Shelly Willis Talks: Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission | ArtJabber

Shelly Willis Talks: Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission

"Leap," Laurence Argent, aluminum, 2011, Sacramento Intl. Airport.
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There are over 650 original works of public art on display in Sacramento neighborhoods, from North Highlands to Elk Grove, from Downtown to Carmichael.  A series of evocative poems written by local poets are freshly painted on the walls of Del Paso Boulevard’s business district.  Locally based artists are offered professional advice, free of charge, on topics ranging from health care to technical assistance.  The weekly online newsletter Sacramento 365 serves as an informative guide to current art happenings in and around Sacramento.  Local teachers and artists are learning how to teach art.  And once again, live musicians will perform at Sacramento International Airport during the busy winter holiday season.  All of the aforementioned art related activities, and programs, are coordinated by the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission (SMAC), whose mission is to advance the community through arts and culture.

Shelly Willis, Director of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.

Shelly Willis, Director of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.

Under the very capable leadership of Shelly Willis, SMAC’s Executive Director, the lively Sacramento public art scene is thriving in spite of economic challenges.  As the interim director of the commission for a year, and as the official director since August 2013, Willis brings a high level of expertise to Sacramento. Willis rose from an internship at Chico State’s Turner Gallery, to Program Assistant at the California Arts Council, to Visual Art Director for the city of Fairfield, CA, to Director of Public Art on Campus at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum, to her current position.    Additionally, she is drawing attention to Sacramento arts both locally and nationally.  In September, the Arts & Business Council of Sacramento awarded Willis “The Arts Executive of the Year.”

Willis recently sat down for a Q & A session to discuss the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.  Herewith are the highlights of that discussion:

Stein:  Many people don’t know what the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission is.  Can you explain SMAC and it’s purpose?

Willis:  The Arts Commission was established in 1977 when Phil Eisenberg was the mayor.  It is a joint city-county agency.  The purpose of the agency is to support artists and arts organizations.  It’s as simple as that.  But it takes on many forms.  We do a lot of things that usually fall into one of three categories.  One is our “Grant Program,” where we grant money to individual artists and arts organizations through micro-grants.  The second program is “Art in Public Places.”  It is probably the most well known.  And the third program is “Art in Education.”

Elaborating on the Art in Public Places program, Willis said:  The first public art program was in Philadelphia in 1957.  It established the idea of 2% for public art.  Ten years later the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) created their first public art project in Grand Rapids, MI.  Shortly after that, city by city caught on and established some sort of public art program connected to building and construction.  The proliferation of programs really happened in the late 80s to early 90s when lots of cities got on board.  You could see that if your city was being built and you weren’t integrating art into the fabric of the city, it made it so much more difficult and expensive to come back and try to put things in place.

Detail "Flying Colors," Suzanne Adan, 2009, glass teserae floor, Sacramento Airport.

Detail “Flying Colors,” Suzanne Adan, 2011, glass mosaic floor,Terminal B, Sacramento International Airport.

Willis continued to explain: Art really is significant to a place.  So these programs started proliferating.  But we (Sacramento) had established ours in 1977, so we were sort of ahead of things.  And that’s why our community is so rich with art, in the city and in the county.

Stein:  Can you explain the 2% plan?

Willis:  It’s all connected back to construction.  An ordinance dictates that when a building or a park is newly constructed, a percentage of the project’s cost, 2% in our case, is allocated to art.

Stein:  What does the Art in Education Program entail?

Willis:  That program takes on many forms.  We do work in the schools, in senior centers and in numerous other kinds of social institutions.  For instance, we just finished working with the state on a pilot program in the prisons.  Other community situations include after school programs.  We teach teachers how to teach art and we teach artists how to teach art.  And, we provide various workshops.  We’re really moving into this next year — we’re trying to build our Artists in Schools Program.

Stein:  Anything else?

Willis:  Those are the three main programs, but we do other things.  We provide technical assistance to artists and help with marketing.  We were really involved in the “Arts Day of Giving,” which was a collaborative effort among the arts community: $525,000 was raised.  Next year (May 16, 2014 is the next Arts Day of Giving) we hope to raise into the millions of dollars.

"Homie, Walking the Dogs," Gilbert "Magu" Lujan, Sacramento Convention Center.

“Homie, Walking the Dogs,” Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, Sacramento Convention Center.

Stein:  What is your specific role at SMAC? 

Willis:  I’m the director of the agency.  In the last five years I was the lead in the public art program, which is the largest program of the agency.  That’s what I was hired to do.  The airport project was a big project, so I was hired to direct that project.  Including myself, there are five fulltime employees.  We have a number of consultants to do maintenance and art conservation.  But the agency has been cut dramatically — by about two-thirds.  Since 2007, when the economy started to go under, our budget was cut.

Stein:  Why does art matter?

Willis:  It’s what we live for.  I would talk to anybody and have them try to tell me that art isn’t part of their life every single day: through music, a little dance in the kitchen, to art they hang on the wall, to choosing what park to go to.  We’re all making decisions based on art.  It’s part of how we live.  It’s so seamlessly integrated into everything, that we sometimes don’t even know how important it is to our lives: film, television, writing, reading books, architecture.  I can’t imagine my life without art.  I can’t imagine my life without nature.  It’s those two things that make life worth living for me.

Glass Chandelier, Dale Chihuly, Cal EPA Building, Sacramento.

Glass Chandelier, Dale Chihuly, Cal EPA Building,  1001 I Street, Sacramento, CA.

Stein:  How would you describe SMAC’s artistic roster?

Willis:  Over 65 percent of the work in the collection, maybe even more, is by local artists.  There is a desire to support the local art scene.  Although, that doesn’t mean that we don’t want different kinds of voices in our community.  We weigh more heavily on local art.  However, that’s not a policy.

Stein:  Who selects the artists and the art?

Willis:  We have the Arts Commission (Six positions appointed by the mayor and five positions appointed by the county board of supervisors.) and they’re really helping establish policy and they’re approving art.  But for most projects, we convene a panel that includes someone from the Arts Commission, a designer  — either a landscape architect or an architect, then arts professionals, art critics, historians, and members of the community where the artwork will be displayed.


"Picnic," Gerald Silva, bronze, exterior, east side of Historic City Hall, Sacramento.

“Picnic,” Gerald Silva, bronze, east side of Historic City Hall, Sacramento, CA.

Stein:  Are there any specific projects you are currently working on?

Willis:  We’re working with three business districts and the PBIDS (Property & Business Improvement Districts): the Broadway Partnership, the Power Inn Alliance, and the Del Paso Partnership.  I’m excited about all of them.  The Broadway Partnership initially asked me to be involved in helping to develop their conceptual plan for their formal business district and urban land institute, for which they received a grant to do a conceptual plan.  I thought we should do a temporary project here that would inform the design.  It would inform their ideas around public art.  So I wrote a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts, and we received it.  It’s collaboration with Sac State, the Broadway Partnership, ULI (Urban Land Institute), and the Arts Commission, which is incredible to me.

Stein:  You wear many hats.  So you’re also a grant writer? 

Willis:  Well yes.  In public art you have to realize there is a lot of construction.  I don’t think people necessarily have that perception.  But it’s true.  You have to build these things, and you have to work within the parameters of whatever is being built.  I have a lot of experience in construction, architecture, design engineering.  Of course, I’ve worked with city, county, state government, and university systems.  I understand politics and contracts and staff reports and ordinances.  I’ve taught gallery management in urban planning departments, landscape architecture departments and in art history departments.  I’ve edited a book and written essays.  Then it all starts to add up where you understand.  So, yes, grant writing comes into it.

"Text in Stone," Jenny Holzer, granite, U.S. Federal Courthouse, Sacramento, CA.

“Text in Stone,” Jenny Holzer, granite, plaza U.S. Federal Courthouse, Sacramento, CA.

Stein:  Are there any major projects on the horizon for you?

Willis:  We’ll be involved with the art for the new Kings arena and the Community Center redevelopment project.  We’re also working with Regional Transit at station platforms along the south line.  It’s amazing work.  All of the designs are done.  We’ve commissioned David Best, a really important northern California artist known for fabricating temples at Burning Man.  And, the artist Joyce Hsu is doing a fabulous piece on a canopy. 

Stein:  What are your goals for SMAC?

Willis:  We’re looking at the public art ordinance policies and procedures.  They haven’t been changed or updated since 1977.  A lot has happened in the field, so we’re doing research and I will bring my recommendations to the council and the board of supervisors sometime after the first of the year.  We’re just at the beginning of creating a cultural plan for the city and county.  That’s really exciting because it is the first cultural plan that the city and county has ever done.  We’re looking at everything from facilities to different parts of the arts’ community; not just discipline based, but the multi-cultural community and comparative classical art.  We’re at this precipice where things are starting to happen again and we want to be in a place where we’re proactive.  I hope it will inspire funding for the arts. 

Stein:  For anyone visiting Sacramento, what five must-see places and works of art do you recommend?

Willis:  You have to go to the airport.  I think you’d be remiss if you didn’t go to the Convention Center and see the work inside and outside, including the Stephen Kaltenbach piece in the street.  I think the EPA Building has some really strong works.  And then you could pop over to City Hall and see the works there.  And the Library.  I love the grand mural piece.  But I also like things you see in and around town: the spontaneous murals that are popping up that really add character to the city that have nothing to do with the public art program.

"Time to Castaway Stones," Stephen Kaltenbach, cast cement and stone, Sacramento Convention Center, 1999.

“Time to Castaway Stones,” Stephen Kaltenbach, cast cement and stone, Sacramento Convention Center, 1999.

Stein:  Who or what inspires you?

Willis:  That’s a good question.  In art, I’m drawn to work that is more installation-based and is about place.  But I went to see the  (Richard) Diebekorn exhibit at the DeYoung (San Francisco) and I was very inspired by that show.  In art it’s kind of logical.  I’m drawn to work that is in the environment that you can be surrounded by or in, like an object or a painting.  Although that’s in general.  Art and great thinkers inspire me.  I’m interested in reading.  Richard Serra is somebody I love reading.  Robert Smythson wrote a lot of things that I enjoy reading for inspiration.  I read everything that administrator/curator Tom Finkelpearl writes and he inspires me.  He’s very involved in this field.  I’m also inspired by anybody I’m at a dinner party with who talks about ideas.  Imagine what could be, how things change, what’s interesting about a certain piece of art.  Anybody that adds a curiosity and is interested in talking about ideas, inspires me.

Stein:  Do you have a mentor?

Willis:  You know, this last year it has been Barbara Bonebrake.  She’s the Convention, Culture and Leisure Department Director for the city.  She manages the Arts Commission — she’s my boss.  She’s just incredible.  But I also regularly talk with an artist that is a colleague in New York: Janet Zweig.  She inspires me; her brain, the way that she thinks.  We talk all the time about ideas. 

"Serendipity," Mark di Suvero, 2005, stainless steel, titanium, Calpers, 400 Q Street, Sacramento, CA.

“Serendipity,” Mark di Suvero, 2005, stainless steel, titanium, Calpers (Calif. Public Employees Retirement System),      400 Q Street, Sacramento, CA.

Stein:  What does the future hold for Shelly Willis?

Willis:  I’m really devoted to this place right now.  The future is about the emphasis of paying individual artists and creating a strong foundation through the individual art community that then informs everything else: teaching, the arts organizations, the economy, all of that.  If we can draw and keep artists here, just like jobs, it’s going to make us better.  I think we’ll see that in the future.


3 Responses

  1. Marcy Friedman says:

    Dear Lesley,

    I didn’t know that you had an art blog until I read the SMAC Newsletter and saw a reference to your blogsite. I read your interview with Shelly and noted that you have several other articles which I will have to find the time to read. I like what you are doing and it is very professional.

  2. Hosting says:

    That’s the fault of our ordinance for the funding of public art, drafted in 1977. It allots 2 percent of the cost of a public building project to commission works – but it ties the art to that location. So Sacramento has a stellar collection, hidden in sewer treatment plants, firehouses and office buildings.

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