SN&R: Sacramento’s art, race and money problem

A couple of blocks off of Stockton Boulevard in a residential neighborhood, there’s a white wall that wasn’t always supposed to be white.

Back in 2007, SMUD and a now-defunct community group hatched a plan for a mural on 14th Avenue commemorating local landmarks: the Colonial Theatre, Luigi’s Pizza Parlor, an old bowling alley, a couple of churches. Three years later, local muralist Shonna McDaniels gathered a group of painters and started working on the approved design, which featured seven Caucasian, one Asian and two African-American figures.

At random, McDaniels began with the two black faces, painted with dark, dark skin. Immediately, some neighbors took notice.

“All hell broke loose,” she says. “People were running outside, driving by calling us ’niggers’ … asking, ’Who authorized you Negroes to paint images of aliens on the wall?’”

She had kids there, wanting to help but crying instead.

With neighborhood complaints mounting, SMUD scheduled a community meeting less than a week after painting began. McDaniels describes the screaming gathering as “a total race divide.” Of the 45 stakeholders present, 37 opposed any kind of mural, while the rest just opposed the particular mural being created.

And that was that.

“An entire community shut the mural down because they did not want to see images that look like me,” she says.

McDaniels is the founder of south Sacramento’s Sojourner Truth Multicultural Art Museum, which features a maze of murals depicting African-Americans such as Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Michael Jordan and Kanye West. Their bold, colorful images flow into the next effortlessly, forming a historical timeline. It’s one of a few places in Sacramento to see painted black faces. It’s also one of a few places to see a high volume of work by a black artist.

A stroll through Midtown art galleries on Second Saturday rarely—if ever—yields many pieces by African-Americans or other artists of color. The gallery owners tend to be white. The patrons tend to be white. The artists follow suit.

According to the most recent United States census data, Sacramento’s population is roughly 45 percent white, 18 percent Asian and 14 percent black—and nearly 27 percent is of Hispanic or Latino origin.

There’s a disparity, and it raises the question: Does art need to reflect the diversity of its city? Is there racism brewing in Sacramento’s art scene?

Milton Bowens, a local black artist, says the easy answer is yes. The more nuanced answer, however, requires diving into history, money and this city’s reputation in the art world.

“The Sacramento arts community really needs to look at itself and be more honest about its liberalism or its inclusion, because racism is institutional,” Bowens says. “If we have institutional racism in the country, there’s institutional racism in the art world.”

This story won first place in the 2016 California Newspaper Publishers Association awards for Best Enterprise Reporting. Read the full article here in Sacramento News & Review.

Photo courtesy of Serge de Gracia via Flickr.

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