By: Joe Duffy, City Fellow, CEOs for Cities //
America’s approach toward public art is changing. It is no secret our country has historically funded fewer projects than many of our global counterparts. Do our government administrators find the arts irrelevant? Are the arts considered a low priority amidst our budget cuts? Either way, some Americans continue to advocate more cultural investments for our country’s neighborhoods – and they’re finding unique ways to fund them.
One project in Sacramento showcases how our national pendulum can swing toward the arts. At 70,000 square feet, the “Bright Underbelly” mural is the largest in the region. Completed in March 2016, the project was designed to emulate an outdoor tree canopy as rendered underneath the city’s WX Freeway. Each concrete piling was painted to resemble native sycamore trunks, which rise to meet an open sky above. Divided into 4 distinct seasonal sections, the sky and pilings also feature 25 different wildlife species local to the area.
The environmental depiction and busy freeway above form an intentional contrast, and the mural’s location is no accident. Winding through a swath of Central Sacramento, the overpass provides permanent shelter for the Sacramento Central Farmers’ Market. Hosting over 10,000 visitors each week and a diverse range of vendors, it is now California’s largest farmer’s market.
Mural designers Hennessy Christophel and Sofia Lacin of LC Studio Tutto both speak to the importance of deliberate placemaking. “The mural encompasses the market’s year-round narrative, creating a unique sense and experience for visitors. You show up and know you’re in a special place,” Hennessy summarized.
Compared to other large cities in California, Sacramento has never carried the “arts hub” status many associate with the Bay Area or Greater Los Angeles. Bringing such an unprecedented project to the city is also a testament to the determination of Tre Borden, who spent several years behind the scenes as the project manager.
How did this happen?
“It took over 2 years of design, fundraising and navigating bureaucracy,” Borden reflects. “Probably the biggest early hurdle was getting CalTrans on board. Without their approval we’d have been dead in the water.” The California Department of Transportation manages the state’s roads and had numerous concerns, most of which related to safety. To enable routine inspections for cracks and other structural flaws, Lacin and Christophel had to adapt their design to minimize dark colors (which could hide potential cracks), eventually negotiating an encroachment permit using a lighter color pallet.
After securing enthusiasm from CalTrans and other local agencies, Lacin, Christophel and Borden were tasked with the challenge of fundraising. Without any public funding stream, the team faced the challenge of proving the project’s viability and recruiting potential funders.
Momentum began to grow following the team’s successful tethering of a $50,000 grant funded by the California Endowment. With the foundation’s support the team was reenergized, in turn securing a second sizable grant from Kaiser Permanente shortly thereafter. The team also organized a fundraising dinner for locals to become stakeholders, hosted onsite underneath the overpass.
How Might Others Do This?
In reminiscing on the project’s infancy, Tre recalls how important it was to obtain support from those the project would impact most directly. For Bright Underbelly, this meant proposing the idea at public meetings, garnering enthusiasm from the Farmers’ Market vendors and those living in adjacent communities (which came quickly). Getting that bedrock of grassroots first made getting CalTrans’ blessing less of a stretch, in turn making the initial grant supporters less hesitant to come on board.
Perhaps the most inspiring part of Bright Underbelly’s story is, as Borden put it, “We had no idea how to execute this, how to engage local government.” Working from no pre-existing model in Sacramento and no built in funding streams, Borden, Christophel and Lacin built the bridge as they crossed it. Given the project’s popular reception and still growing enthusiasm, the positive outcomes and press have led CalTrans to begin developing a more streamlined statewide process for other inspired citizens to pitch new artistic ideas.
Borden suggests identifying “gatekeepers” (which officials’ support is essential?) and “allies” (who can recognize the value of the project, and will advocate for it internally?) among one’s governing agencies. Maintaining an ego-less approach in presenting the project, and working with a dedicated, talented team (ie, Sofia and Hennessy) are also essential components for success, Borden added.
As large scale arts victories like Bright Underbelly come to fruition, our governing bodies can and will react. Agencies and city planners increasingly recognize how useful a tool public art can be. Art can enhance functionality across shared areas and measurably benefit those who use that space.
Bright Underbelly has proven this by increasing the market’s economic and cultural value, now also serving as a major community gathering place on non-market days. The project also redefines how we might look to fund our public art. Beginning without government support, well-directed determination can definitely pay off.
Looking at the live music, diverse vendors and customers injecting life under the WX today, it is hard to imagine a once deserted shadow. Learn more about Bright Underbelly’s origins here, or visit the project website.