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Shelly WillisShelly Willis

Her job is helping art to thrive in Sacramento

by Kellie Randle

Her job is helping art to thrive in Sacramento The famed red rabbit sculpture at Sacramento International Airport may be the city’s best-known public artwork, but it’s far from our only piece of public art. According to Shelly Willis, director of Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and its Art in Public Places program, art in Sacramento is alive and well. The commission keeps the city vibrant through arts education and grants and is poised to enrich new development with engaging works of art.

Tell me about the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.


The arts commission was established in 1977 to support artists and arts organizations and is overseen by an 11-member commission. It has three major programs: arts education; public art, which funds art in the public realm; and grant program. It really makes a difference to the 55 arts organizations we fund.

What’s your background?

Before coming to Sacramento, I worked for the University of Minnesota, directing the university’s public art program throughout the state. I’ve worked in government and nonprofit organizations for more than 25 years in the city of Fairfield, Sonoma and the city of Columbus. I studied art history and business administration at Chico State, and my first “real job” was right here in Sacramento at the California Arts Council. I remember thinking the public art position at the arts commission would be the capstone of my career. I felt like I was coming home when I was hired to manage the public art program. Shortly after I was hired, the county broke ground on the airport’s new Terminal B. I managed the artist selection, fabrication and installation of the project.

We all know about Sacramento Airport’s red rabbit. Tell me about other projects of the Art in Public Places campaign.

The public art program was the brainchild of former Sacramento Mayor Phil Isenberg. He was a visionary. Something that’s near and dear to my heart is caring for the hundreds of works that are in the collection. Art must be maintained like anything else.    We just conserved 11 sculptures by Dennis Oppenheim (the flying birds) at the airport. And for months we’ve been restoring a beloved work of art located on the west side of the Macy’s parking garage. This piece, by Fred Ball, will be reinstalled in celebration of ARTober—national arts awareness month—along with the Cesar Chavez Memorial. There’s also a new mural by John Pugh on the Elkhorn water tower, and a sculpture by Jenny Hale for Burberry Park.

Why is public art important for a community?

You really feel the difference in a city that has invested in a public art program. In Sacramento, you encounter art as you move through the city. It provides a reference for the past and helps us better understand who we are. It uniquely identifies a community and makes it a more interesting place to visit. It can engage us in ideas and inspire us to think. It makes a city more beautiful.  

Arts Day of Giving was quite a success this year. How much was raised and what are the goals for next year?

This was our first year. The day was spearheaded by the Sacramento Region Community Foundation in partnership with Mayor Johnson’s For Arts’ Sake initiative, Give Local Now and the arts commission.  It was the first “online” day of giving in our community. The success of the event depended on the arts organizations using social media—and they did! Over $525,000 was raised. The 2014 Day of Giving is May 6. There is a great opportunity to build on last year.

What are your goals for SMAC and Sacramento?

With the development that’s planned in the next 10 years, it’s exciting to think about how we might look at our city in terms of art. As the community develops over time, we don’t want to just react to development. To help us be proactive, we are working on the city’s first cultural plan. We are currently engaged in partnerships with business districts to produce public artworks. I hope to continue to expand and grow this program.  We also will focus attention on growing and supporting the multicultural arts community and education programs, particularly in the schools. There are incredible leaders in Sacramento, all poised to help advance the arts agenda. I am motivated every day by these leaders and thrilled to be in a position to take the arts and cultural community to the next place.

Kellie Randle can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.