoting the things they’re doing and sharing it. Maybe for those of us who want to go find things, it’s just more work on our part because you’re not going to a handful of galleries anymore. You’re having to follow individual people.
Jackson: Definitely. There’s hubs of “Oh, thank God! The Open Studios tour guide is here!”
Moe: Then you have two weekends where you can go hit a whole bunch of people. This year, I think we were just under 270 artists. The year before, we were at like 275 or something. That’s almost 300 artists, and those are just the ones that sign up for the tour. There’s infinitely more out there. The studio tour is amazing, but that’s once a year so where else do they put stuff out?
We brought back the artists salon after the pandemic and we’re getting really good turnout, probably 30 or so people every month. But when we first started doing it, we had to have this conversation with the group: This is not just to complain about the Sacramento art scene thing. It’s not that your grievances are not valid, and we appreciate that you need a place to have those dialogues, but this is about having a conversation about art concepts and ideas. It’s not about getting together and venting about what the Sacramento art community lacks.
There’s certainly things we’re deficient in, but there’s a lot of things about this community and this scene that I also think are really positive and great that we are taking for granted on a regular basis. One of which is the fact that we’ve had a mayor that’s been so, so receptive to supporting the arts for the last few years, which is amazing. … And it can always be built on, but there’s definitely other things as well that we can point to and say, these are good. So what can we do collectively to make things continue to move forward?
Jackson: And this is also recovering from the period of quarantine, but getting back in that mindset of being an active participant. You see people organizing or doing the things that you want to see and really thinking about how you can support that. You can’t just admire it from the sidelines in a city like this. It’s not just the Sacramento core. We have all of this suburban sprawl around us. We have Davis and we have these great cute foothill towns an hour way. This is like where our bigger beacons of the culture are. Having that relationship with all these outlying areas and feeling like it’s not just Midtown for Midtown.
The advantages of Sacramento are it’s accessible, it’s easy to enter and be a part of these bigger things that are happening. It’s very welcoming and you don’t have to have a lot of experience or background or even the right kind of education to participate in the art scene and enjoy it.
Moe: Which is something I’ve always really appreciated about it. But you know, I also think sometimes the easy-ness of Sacramento is one of the problems. Years ago, when I first met Phil Hitchcock, who used to be the director of the Sac State Library Gallery. He moved here from Chicago. He was always really grumpy about how “easy” Sacramento is because the weather’s nice, people are typically pretty laid back here, so there isn’t that motivating drive, you’re not competing, you’re not having to get up and hit it every damn day. He just was like, “It’s just so easy here. It’s like a dulling effect.” And it was really funny. I hadn’t thought about it, but I was like, it is kind of chill.
Jackson: It is chill. I think a lot of artists that do stay here like that, though. You can be reclusive and kind of pop your head out. You can do your work and there’s still just enough here to participate in when you want to.
Moe: And the weather is usually pretty nice, with the exception of the occasional heatwave or wildfire. You’re not shoveling snow, we don’t get hurricanes. So he wasn’t wrong. It’s kind of an easy town.
Jackson: And it’s proximity. The city [has] got a lot of places to go, fill the cup with some inspiration.
What’s next? You have the art auction coming up?
Moe: [Yes], speaking of things that you can engage with to support the regional arts community. We also just got a fairly substantial grant from the State of California to build more art studios. It’s true, there’s very, very few artists residencies in Sacramento, but we have one that the studio is free and you get a $300 stipend for the duration of the residency. And then all the other studios here, we keep it at below market rate. So most of them are the same or less than it would cost you to run a storage unit, which is pretty crazy. And you do have to participate in the community here and you have to use the studio a certain amount every month in order to keep it, so you can’t treat it like a storage unit. … One of the things this grant will do is going to provide the resources to build five more studios. At this point, our waiting list is so long, we can’t meet it.
Jackson: That’s a good thing, to note. The demand is there and people are producing and wanting that space.
Moe: And we have so many art departments in this region. So just that alone, you have all these faculty that are here to teach and to do things and they want to continue the community that they had wherever they came from. And then you also have students that are coming out of all the regional programs that want a place to go when they graduate. What do you do? If you don’t have a cheap studio and you don’t have a community to plug into, you’re not going to stay here. We currently have 31 studios and soon, we’ll have 36. That’s a real positive.
This conversation has been edited for length, clarity and flow.
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.