Artists love Oakland. But does Oakland love them back, or is it more a case of unrequited love?
by Mary Corbin / Photo: Courtesy of the Oakland Visitors Center – April 2019
I arrived in the East Bay from the Midwest years ago to study at California College of Arts and Crafts, as CCA was formerly called before upgrading its image by dropping the folksy “crafts” from its name in 2003. An immersion in community and daily practice nurtured my creative soul, but little guidance was given for survival once I left the hallowed bubble. For years I have struggled to work out of one makeshift space after another, yearning for something more substantial. Finding affordable rent for an art studio has always been a challenge in the Bay Area—and that doesn’t seem to be budging an inch.
For current students at the school, conversations have become more candid, said K. C. Rosenberg, associate professor at CCA. “What do I tell my students about their future lives negotiating space and creative time when they tell me they are renting couches for $700 a month?” asked Rosenberg. “They already know about the struggle here, so we talk about not letting your material things hold you hostage to a space.”
Though artists love this town and all it has to offer its diverse denizens, Oakland won’t show up on any Googled lists of “best cities to be an artist in” anytime soon, especially for those who are young and fresh out of art school. Instead you might want to try Fort Collins, Colorado, or Madison, Wisconsin—or even Vilnius, Lithuania, or Leipzig, Germany.
The reality is that over the past couple of decades, San Francisco’s art scene has been dramatically reduced due to rising costs, with many artists migrating to Oakland, building on the already vibrant creative scene here. Now, though, the East Bay’s woes are nearly as dramatic as the city’s. So the question is, Will artists continue to flee elsewhere, or will the Town make them a priority?
The Artists Speak
While Oakland city officials claim to be supportive of the arts, artists here aren’t so sure about that. Case in point: many of the artists I spoke to didn’t want to use their names in this story for fear of repercussions. One artist told me that she feared being slapped with a business tax if it becomes known that she makes her living as an artist here. Another felt he was safer toiling in obscurity, lest his rent suddenly see an increase because his landlord saw him in a magazine and gathered that he was doing well for himself.
Recent years have seen changes that reflect a city struggling to support its artists. Owners of large warehouse spaces look to pad their wallets by luring wealthier tenants, like those in the marijuana-growing business or the tech industry, to fill their large spaces, forcing artists out.
The current upheaval at Vulcan Lofts, a live/work community for roughly 200 people in East Oakland, is one such example of the wobble of an unstable arts community. The Vulcan Tenants Union—formed after the property, owned by developer Madison Park Financial, came up for sale last year—represents roughly 100 tenants and is working with attorneys to acquire rent-control protections to avoid displacement.
The struggle has divided longtime tenants from newbies. A recent posting from the Inferno Gallery, an adjunct of the Vulcan Lofts, states that the union has sounded a false alarm and that the majority of tenants do not want involvement with lawyers but prefer “building a positive relationship with the owners that would work toward another solution.”
Rosenberg, the CCA professor, and her ex-husband were part of the first set of artists to move into the Vulcan warehouse space in 1987, when they negotiated a deal to clean the 2,000-square-foot live/work space of horrific soot and install floors in exchange for low rent. The space, cold in winters and prone to flooding when it rained, was $875 when they moved in and grew to $1,800 in 10 years. She said the overall layout of the warehouse was not conducive to building a community and that there were safety concerns. Sometime after she relocated to Alameda, she heard that her old unit had caught on fire.
Regarding the upheaval, Rosenberg thinks the artists of the Vulcan will likely be headed elsewhere, though she wishes them luck.
If we learn from history, artists might take a page from the playbook of the restructuring of the American Steel Studios in West Oakland, which sold in 2017 and is still running. Kinetic painter Henry Riekena moved into the sprawling warehouse space in 2010 and said things are different under the new management.
“About 40 artists got moved around, and a lot of people weren’t able to get a new space—some even moved out of the Bay Area. Rent is almost twice as much per square foot as it was two years ago, and there’s definitely less of a Wild West atmosphere there,” said Riekena. “At least they didn’t just knock it all down and build condos.”
Being forced out is a constant worry for Oakland artists. Painter Susan Matthews was recently evicted from her live/work space in the produce district near Jack London Square, where she had lived since 1995. Matthews said her landlord told her the City of Oakland wanted her out due to concerns after the Ghost Ship fire — the conflagration that claimed 36 lives in 2016 during a party in the dilapidated Ghost Ship artist warehouse, which was not up to code.
Several live-in artist spaces underwent scrutiny directly after the fire, but in Matthews’s case, she says she wasn’t told the studio needed work until three years later. Without the finances to fight the eviction, she moved her art into storage and took a house-sitting arrangement.
The Gallery Owners Speak
Local art galleries are also struggling. Vessel Gallery, a staple in the Uptown arts scene, closed in late 2018 after the owner, Lonnie Lee, says she was forced out due to a rent increase of more than 70 percent over eight years and, eventually, after the landlord simply declined to renew the lease.
In an interview with KQED, Lee “faulted city officials for touting the area’s cultural vibrancy without building security for gallery businesses, which are struggling to compete against redevelopment proposals and higher-earning tenants as demand for commercial space intensifies in Oakland.”
The building’s owner, Matthew Iglehart, also owns buildings that house seven galleries in Oakland’s Uptown district—which has sounded an alarm for others.
Jan Watten, founder of Gray Loft Gallery, which opened in 2012, confirmed that the biggest issue for those in her business is displacement, with little protection guaranteed by the city. “My gallery is in a building that has been sold and at any moment could become condos. It’s an unfortunate historical fact that artists make the neighborhood interesting, and then developers come in and take it over and force artists out,” said Watten.
One emerging solution is an art-collective model, in which members share the costs of operation, attend monthly gallery meetings and participate in promotions of artist receptions in exchange for representation. Mercury 20, Oakland’s oldest artist-run gallery, is organizing for its 13th year. The gallery developed the alternative model — combining the experimental nonprofit space with the commercial for-profit gallery — which has proven to be a successful way to maintain cultural spaces in a city with massive development, rising rents and gentrification.
The method is gaining popularity in Oakland as well as other artistic hubs, such as New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago. Mercury 20 just secured a long-term lease, as did nearby Betti Ono Gallery.
“Some landlords are working with galleries, and that is key,” said Mercury 20 spokesperson Chris Komater, noting that the space thrives by providing a venue to support other events, like music performances, poetry readings and panel discussions, like one coming up in May on artist-run spaces for Oakland Art Month.
Oakland Art Murmur, an organization created in 2006 to increase interest in the arts, meets regularly to discuss ways to support the local arts community. At a recent meeting, GearBox Gallery member Gina Telcocci said she realizes that galleries’ and artists’ challenges extend beyond rising costs — they also have a need for an audience interested in learning about art and, most importantly, buying it.
“We can talk about how the arts enliven communities until we’re blue in the face, but if only artists attend the events and there are no patrons buying artwork, we can’t make it,” she said.
TaVee Lee, manager of Transmission Gallery, echoed the importance of getting patrons, saying that for many, art seems to have fallen in priority when it comes to people’s purchases. Local events such First Friday art openings and Oakland Art Murmur have helped create interest, but those can often be more about the scene than the art.
Experiencing art in a gallery, she said, fuels connection to the artist and often encourages discussion of controversial or difficult subjects. In response to that, Oakland Art Murmur will present its Art Route Oakland program to provide an opportunity for gallery-goers to win art by visiting galleries during Oakland Art Month this May.
The City of Oakland Speaks
Despite the critiques, to be fair, the City of Oakland does have a variety of programs to support the arts. The Cultural Affairs Division funds and provides technical assistance to artists and nonprofit organizations that support Oakland’s cultural ecosystem.
“We do not fund commercial art space; however, we may fund individual artists who exhibit their work in commercial spaces,” said Neha Belham, program analyst for the city’s Cultural Affairs Division.
And city officials are quite aware of displacement/retention issues. The division works closely with mayor Libby Schaaf’s office in addressing concerns about artist live/work spaces. A white paper created by a multidisciplinary task force in 2016 reveals strategies under discussion to provide long-term housing and financial assistance for artists and art organizations, partly on the basis of a survey completed by 900 Oakland artists along with case studies of other cities’ successes.
In addition, the city has a Cultural Funding Program that gives grants to encourage art that reflects Oakland’s diversity, including by helping create permanent and ephemeral works throughout the city.
There does remain a stain, however, no matter how good things look on paper. The tragic Ghost Ship fire of 2016 and its ongoing reverberations is a further reminder of the city not caring deeply for its arts community. Despite repeated calls to officials about the imminent dangers of the warehouse that ultimately led to the fire, the space and its inhabitants were left out in the cold with regard to safety and protection. Until that tragic event consumed the lives of 36 people and left two men in defense of their lives in a suit hanging in the balance, the city’s administration seemed to turn a blind eye to its artists rather than look out for their well-being. No city officials, nor the landlord, have been held accountable for the fire.
Unable to afford soaring rents, many artists still continue to seek out alternative, dysfunctional spaces like Ghost Ship. One positive thing that has emerged in the wake of the tragedy is Safer DIY Spaces, a coalition of architects, artists, contractors and community organizers who provide confidential technical resources and guidance for arts communities wishing to safely remain in and develop alternative spaces. And with the changing demographics and ongoing development of new housing in Oakland, particularly projects close to BART, there could be interest by the city for including affordable spaces for artists and the arts.
A dichotomy both volatile and promising exists now, and these types of decisions by the City of Oakland could be a make-or-break situation for the future of the arts.
Should I Stay, or Should I Go?
In art school, we used to joke, “Do we buy paint, or do we buy food today?”, often unable to do both. The moniker of the “starving artist” seems doomed and drastically in need of a makeover. What if we replaced that image with one showing the artist as a valued member of society?
Even if you aren’t someone who visits art galleries, you are surrounded by art every day. As you amble the streets of Oakland, extraordinary murals abound to distract you from the din and grind of urban life. Do you ever wonder who painted them? In the volatile and stressful climate in which we live, now more than ever, a daily dose of art and beauty is vital to our well-being.
Making art is not self-indulgent; it’s a gift to others, an act of service to the community. Creativity, after all, is at the very core of our being, the essence of life itself. Art encourages empathy, educates us and elicits dialogue. It makes us feel. The presence of art in our daily lives is a reminder of who we are, what we come from and where we are going. It would behoove all cities to embrace, support and nurture artists in their communities for the betterment of all.