Blank City Sacramento

Posted on July 28, 2011 – 7:59 PM | by William Burg
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The Warhol Economy, Blank City, and a flyer

Blank City Sacramento

On July 15, I attended two very similar events that showcased the underground New York arts scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s: Midtown Business Association’s annual gala at Harlow’s, and Verge Gallery’s premiere of “Blank City” at the Crest Theatre. Both spurred discussion about the factors behind the creative environment that emerged from a dangerous, decaying neighborhood during the nadir of New York’s greater economy, and what that might mean for arts scenes in cities like Sacramento.

The MBA gala featured live music, art, DJs, fashion and body decoration ranging from hairstyles and makeup to body painting and tattoos, but I was there for the keynote speaker, USC professor Elizabeth Currid. She spoke about her thesis and resulting book, The Warhol Economy. Currid argues that creative industries like fashion, art and music drive the economy of New York as much as finance, real estate and law, and backs up her theory with detailed statistics and analysis. She claims that the arts sector makes up 5% of New York’s economy, putting it alongside finance and banking in total share of employment, and identifies it as a multi-billion dollar business sector. The arts sector is also closely tied to the nightlife and media sectors, which are large economic sectors in their own right. The factors that create this economy are cheap rent (which allows artists the spare time to pursue their craft), nightlife and creative spaces (studios, galleries, nightclubs, music venues, etc.) where scenes happen and informal networking takes place, and a dense neighborhood that allows a self-sustaining creative scene to exist in a common environment. While much creative work requires privacy and individual space (painting, writing, band practice, film editing, etc.), getting that work exposed to an audience requires the ability to network. Making friends, promoting events, meeting new contacts and being seen in the right places are as important as creative output, and most of that work is done simply by running into people in the neighborhood. Without cheap rent, artists can’t afford to spend time on their art. Without creative spaces, they don’t get together in ways that let creative workers communicate with each other. Without density, there often aren’t enough artists or audiences in close proximity to achieve the critical mass that makes art scenes self-sustaining and an important part of a city’s economy.

Currid developed her thesis by interviewing hundreds of artists of all backgrounds, and spending a lot of time in New York nightclubs, art openings, fashion events and other cultural hotspots. She explored the history of the scene, punk hotspots like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, art studios like Andy Warhol’s Factory, and researched artists from Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat to Shepard Fairey and CLAW. She also mentioned the influence of gallery owner Patti Astor (of the Astor family, one of New York’s oldest wealthy families.) After discussing how these scenes work in person, she changed out of her club clothes to present statistical analysis of the arts sector in New York and other major cities While art scenes tend to be interdisciplinary, and benefit from connections with other creative scenes, some cities tend to focus on one discipline or another, like Los Angeles’ dominance of film and television, or New York’s fashion and gallery art. One audience member questioned whether Sacramento could be compared with New York in any way, but Currid insisted that any city can benefit from promoting its art scene, or at least enacting policies that allow art scenes to occur, by identifying local strengths and existing art scenes and finding ways to encourage them.

There were plenty more acts at Harlow’s that evening, but I had places to go, so we skipped out of the MBA gala and headed downtown to the Crest for the premiere of “Blank City.” Introduced by filmmaker and CSUS professor Jenny Stark, “Blank City” told the story of the same scene Currid described, focusing on the “No Wave” and “Cinema of Transgression” film movements that captured the simultaneously nihilistic and creative energy of the era on cheap or stolen celluloid. Clips from the era’s films and interviews with folks like Lydia Lunch, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Kern, Beth B and Scott B, John Waters, James Chance, Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Susan Seidelman and Steve Buscemi told the story of a dangerous, drug-infested neighborhood, whose benefits included cheap rent, venues and galleries, and enough like-minded people in close proximity to drive a scene: exactly the elements Currid identified in The Warhol Economy. While the focus of “Blank City” is the film scene, the film, music, gallery art, theater and even graffiti scenes of the era were inextricably linked. People like Basquiat and Astor appear in the film, as are venues like CBGB and Max’s. Artists crossed media at will, and, as a wheat-pasted flyer of the era proclaimed, “Everyone here is in a band.” Some in the New York scene became superstars, some well-known in the art or music scene, others are little-known outside of specialists in their field, and others remained in obscurity or died tragically young. The changing face of New York in the 1980s brought money and media attention to the New York scene, which catapulted some to success while raising rents and making a formerly collaborative scene into a fiercely competitive one. While Currid argues that this has contributed greatly to New York’s contemporary economy, those interviewed in “Blank City” called it disastrous—even those who were catapulted to worldwide fame lamented the loss of the low-rent, free-form creative New York scene of their youth.

Sacramento: Blank City or Blank Slate?

While it is dangerous to draw too many analogies, in some ways the people and places in the New York scene, in the film and the book, reminded me of Sacramento’s own creative scene from a slightly later era. In the 1980s and 1990s, Sacramento’s central city was, like the Lower East Side, a mostly disregarded neighborhood, often considered dangerous and gritty. But for local musicians and artists, the same elements Elizabeth Currid mentioned were present. Rent was cheap, and there were a few music venues, cafes, record stores and other cultural oases in the neighborhood. Art and music venues like the Oasis Ballroom, the Cattle Club, Club Can’t Tell, Club Minimal, the Stucco Factory, the Loft, EMRL, Garageland, and a multitude of other short-lived and sometimes brazenly illegal venues were accessible to those “in the know.” The first Second Saturday events started in the 1990s, as did larger-scale but less-successful efforts like Thursday Night Market and the Fringe Arts Festival. There were even jobs to be had, at places like Java City and Tower Records, where flamboyant fashion, facial piercings, tattoos and pink hair (far less accepted than they are today) did not disqualify one from employment. These businesses and venues also provided the other ingredient of an art scene: a place to network, communicate, flyer, and meet like-minded people. In the pre-Internet days, flyers, handbills and self-produced zines supplemented incidental communication at cafes and clubs, spreading the word about shows, bands and artists. And often, the people in this scene had been inspired by the New York scene: plenty of Midtowners owned videos of Richard Kern or John Waters films, bought Sonic Youth records, or had a crush on Lydia Lunch. Some of these individuals make up much of the core of Sacramento’s arts and music communities today; and Midtown saw a rush of gentrification that has pushed many of today’s younger (and poorer) aspiring artists into Oak Park, just as aspiring artists moving to New York may choose Brooklyn over Manhattan for its affordability and less-gentrified character, spurring new arts communities in new neighborhoods.

In “Blank City,” filmmaker Jim Jarmusch mentions that the actual number of people in the New York scene was fairly small—perhaps 600 people who all knew each other, dated each other, and often collaborated in bands, films or other projects. After the film, Crest manager Sid Garcia-Heberger mentioned an old aphorism, “There are maybe 60 people in Sacramento worth knowing.” 60 people (or 600) is not a number to be taken too literally, but both statements imply that the creative core of our city, or any city, is usually a relatively small group. This reflected my own experience, and one I hear many friends repeat—that our local creative community, for the most part, already knows each other, or at least knows each other’s friends. Some often describe this phenomenon as evidence of Sacramento’s “small-town” character, or that the local scene is somewhat “inbred,” but if New York’s creative scene works the same way, it is evidence of Sacramento’s urban character, not a small-town feature. The local creative scene knew each other because they lived in the same general neighborhood, went to the same parties, clubs and art shows, and couldn’t help but meet each other. And if a city the size of Sacramento, 1/20th the size of New York, has a creative community 1/10th as large, perhaps we’re doing better than we think.

So why did New York’s scene reach such heights while Sacramento’s scene is still considered a backwater? There are a number of factors to consider.

• First, total size really does matter. Even if the ratio of artists is relatively high, a greater number of artists means greater potential for combination and recombination within that network, and a bigger city means a bigger potential audience; so 600 New York artists (with an audience of 8 million) really has more than 10 times the potential of 60 Sacramento artists (with an audience of 450,000.)
• Second, the social pull of other more established cities means we regularly lose artists once they reach a certain level of success, while cities like New York attract them. Many of those New York artists grew up in other places, and came to New York to find like minds and a chance at success; Sacramentans from Joan Didion to !!! did exactly that—although some people actually move to Sacramento from small towns and suburbs for exactly the same reason!
• Third, different city forms and policies produced different results. New York is a very dense place, and it’s easy for a lot of people to live in close proximity. In the 1970s, New York was in decline and close to bankruptcy, and it was easier to ignore issues like graffiti, noise, and people living in abandoned warehouses and factories (even if the people making the graffiti and noise, and living in the warehouses were artists) when there were other more pressing matters diverting city government’s attention. Meanwhile, Sacramento was a relatively affluent place in the 1980s and 1990s, trying to cement its image as a quiet, pastoral city of suburban neighborhoods. Many in city government still held older ideas that city culture was a social ill, something to stamp out or at least hide from public view, and efforts to depopulate downtown Sacramento (and destroy the music scene that flourished there through the 1950s) were quite successful—but they ran out of money before Midtown could be just as thoroughly demolished.

The end result for Sacramento was a creative community that produced some self-sustaining institutions, including a legacy of galleries, music venues, artists and musicians, but on a smaller scale. Sacramentans have gone on to success as artists, but often they leave Sacramento to do so. Others remain in Sacramento and find success at different levels, or open businesses that nurture the local arts community. But there is still a perception of Sacramento as a place that does not foster its creative community. How can our own experience as a city, and the advice of policy analysts like Elizabeth Currid, help make Sacramento’s creative scene a more interesting place—and, potentially, help to boost the local economy the same way that New York’s art scene does? We’ll explore that in the second half of this article, coming soon.

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