Playing the Long Game (full interview)
Responding to the Moment with Liv Moe
Liv Moe is an artist, curator, writer, and arts administrator. She is the Founding Director of Verge Center for the Arts, a contemporary art center and artist residency in Sacramento, California. Since 2008, Moe has organized and collaborated on over 40 exhibitions, working with artists and curators that include the Guerrilla Girls, Art F City’s Paddy Johnson, Stephen Kaltenbach, Robert Nickas, Morehshin Allahyari, and The Pit’s Adam Miller. During her tenure, Verge’s exhibitions continue to attract attention in national publications, including Art in America, Vice, ARTnews, Hyperallergic, and Art F City. In addition to her work at Verge, Moe has an active studio practice, having shown at venues which include the Richard L Nelson Fine Art Collection, the Sonoma Art Center, the California Museum for Women, History, and the Arts, and the Crocker Art Museum.
With Liv Moe’s leadership, Verge Center for the Arts transitioned from a commercial gallery space to a non-profit art center in just four years. Since Verge’s reopening in 2014, the center has built a membership base, garnered media attention for each exhibition, developed an education program for youth and adults, and nurtured strong community partnerships with other cultural institutions in the region. Verge is dedicated to promoting emerging artists’ work, particularly those working with experimental forms and non-traditional art practices. Verge’s exhibitions prioritize cultural, racial, and sexual diversity and act as a platform for educating the Sacramento region on new practices, forms, and artists in the larger contemporary art world. Following Verge’s reopening, the organization merged with the Center for Contemporary Art Sacramento, an institution with 25 years of history presenting contemporary art exhibitions in the region.
“I like that moment when you’ve shared something with someone else, and it resonated with them, and even though you may never meet them, you made a connection”
articulator: How do you describe your work?
Liv Moe: If there is a through-line between the various public projects I’ve done, my work at Verge, and my studio practice, I think it has to do with connection. It’s the desire to put something out there that somebody else connects with for whatever reason. Doing so creates an anonymous communion that you can’t control (or even know if you met the original objective), while understanding that it doesn’t matter. It’s the connection itself, that’s the point.
Whenever I do something, I want it to exist on its own, whether I’m physically present to defend it or not. To some degree, you can only learn that by letting other people look at what you’re doing and be open to feedback.
A recent conversation with a fellow artist about the pros and cons of the studio culture pressed me to consider what I’m doing in the context of a stranger viewing it, which is super hard.
To some degree, you can only learn that by letting other people look at what you’re doing and being open to feedback. We all want to feel like what we’re doing is good, and most of us affirm that by surrounding ourselves with those voices that will reinforce that feeling. That’s why you should never show your mom a piece of art you’ve created because she’s going to respond, “that’s great; you made art!”
I started creating work and doing things in a way that was more successful and complete because I became more comfortable with people criticizing my work, realizing that they’re not criticizing me, they’re criticizing what I made. I learned to accept that you could make something and have all these different intentions for it, but it won’t matter once it’s somewhere out of your ability to defend it.
Eventually, you’re not going to be there to explain it, and so again, if you can’t make something that someone can interact with independently, it doesn’t matter what excuses you have for it, it didn’t work. Relevance is something I’m always thinking about, where does this work fit? Is it successful? I like that moment when you’ve shared something with someone else, and it resonated with them, and even though you may never meet them, you made a connection.
articulator: Can you think of an example of when this worked or didn’t for you?
Liv Moe: Years ago, I participated in this exhibition where each artist had 12 cubic feet to work within, and we had to fill it. It was December, just after Christmas, and Christmas trees were discarded and just everywhere in the streets. I thought about the irony in how we all put so much care and attention into the ritual of going to get a tree, decorating it, and then the minute it’s over, it gets dumped in all these ridiculous places. You’ll find them in random locations, left out in the street, or even in the middle of a field. I started noticing them in all these random locations. So, I had an idea, rented a U-haul, and drove around to collect Christmas trees for this installation.
When I started building the sculpture, I discovered Christmas trees shrink, and they especially shrink when they’re stacked. As I started making the piece, the trees were breaking down. The dead trees would degrade, and it kept getting smaller. In the end, it took 60 or 70 Christmas trees to complete the work.
As I was installing the work, I remembered that I had these photographs of the trees I documented while I collected them. I thought these photos created an excellent context for the sculpture, so I thought about including them.
As part of my process, I share my work with people to get a genuine reaction to my work before I explain what it should be. In this case, I shared the work with one of my college mentors, and then I showed her the photographs. The first thing she said was, “you’re not going to put those up, are you? Don’t tell everybody everything at once; it’s more interesting if you do something where there’s an air of mystery to it, so when you leave, you’re still wondering what the hell that was supposed to be”.
There’s nothing worse than when you’ve done something, and you added that one extra thing that makes it stupid. It’s like if you had just not done that one thing. Yeah. It would have been cool. I had a professor in grad school who always said, “you’re only as strong as the weakest piece that you put in a show because that’s going to influence what somebody thinks, “wow, she seems so smart, but then she did that”, you know, and that happens to me sometimes.
I’ve been on so many panels where I’ll see artists assemble a portfolio, and it’ll be eight amazing images, and then the ninth and tenth are like, what the hell? You know, it’ll be some poorly conceived piece, or the photographs are terrible. You’re like, “dude, how could you have eight killer things, and then give me these two”? You question the person’s judgment. Now I always tell artists to include a detail from one of the pieces, and an overall, instead of adding an additional piece of art that’s not as strong, because otherwise, people will question your judgment and wonder what you’re doing. You need to remember that sometimes more is not better.
That’s my objective, and whether I’m curating a show or making a piece, I want it to be something that anyone can look at, whether they were a fellow curator or someone off the street, it needs to be something that’s well thought through.
When it does resonate with someone, that’s what I mean about making a connection. We have associations that we apply to things, so there is something joyful that happens when you encounter something that’s well-executed and references something in your personal history, or a memory, something in your subconsciousness.
But it’s risky to take this too far, so I’m also willing to cut bait. There’s this desire to hold onto something because you have a personal connection to it, or because you made it, or whatever. I think it’s essential to learn how to keep moving, make another thing, and know it’ll be better than the first thing.
It’s not that you’re just throwing your stuff out because you can’t be good at it, refine it, put it back out there. I think it’s hard to know when to turn some of that off because I sometimes get in places where I’m working too much or pushing too hard, which I think comes from some of the people that I studied under with an older school mindset, believing that you shouldn’t care about anything else, but this one thing.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that’s not a healthy philosophy, especially when it becomes an obsession. Though I do think that there are lessons in terms of being honest with yourself, and recognizing when it’s just a matter of making a longer commitment to get you to the next level, where you can make something that someone else will care about.
I like that moment when you’ve shared something with someone else, and it resonated with them, and even though you may never meet them, you made a connection.
articulator: Can you give an example of art that resonated with you?
Liv Moe: A fellow artist and I recently talked about how art, when it’s working well, makes you feel less alone. For instance, I have this photorealist painting that Patrick Marasso made from an original photo that’s probably from the seventies, of a guy in a Colonel Sanders costume giving candy to a little kid dressed in one of those plastic “Casper the Ghost” costumes.
When I was a kid, I wanted one of those costumes, but we could never have them because they were usually more expensive than a costume thrown together with things around the house. That costume became this unobtanium thing for me. I wanted it so much that it took on this other idea, which is why Patrick’s painting resonated with me, and I had to have it because of the association with those costumes.
Another connection art can make is through community interaction and bringing people together. Those sorts of experiences feel more open-ended, often involving immediate gratification, or at least a more assuredly gratifying situation. People can enjoy experiencing something unexpected, which I think is terrific.
I think there are benefits to both, one of the best things that art can do is give someone a moment where the seal is broken, allowing them to think about something differently, or find themselves in a different headspace, even if it’s just for a minute.
Along the Wayward Path
articulator: How did you discover your passion for art and advocacy?
Liv Moe: Through my mom, she has a creative ability that enables her to excel at whatever interests her. Following college, she became an interior designer for several years and then learned space planning. From space planning, she apprenticed and became a self-taught architect, receiving her license in her 50s. Her intelligence, work ethic, and versatility are what enable me to be who I am. My mom has always played the long game, and she taught me to keep my head down and stay invested in whatever I care about until it pays off. Growing up, she would always say, “if you’re gonna do it half-assed, don’t bother.”
I feel fortunate to have always been around art. My mom was in art school when I was a kid, and sometimes she would take me to her classes. I would sit in the corner of the classroom and, for example, if she had a clay class, I played with clay. She was always learning new skills and techniques, like in watercolor painting or design aesthetics.
At home, she would still have to concentrate on her studies and often teach my sister and me the activity she had just learned in school. However, looking back, I think she was just doing her assignments, and making it seem like something that we were participating in with her.
Because of that, it became part of my vocabulary from when I was little, and, happily, it resonated with me. It’s something that I fell in and out of over the years; I would fluctuate between pursuing a career as an artist or pursuing a degree in sociology. You know, I kind of came and went for a while before I got serious about art.
articulator: Where were you raised?
Liv Moe: I was born in Fargo, and when I was about five, my family moved to the mountains in Northern Utah, mainly because we had family living there at that time. My dad was in a sheet metal union, and from the early eighties to the late eighties, because the economy was so miserable, my parents relocated a lot in search of work. By the time we got to California, my parents didn’t have much, as my dad would say, “we didn’t have a pot to piss in.” My initial impressions of Sacramento were pretty weird, just because we were not in a nicer part of the city.
We were in some really broken areas, and at different times we didn’t have a car. Sacramento is so car-based that your perceptions of the city can be shaped by how you get around it. Before moving here, most of the communities we lived in were places that didn’t move that fast.
I still have family in Montana, and I’m struck by the difference between there and here. There’s a direct flight from Oakland to my brother’s town in Missoula, and it’s always jarring when you get back to Oakland, it’s like, the cars are going really fast.
My initial impressions of California were that I just had no clue what was going on. The kids where I came from didn’t swear. Sure, there were some words that I might’ve heard an adult use, like shit and stuff, but no one ever said fuck, or things like that, and certainly, kids didn’t swear. When I got to California, I’m like, “Oh my God, my classmates are swearing, and there’s garbage on the street.” There’s just a lot of stuff that was just so weird. There are so many more cars, and tons more traffic. It took me a couple of years, until around the time I entered Jr. High that everything felt normal to me.
articulator: What colleges did you attend?
Liv Moe: Sac City, UC Davis, CSUS. Initially, I felt that I should get a degree because everybody feels like they should get a degree, but I did it in a lot of fits and starts.
When I got into UC Davis, I studied sociology with an emphasis on women’s studies. I was involved in activism and volunteer work with the women’s movement as a clinic escort. I was also involved in the National Organization for Women, first in Sacramento, and then with the statewide chapter. I interned in the NOW offices that used to be on 10th and J street. And then I got to Davis and continued with that focus. I was good at it, and getting excellent grades, but once I started pursuing it in earnest, I realized that it just wasn’t how I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
It was then that I took my first art classes, deciding to commit my whole self. I think I was 27 or 28 when I graduated from my undergrad.
Shortly after graduation, in the summer of 2005, my husband and I were living in this warehouse/studio in Oak Park. I was just starting to put applications together for grad school when the warehouse was broken into and robbed. We had to move out, which significantly impacted my options. In the end, I decided to apply to Sac State, thinking that, worst case, I’d have a studio for two years. My original plan was to stay for a year and then apply for another program. As it worked out, I stayed there for the full two years.
While I worked on my masters at Sac State, Jesse Powell, the Founder of Verge, began traveling with his childhood friend and art consultant, Lance Renner. Lance took clients interested in buying art for investment to art fairs and advising them on what to buy. Jesse was making money in the video game industry and went on these trips with Lance, to look at art and have a good time. They were going to places like Frieze, Art Basel Miami, and other art fairs. During these trips, Jesse developed an interest in the culture of art, and thought, “okay, this is great, when I’m back in Sacramento, I’ll look at more art.”
In Sacramento, Jesse started going to gatherings and soon realized there were not many institutions supporting art here, and not many galleries.
He began to think, “it’s crazy how disparate Sacramento is when compared to what I’ve seen traveling, and maybe it’s just that artists need space,” so he placed an ad—this was when I was in my second year of grad school—in the Sacramento News and Review for free studio space. We all saw the ad, and I remember talking to Gioia Fonda about it at the time, we just were like, what is this? Is this real? And even though we’ve seen weird, fly-by-night stuff come up every so often, people tempted by the allure of free studio space inundated Jesse logging over a hundred phone calls in 24 hours.
Luckily, one of the calls was from Gale Hart, and he admitted, “I need help, I don’t know how to process these names, I don’t know what kind of art they make, and I only have so many studios to give out.”
Gale proposed that in trade for studio space, she’d vet the list of artists. Jesse readily agreed, and Gale went to work to fill the studio spaces. Gioia came on board before I did, and so did another artist, Lisa Marasso. I was invited to the project mainly on Gioia and Lisa’s recommendation.
I moved into the studio in the summer of 2008. In October of 2008, the gallery opened with a series of shows, a fundraiser to raise awareness about circuses and animal cruelty that Gail had organized, called “The Circus Show,” along with an exhibition of figurative work that Lisa programmed.
Jesse had a broader vision and turned to Lance and said, “I want to get into international art fairs.” Lance was like, “dude, you’re not going to get to NADA, or any of those fairs doing what you’re currently doing. While it’s a worthwhile endeavor, filling a need within your regional arts community won’t meet the expectations of getting into those fairs”.
Lance agreed to come up and spend three days with us to develop a plan. He gathered us together and said, “I invite you each to submit a proposal for a year and a half of programming, I’ll review them, select the best one, and that’s the person who’ll program the shows.”
I wrote and submitted a plan and got the position. The first show, a survey of Stephen Kaltenbach’s work, in January of 2009, got a review in Art in America. That summer, we held an exhibition with Doug Biggert, a regional photographer whose work later appeared in Vice Magazine. And from there, I helped collaborate on a solo show of Doug’s work at White Columns in New York, which opened the following January.
Nearing the end of the year and a half, Jesse came to us and said, “look, I can’t manage this on my own, we’re not making the art sales we need, and if we go off to a fair right now and don’t sell out the booth, we won’t make it.”
Ironically, our exhibitions were attracting droves of visitors, and our lectures sold out, so we were successful as a regional art center. The silver lining was that, while he could not continue running the space, we found stakeholders willing to invest in Verge, and Jesse helped us turn this into a non-profit contemporary art center.
articulator: What contributed to your success in attracting visitors to your lectures, forums, and exhibitions?
Liv Moe: In the beginning, we were the only game in town for the kind of content we were programming. One of my goals was to identify people from this region, who either had a national or an international following, that folks didn’t realize were from here, like Daniel Johnston. While he has a big following, most people had no idea he was born here and that his family lived here until he was around six or seven before moving to Austin.
I was trying to center Sacramento in a bigger conversation because we have this underdog chip on our shoulder about certain things, like a reluctance to welcome outsiders. I hate to say this because it sounds sort of snotty, and I don’t mean it to be, but we also wanted to professionalize the conversation, so it wasn’t always coming from this sort of DIY low brow place. I recognize there are varying degrees of that, and I just wanted to show that there’s a variety of things happening here, and it’s not all just sort of an “everything’s art man, let’s all be cool” scene.
articulator: How do you respond to complaints about outsiders getting showcased at Verge, believing it is taking opportunities away from local artists.
Liv Moe: Some people grumbled about it, which is silly, cause in their minds it was like, “oh, I see my big-city art only when I go to the big city. Sacramento shouldn’t ever show big-city artists; we should just show each other’s work”.
This attitude makes me bananas because it’s very provincial, and that’s something I have no qualms telling people. I just think it’s a small town, backward way to think, and it’s counterproductive.
There are many examples of why it’s essential, and one of the best is when we brought in a curator from LA for a show at Verge, focusing solely on artists from LA. One of Verge Studio artists, Daniel Trejo made an effort to introduce himself to the curator, Adam Miller, who was originally from Sacramento. Some might remember him from the band Mallrats. Daniel brought him to his studio to show him his work and ended up with an exhibition in Los Angeles six months later. These interactions create opportunities, and that’s what makes this programming so valuable.
We had a Laura Owens piece in the show Adam curated, which was great because she was also about to have a solo show at the Whitney, followed by a solo show at the MOCA. I feel that it was a real coup to share those sorts of things with our regional art community beyond the connections afforded to regional artists like Daniel by inviting an outside curator to the space.
I think the other part of it is this sad sack mentality, “no one’s going to care about me, so I don’t want these people here to begin with.” What if they will care about your work? I hope artists take time to think about that; it’s like already assuming that you’re going to fail, or something worse, that you don’t want your work to be judged.
Some of the same people who give me this complaint go to clubs to see bands that aren’t from here. We seem to have no problem consuming art by attending concerts, performances, broadway shows, or reading books by authors from outside the region. Yet, for some reason, visual art can only be produced, shown, and supported locally.
It’s the lack of curiosity and interest some of our regional artists’ have in seeing what else is happening that I don’t understand. I think this gets back to that conversation we were having earlier about objectivity. If you create something, how can it stand on its own if you don’t have an idea of its context or what kind of conversation you are part of if you have no idea what else is going on?
Many of the artists I work with are often more successful because they have a frame of reference. They know where they fit in, understand what kind of work they’re creating, and see if it meets a certain standard. If you’re doing something just sort of okay and there’s a national artist who’s making something similar, but kicking ass, you might consider your lack of success in winning a public art commission is partly because of that. It’s all context, and if you don’t have the capacity for context because you’re not exposing yourself to other things, you’re holding yourself back. It’s the lack of curiosity that I just can’t get my brain around.
articulator: You’ve recently created a residency program designed for both regional and artists from outside the region to work within the Verge community, can you tell us about the program?
Liv Moe: Verge has two residency programs. Our existing program and another one we present in partnership with the Ali Youssefi Project. That one includes a free studio and, for the out-of-towner, an apartment at WAL as well.
Our core residency program is a low-cost studio/workspace, and we prioritize artists that want to establish a professional practice. Artists submit slides and a resume, we convene a panel to review applicants and invite them to be part of the project, and they can be there as long as they want. Gioia Fonda has been here since the beginning. She’s had a studio at Verge since 2008 or nine.
In addition to that, we now have a partnership with the Ali Youssefi Project; they provide three and six-month residencies. The six-month period is for a regional artist to have a free studio and a $500 a month stipend; the three-month residency is for an artist from outside the region to do the same and includes an apartment at WAL. The idea is to create a synergy between an artist from outside the area and somebody local.
articulator: How are you balancing the work you do as an artist with your responsibilities at Verge during the shelter in place order?
Liv Moe: Not very well. We’ll see a lot of negativity coming out of quarantine, on top of the negative repercussions of living in quarantine. I think if there’s any positive, it’s that many of us are starting to reevaluate the way we were living our lives before this happened. It’s such a huge reset button to have everything you typically do suddenly stop. I think for me, one of the things I’ve learned is that I need to restructure the way I do this work because, long term, I’m not happy about the fact that I don’t make as many creative projects as I used to and as it sits right now, if nothing changed, that would continue. I think some of us are taking stock right now; it’s like when someone dies, or something remarkable happens in your life, and you kind of go, “hmm, is this how I want to spend my energy?”
Responding to the Moment
articulator: Between the BLM movement, impacts of Covid-19, and our ever-widening political/social divide, what is the role of art in reflecting a moment in history?
Liv Moe: I have a colleague, Jen Delos Reyes, who is one of the founders of a program focusing on social practice work called Open Engagement. We’ve talked about the obligation of artists to react to external circumstances, whether social or political, which is hard because the number of artists who can do that effectively is so small. So, the number of artists that end up making things that feel like an advertisement for the situation is much broader.
Art can serve purposes other than protests; it can continue to sit with you, rather than holding momentary power. With protests, the message has to be immediate. It communicates what it needs to, and if you keep thinking about it, it’s because you’ve been mobilized by a call to action. That serves an essential purpose, but creating work with that sort of specificity and immediacy isn’t the only thing society needs in times of conflict. Ultimately, we always need beauty, usually even more so during times of unrest.
So, while it’s essential to respond to the times you’re living in, I think it’s awkward to feel obligated to respond to a moment in a literal way. It’s more interesting to me when the work evolves out of those circumstances and not because of them. What’s more, with current events being so intensely heavy, a moment of mental respite feels welcome—a pause where we can engage in each other’s humanity. I’ve heard several artist friends over the years express the feeling that art when it’s functioning well, helps us feel less alone, and I think there is a tremendous need for that right now.
articulator: Do you have any examples of works that do this?
Liv Moe: I’ve been revisiting Dread Scott’s work in the present moment, an artist who largely deals with black inequality. The performative work he does and the way he approaches his material are both so incredibly powerful. It’s brilliant.
For example, his 2015 piece, a simple black and white banner stating “A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday”, was referenced recently as a part of an excellent collage illustration on the cover of the New Yorker. The thing with the Dread Scott flag that I find so compelling is that it has a slight ambiguity to it, it’s deeply unsettling because your mind goes to so many scenarios at once that’s made all the more real by recent events.
He also did that excellent performance piece, “On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide” where he was repeatedly battered and occasionally knocked down by a water jet from a fire hose, it was an intense recreation of what’s been happening at protests for decades. It also references the personal history of black activists like the late John Lewis.
This is also a confusing and challenging topic because about two years ago the police pursued Darrel Richards, a 19-year old African American man, into my backyard and, after a three-hour standoff, killed him there.
Initially, I didn’t draw a lot of attention to it for many reasons; one of the biggest is that it happened in my backyard, and dealing with the trauma of that was difficult. I couldn’t deal with it on a public and a personal front at the same time. The events of the last month have compelled me to revisit Darrel Richards murder, I’ve wrestled with my connection to this incident and what it means, what I should do, what I could do, who I have access to, and how I could make use of that.
It’s disappointing for me to see how little of an appetite there is for that conversation amongst many of my city connections. It was also difficult dealing with the amount of misinformation shared with my husband and I after the shooting. They knew the press was reaching out to us, and initially tried to convince us that he had committed suicide by cop, which is a similar tactic to what they used with Stephon Clark.
It was suggested to us at the time that there was no choice but to open fire because he pulled a pellet gun on them which they believed to be an actual firearm. We recently found out that he was shot through the right palm, which casts suspicion on that claim. We also know that all of the shots fired were no more than 8 inches to 18 inches off the ground, which means he was already on the ground when he was shot and killed.
This experience has given me insight into things. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive. I think most of us who pay any attention to what racial equity looks like in Sacramento have tried to address some of that, or move the needle in whatever ways we can through our programming, outreach, or whatever we have access to, with varying levels of success. What got me is how many layers there are protecting the police force, frequently obscuring accountability. It diminishes the idea of justice and the trust that someone will investigate—that the truth will come out.
In Darrel Richards’ case, the officer who had the most unobstructed view of him had “accidentally” turned his camera off before shooting him. There were four officers present, and all of them had video footage except for the one guy that could see him, which is very convenient.
To say it’s disappointing is an understatement, but that’s what it is. I mean, the city continues their conversations about police reform, and it’s a joke. Even some of the basic stuff that we witnessed made it evident that some shit went down that was not legit. We tried, in various capacities, to connect with somebody to communicate what happened, and it never went anywhere. There’s a citizen’s oversight committee that we had reached out to, and they never followed up with us.
I look at what the city is doing, and I just think, god, you guys are just missing the mark so hard. You just don’t get it. And they’re continuing something that is going to ensure this will happen again. I would like to believe otherwise, but they’re not making any changes that are substantive enough to make any difference.
articulator: What do you think would make a difference?
Liv Moe: We need a citizen’s oversight committee that demands accountability. If you are in an occupation where you have the power to kill someone, you also have the responsibility to demonstrate that you were justified in doing so. And if your camera gets turned off and you can’t prove one way or another what you’re claiming happened, then there should be some systems in place that question the legitimacy of the claim.
The fact that they never even fully communicated what happened to the mother of Darrel Richards is heartbreaking. You at least have that responsibility. There needs to be an understanding that if you kill somebody, you’re going to rip a wound through a family and a community, and you better be able to be accountable for that action.
Darrell Steinberg commented recently about the amount of anger and passion that’s coming out of the community. And it’s like, well, yeah, dude, what the hell? What do you think? We can’t keep doing this. There’s a limit to how much bullshit people are going to tolerate. And frankly, it’s incredible that we hadn’t gotten here sooner.
So, yeah, people are pissed. It’s definitely reframed the conversation for me and I think it’s the reason Dread Scott’s work resonates so deeply with me now.
I also think there’s danger in the work people do to make the community feel good. I’m not saying we should all be uncomfortable forever; God knows everybody’s uncomfortable enough right now. But I think anytime you give the powers that be something they can co-opt as a public message to make people feel good, you have a problem. Then it’s like, okay, there’s an element of this dialogue that just became easier, and it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be easier until something happens, like the creation of a functioning citizens oversight committee. Then, if shit hits the fan, the police are going to be accountable to this group, who will make a public report to city hall.
articulator: How is this reflected in your art and your work at Verge?
Liv Moe: I’m reluctant to do stuff that gives people a kumbaya moment without any substance. There’s a profile of Maxine Hong Kingston in the New Yorker recently. She had a lot of interesting things to say about how much you can respond to a moment when you’re living in it. At some point, she had decided that she would give herself at least a year or two before she started to respond to something, write about it, or try to make it into art. Because if you’re too close to something, you can’t fully process the essential parts of it.
My experience has made my writing and various other things difficult to navigate, just because I’m too close to a lot of things. With that said, in terms of my curatorial work and my professional position on things, I’ve evolved from, “you catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar” approach to a more confrontational approach.
I would try to figure out ways to find the middle ground, and I don’t do that as much now. I think part of it is because, especially recently, I’ve just been too mad. When somebody says something to me that I think is bullshit, I’m no longer in a place where I’m like, “Oh, let’s talk about that.” Now, it’s, “I’m sorry, you’re wrong. And what you’re saying is garbage”. I’m sick of it.
It’s like with people who have tried to say, “should we be tearing all these statues down?” My response is, “yeah, we should, and I honestly don’t understand why you’re asking me that question, Sutter should have gone a long goddamn time ago.”
In the beginning stages of Verge’s reopening, we rewrote our exhibition strategy with a strong focus on inclusiveness, specifically on underrepresented people, disciplines, and mediums.
I recently realized that almost everybody I’ve shown for the last few years are persons of color, a woman, or somebody from the LGBTQ community. The conversations we’re having about equity inform my decision making, and I’ve doubled down on that even more than I did before.
articulator: What is the city responsible for, and what is the artist community responsible for in supporting a vibrant art community. And, how do you think it’s working in Sacramento?
Liv Moe: Sometime in the last four months or so, it struck me that the way the city conceptualizes the arts, and itself in general, is pretty conservative. It made me reflect on why some of the advocacy efforts we engage in are such a struggle, and realize that the traditional mindset permeates all parts of the city, not just the social ones.
I’ve reframed my thoughts on why the city isn’t as supportive as it could be, and I think conservativism informs some of that. We’ve often had democratic leaders, but it’s never proved itself in the places we identify as priorities.
Where you commit money reflects your values, and we’ve had however many years now of this being an “art city” and that “the arts matter.” When Kevin Johnson was Mayor, he had the “For Art’s Sake” campaign for many years. And there’s always this, “the arts, they’re great, they’re Sacramento’s identity.”
Just look at how many artists we have here, and compare, on a per capita basis, our investment in the arts regionally, which has been dismal for a long time. And even last year when the economy was probably the best it’s been in God knows how long, we were all compelled to be in City Hall advocating to save arts funding.
So how is it that we’re both an “art city,” and you’re going to be doing these amazing things, without providing appropriate funding, even when times are good! That realization helped me understand that it’s about traditional values, public safety, blah, blah, and blah. The thing I get frustrated about is that many cities that Sacramento points to as doing it right, like Austin, are places with decent arts funding.
That never seems to be part of the equation. It’s like, “oh my gosh, we’ve tried all these things. What’s going to work?” The right response is always, “have you tried funding”?
I remember when Art Street happened; first came the Art Hotel, then Art Street, and I think those things are great, but I believe that when you have communities that have healthy, robust art scenes, there is a whole suite of things that are happening simultaneously.
You can have temporary art projects, and you can have institutions and all this stuff right. But in some of my meetings with city leadership, it was like, “well, Liv, why don’t you just do something like Art Street? It’s a pop-up, so it’s more manageable financially, and look at all the attendance it attracts”.
That’s very reactive. It’s like, “oh, hey, here’s this thing that came along. It’s easier to support financially. It’s super popular. Let’s just do that”.
It’s also frustrating to see some people working to pit arts institutions against artists while having no clue what some of us do. If we’re talking about connecting the dots, we need to be looking at all of this as an ecosystem.
So, while the city searches for a new arts manager, we’re facing a shortage of leadership. There’s nobody here who can say, “here’s what is possible; let me show you how to get there.” One of the weirdest things about Sacramento is that we act as though we’re pioneers when other places already have established stuff like a robust art commission, dynamic programs with different offerings that serve artists, and arts organizations working in communities throughout the city.
So, if you genuinely want to start working on equity and inclusion, there are cities that have already begun addressing this in really innovative ways. But it’s always, “who’s local that we could ask to do this?” I both love and hate it that in some ways, Sacramento is allergic to expertise.
articulator: In response to the pandemic, the city has allocated seven and a half million dollars for grants to the creative economy. What advice do you have in creating a fair and equitable process?
Liv Moe: The city is currently searching for its new arts manager, and God knows when that person will get appointed. We’re now facing a shortage of leadership. For example, today, I was having a conversation with a colleague. They were wondering how they were going to create these panels to review grants applications in such a tight timeframe. I said, “dude, this is that department’s job; you should be able to assemble a panel of qualified experts from outside the region to review these grants impartially.”
It’s not rocket science. One of the weirdest things about Sacramento is that we act as though we’re pioneers when other places already have established stuff like having a robust art commission, a dynamic program of different offerings that serve artists, and arts organizations working in communities throughout the city.
So, if you want to start working on equity and inclusion, there are cities that have already begun addressing this in really innovative ways. But it’s always “who’s local that we could ask to do this?” I both love and hate it that in some ways that Sacramento is very allergic to expertise.
Until three years ago, that’s what CAA, the Cultural Art Awards, which was pretty much the only unrestricted grant that existed in the region, did when they assembled a panel—they got professionals from across the west coast. They paid them a stipend to review the applications.
Sitting on a grant panel is a lot of work. It’s like being a teacher because you’ve got so many applications to read. CCA divided it up, but even with that, each person has to review about a hundred applications.
Typically, each application is at least 13 pages long. Plus, you should look at their websites and get a sense of who they are, so it’s a lot like teaching. If you’re just going to grab local people who may or may not have that expertise, how closely are they going to read stuff? How much due diligence are they going to do?
I have a coworker who submitted for one of the creative edge grants last year. They encouraged her to sit and watch her proposal get reviewed. She was so disheartened because two panelists hadn’t thoroughly read her application and acknowledged it on the panel.
And she thought, “shit, I spent weeks on that, and I got dismissed, not because of the quality of my work, but because two panelists couldn’t be bothered to read it.” Unfortunately, that’s what happens. It’s like you get people who are just prominent personalities, and that’s great, but as I said, certain things require expertise.
Building Community vs Gentrification
articulator: I read an interview with you and Shelly Willis. Something she pointed out was when Verge moved into this district, it added, along with nearby housing developments, to the neighborhood’s vibrancy. How do you think that’s working out, and how does that impact the other big concern I hear from artists about gentrification, feeling like they may need to move out of Sacramento because they’re feeling the pressure of rising housing costs. My question is about the tension between creating vibrancy and contributing to gentrification.
Liv Moe: In terms of how we interface with the actual community around Verge, we do a lot of outreach with things like scholarships for kids, programming, and stuff like that, and we try to communicate and connect with the actual neighborhood we’re in as much as we can.
Also, Verge is free, and it always has been; we try to eliminate barriers as much as we can in terms of people being able to interact with our content, come to our shows, and those sorts of things.
I think the gentrification aspect is tough, and I’d like to get back to the conservativism conversation. I believe that Sacramento could use a little more risk-taking and visionary leadership in terms of not just art, but also social issues. The creative community that the city wants to foster and the identity that they envision for downtown, doesn’t jibe with who can afford to live here. I think our housing policy is crap, and I also believe that our housing stock is insufficient.
Rent control would help. I believe that one of the big struggles I’ve had as an employer, not just running this arts organization, but also having creative staff, is that many of them can’t afford to live close to Verge anymore. I think back to when I first moved downtown, and there is no way I could afford it now.
The other thing I’ve noticed around Verge, and I realized this when we started having artists come to stay for projects, and I’d look for places where they could stay, is that Southside Park is a hotbed for Airbnb. There are actually whole apartment buildings, similar to LA, purchased just for use as an Airbnb.
With that said, some people were terrific, like Ali Youssefi. One of the reasons we have our relationship with the Ali Youssefi Project is that Ali was on our board until just before he passed. He was somebody who recognized the synergy between the commercial community and arts and culture. He got it.
articulator: Can you explain how “he got it”?
Liv Moe: Yeah. It’s WAL. Whenever I have curators or visiting artists come to do a Verge project, I would always take them to lunch at WAL. They’re blown away that Sacramento created something that many more established and more “visionary” cities don’t have—an artist’s housing community.
It’s amazing. I never lose sight of how cool it is that that’s there. Not long after it opened, Kenneth Baker, the critic for the Chronicle, had just retired and came to Verge to check it out and attend an exhibition. Afterward, we went to lunch at WAL, and he was just like, “Whoa, I can’t believe this is here, San Francisco doesn’t have this…”.
Before quarantine, I began working on curating a show based on this concept of artist networks, what happens when artists are connected? And the kinds of movements that come out of that. Unsurprisingly some of the artists whose names came up live at WAL.
It’s like, yeah, of course, because this power comes out of getting a group of like-minded individuals together, the capacity for what’s possible in your community evolves out of that.
I think Ali understood this, and I’m struck again by how much we lost when he died. Ali was a business leader who had a very human-centered approach to what he was doing.
articulator: Are there other developers you’ve met that show this same philosophy?
Liv Moe: No, there’s just not many visionaries who see the interaction between arts and culture, healthy communities, and community development, it’s kind of an either-or. For example, in the early days of what we were doing, there was a developer who believed that he was doing something cool, and invited us to be his ground cover. It was just sort of like, “you come in and put in all the money for the build-out, you make this a thing, and once it’s a gallery for a while, hopefully, people will see this and then want to rent my building.”
Why would I spend money on that?
So, if creatives have this capacity to transform areas, where is the investment in the arts? For example, there’s another developer who has a lot of development on the grid and is doing something pretty close to Verge, so we reached out to see if they would be willing to support the open studio tour.
His response was, “no, I’ve never seen the value in that, I’ll make money either way, and it’s not interesting to me, but thanks for reaching out.” It’s incredible to see this disconnect, in terms of somebody’s responsibility to a community.
articulator: What advice would you give a developer to help him make this connection?
Liv Moe: That what Ali was doing was not just altruistic and cool. He was also playing the long game. Cosmopolitan centers are a place everyone wants to gravitate to, you establish that, and you become an essential location. So there’s more to it than just “do I make money”?
These were the investments that Ali recognized would pay longer dividends. Ironically, we are still having these conversations about artists gentrifying places, while at the same time, there is this struggle in cities across the nation to invest in art.
Maybe it’s because there have historically been so many artists willing to bootstrap things and do it for free that there’s this understanding that there are always going to be creative people willing to pioneer something.
The irony is that even with the acknowledgment that creatives can infuse economic development into a declining area, we still don’t properly invest in communities with art resources and other programs that make them healthy, viable places for everyone.
articulator: what are your thoughts on the state of education today?
Liv Moe: There’s a lot to unpack, starting with elementary school. There are many of us viewed as a substitute for what’s missing. And while I think it’s great, and I’m committed to filling that void, I think it’s such a load to bear, and there’s only so many places we can get to and have a real impact.
There’s also a lot of regional interests that are doing duplicative things. I’ve noticed a conversation at the city level starting to move in the direction of recognizing what each other does so we can figure out how to complement one another, instead of creating competitive programming.
However, because everybody recognizes what’s missing, there’s this rush to the fire, and then you’ve got a bunch of barely funded people stepping on each other’s toes. It comes back to having leadership that can sort through that to come up with a more cohesive clearinghouse.
At the college level, some of my colleagues at Davis continue to say, “you need to get the most expensive competitive grad degree you can.” But I think that’s garbage. I have artist friends here in Sacramento who are carrying 70 to a hundred and some thousand dollars in grad debt. What the hell are they going to do with that? How do you own a house or sustain a good standard of living? The landscape has changed so much that I just don’t think we should be giving that advice. There’s something wrong with a system that creates situations like that.
I think about that a lot when I have students ask me for advice, and then I recall talking with one of my professors, Sarah Flohr, and I told her that I didn’t know what I was going to do once I graduate. I was nervous that my student loans’ forbearance would end in six months, and I didn’t know where I was going to work. And she said the thing I now tell students; it’s this quote by Steve Martin when somebody asked him how he got to where he was, he replied, “by being Steve Martin.”
Initially, I felt that like that is just so stupid, you know? I was like, yeah, of course. He’s Steve Martin; he got to be famous, we’re not all going to be Steve Martin. That’s really dumb.
Then, I realized that she was right in terms of just being yourself and following your instincts, you’re going to end up somewhere regardless.
That’s what I’ve been trying to help students with, explaining that you may want to be a teacher or pursue an MFA or whatever, but use your instincts and follow what’s going to work for you and your family. Keep your head down and stay invested in whatever you care about until it pays off.
We can’t all follow the same mold anymore.