Playing the Long Game

Responding to the Moment with Liv Moe

May 2020

Liv pictured above in front of mural by Spencer Keeton Cunningham
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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.”

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. 

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.

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

My mom 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.

During this time, I was studying sociology and 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. When I got to Davis, I 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. After taking my first studio class at Davis I decided to commit my whole self. I think I was 27 or 28 when I graduated with my undergrad degree.

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.

Liv’s Office

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. 

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. 

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.

Responding to the Moment

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.

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 both are 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 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. 

Personally, this is 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 that frequently obscures 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.

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.


The City

It recently struck me that the way the city conceptualizes, not just the arts, but 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 I realized that this 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. Where you commit money reflects your values, and we’ve had however many years now of this being labeled an “art city” and that “the arts matter” to Sacramento. Look at how many artists we have here, and compare that, on a per capita basis, with our investment in the arts regionally, which has been dismal for a long time. 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”?

A wall thanking sponsors of the Verge

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.

Building Community vs Gentrification

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, as we try to communicate and connect with the actual neighborhood we’re in.

Also, Verge is free, and it always has been; we try to eliminate barriers as much as possible in terms of people being able to interact with our content, and come to our shows. 

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 art and 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 downtown. I think our housing policy is pretty poor, and I also believe that our housing stock is insufficient.

Rent control would help. One of the major struggles I’ve had as an employer, not just running this arts organization, but also having creative staff, is that many staff members 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 to do that now.

The other thing I’ve noticed around Verge, and I realized this when we started having artists come to stay for projects, I’d look for places where they could stay, discovering that Southside Park is a hotbed for Airbnb. There are whole apartment buildings, similar to LA, purchased just for use as an Airbnb.

With that said, some people, like Ali Youssefi, were terrific. One of the reasons we have our relationship with the Ali Youssefi Project is that Ali was on our board until he passed. He was somebody who recognized the synergy between the commercial community and arts and culture. He got it. 

But I think that, except for someone like him, 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, a developer that believed that he was doing something cool 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?

There’s a disconnect between creatives having this capacity to transform areas and an actual real investment in the arts. 

Education

There’s a lot to unpack, starting with elementary school. There are so many of us seen 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 that is 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 sort through that to come up with a clearinghouse that’s a little more cohesive.

Once they’re out of public school, and this is something I struggle with, I’m pretty honest with some of the younger art students that I work with in being clear-headed about the direction they decide to go. I’m talking about that lag between generations in terms of the old guard and new guard, and where you get advice.

Some of my colleagues at Davis are still saying, “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 walking around with 70 to a hundred 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 when I was graduating from SAC State, one of my professors, Sarah Flohr, said to me after I told her that I didn’t know what I’m going to do once I graduate. That I’m nervous about my student loans’ forbearance ending in six months, and I didn’t know where I’m going to work, blah, blah, blah. And she told me the thing I now tell students, which is what Steve Martin, in response to a fan asking him how he got to where he was, 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.

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