Through the chain-link fence, Steven Huss scanned the undeveloped stretch of land on Telegraph Avenue between 19th and 20th streets. “When we open the space, we’re going to have an event—performances, interactive things, live music,” he said, sweeping his arm towards the lot. There were signs of construction: a Porta-Potty, orange traffic cones, a line of fence posts set back from the sidewalk and concrete platforms that will eventually support gigantic sculptures.
But there’s still a lot of work to do before Huss throws the opening party for the planned Uptown Art Park. Today, the parcel is carpeted with weeds, yellowed grass and bits of trash—a lifeless landscape in a thriving neighborhood.
The long-vacant plot was nearly turned into a parking lot by the city’s redevelopment agency, but a group of community members fought the proposal, advocating instead for a sculpture garden to display the work of local artists. Now, the park will boast an installation of massive sculptures, some lighted, some over 20 feet tall. Nine sculptures will be displayed at a time, and the exhibit will change every few months. The park itself is expected to be temporary—it will only last until the city finds a permanent developer for the lot. It was slated to open in early December, but weather-related construction delays have pushed the opening back to early 2013.
The space is about an acre, said Huss, Cultural Arts Manager for the City of Oakland, and development is focused on the outer third of the plot. On two sides of the parcel concrete circles—from 8 to 24 feet in diameter—line the sidewalk. These “sculpture pads” will act as anchors for works of wood, steel, ceramic and other materials. The largest cement pedestals will also have electrical outlets to power lighted pieces.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Huss looked sober in a dark suit, tidy vest and rimless glasses as he walked around the site. But he grew animated as he talked about the park, imagining how people might step off the sidewalk onto the gravel paths around the sculpture pads to get a better look, maybe stop to read about the partnership between the Office of Neighborhood Investment and the Cultural Arts and Marketing division that brought the project to life, or the $200,000 National Endowment for the Arts matching grant he secured to help fund it.
“This is like the splashy front window,” Huss said, gesturing towards the area where three sculptures will be displayed along Telegraph Avenue. “This is sort of the salon where you see the bigger body of work that backs up the invitation,” he said, indicating the six pedestals facing 19th Street, where he stood on the sidewalk. Furthest from the streets is “the back room or the event space,” he said—an open gravel-covered area where he hopes live music, dance and video projection events will be staged.
Wildflowers might be planted in the center of the parcel, but little else will be done with the uneven patch of earth. Huss said a fence will surround that inner area, running along the sidewalk on Williams Street and cutting in behind the sculpture displays “to help you focus in on the works,” he said. A colorful fabric band emblazoned with “Uptown Art Park” will line the fence, with a special section featuring a curatorial statement and information about the exhibit.
Among the nine works by local artists that will show in the inaugural exhibit are a two-story-high dandelion and pair of trumpet flowers made of salvaged steel by Karen Cusolito, who runs American Steel Studios in West Oakland. An ivory-colored ceramic block tower and an abstract sculpture made of salvaged retaining wall timbers, both by Oakland artist Randy Colosky, will also be on view. Bike Bridge, a lighted 20-by-20-foot arch of repurposed bicycle pieces will occupy the most prominent Telegraph-facing display space. It was built by lead artist Michael Christian with the help of young Oakland women, who created pieces of the sculpture during welding workshops.
The park is modeled after other temporary sculpture displays, which have become a trend in the Bay Area, said monumental sculpture artist Dan Das Mann, who previously worked with Cusolito and advocated for the Uptown park. The Black Rock Arts Foundation—started by many of the people who produce Burning Man, the famous Nevada desert art festival—pioneered this urban exhibition model through its Civic Art Program, Cusolito said, which brought sculpture to San Francisco and other cities. Much of the large-scale sculpture work shown at Burning Man and other festivals around the country originates in Oakland, Huss said, but it is rarely exhibited here. One goal of the Uptown project is to give Bay Area artists an opportunity to exhibit locally, he said.
Works will be displayed for nine to 12 months, Huss said, then replaced with a fresh exhibit. Any artist is welcome to submit work for consideration, he said, and submissions will be reviewed by a panel that includes community members. While Das Mann said artists aren’t often paid to exhibit their work in temporary public installations, Huss said all artists who lend the city their works will be paid $1,500. Students at the Oakland School for the Arts, housed in the nearby Fox Theater building, will be encouraged to submit work for display in the park, Huss said.
The temporary display model will give the public a chance to see a different type of public art, Das Mann said. It costs much more to put in a permanent sculpture than a temporary one, he said, plus the approval process for long-term public art is more rigorous and the environmental demands are restricting. As a result, he said, only tough materials can be used and usually noncontroversial pieces are selected. A park that allows for flexibility in materials and content, he said, is “helping to create a different paradigm of what public art can be.”
When the Uptown Art Park idea got started in 2009, Huss said, he had already been working to bring public art to Uptown for three years—The Great Wall of Oakland projection installation was one his team’s projects. With the renovation of the Fox Theater, a growing nexus of art galleries and the explosion of the First Friday street fair, the neighborhood was becoming an arts and entertainment district, and Huss said he was looking for ways to reflect that vibrancy through public art.
But before the Uptown district became the city’s cultural heart, it was a neglected tract that was in some ways more geared towards cars than people. In the middle of the neighborhood, next to the then-dilapidated Fox, a Sears Auto Center and a three-story parking garage covered the area now planned for the art park. In 2005, the city’s redevelopment agency bought this land from Sears, said Jens Hillmer, urban economic coordinator for the Office of Neighborhood Investment, formerly the Community and Economic Development Agency.
By 2006, he said, the agency had leased much of the land to a developer, Forest City Enterprises. As a part of then-Mayor Jerry Brown’s “10K plan” to draw more residents to downtown Oakland, Forest City replaced the parking garage and auto center with apartments and a public park. Today the area is home to the Uptown apartment complex and Henry J. Kaiser Memorial Park, with its cast bronze “Remember Them” sculpture.
But the plot on Telegraph Avenue between the Fox and the new apartments was left bare. Forest City had an agreement to purchase this land from the city and planned to build a high-rise condominium tower with ground floor retail space, but the housing market had collapsed by 2008 and the developer backed out, Hillmer said. Neighborhood business owners complained about a lack of parking, he said, so his agency—unable to find another taker for the space—proposed the construction of a surface parking lot, meant to stay in place until the housing market was ripe for development. “It was our effort to support the business community,” Hillmer said.
The parking lot plan would have gone forward if a group of activists hadn’t campaigned against the idea. A pair of local bloggers, Jonathan Bair and Rebecca Saltzman, spearheaded the effort, which initially focused on blocking the parking lot proposal, and later advocated for using the space for a sculpture garden instead. “We knew enough to be dangerous,” said Bair, an Oakland resident who describes himself as a “pedestrian advocate” and sits on the board of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland. There was a sizeable community interested in pedestrianism and livability issues at the time, he said, which he and Saltzman were linked to through their blogs. (Bair’s blog is The DTO; Saltzman’s blog, which she says she’s no longer updating, is Living in the O.) They felt a parking lot would increase traffic and stymie pedestrian activity in the blossoming neighborhood. It would have been a “scar in the heart of Uptown,” Bair said.
The bloggers urged readers to voice their opposition and suggest alternative uses for the land by emailing city councilmembers and speaking at council meetings. They worked with District 4 Councilmember Libby Schaaf, who was legislative analyst to the council’s Community and Economic Development Committee at the time, to convince the council of the park proposal’s merit.
The Oakland Heritage Alliance, a group that advocates for architectural preservation, soon joined their effort. Naomi Schiff, who is on the board of the alliance, said their members had been warily watching the plans for the lot before the Forest City condominium project was scrapped. They found the proposed building design unacceptable—they wanted a pedestrian-friendly design that was set back from the street and didn’t dwarf nearby historic buildings or clash with their architectural style. “We were horrified because it was spectacularly ugly,” Schiff said of the proposed condo building.
When the parking lot idea emerged, they opposed that, too, Schiff said. “We always had a pretty strong feeling about that corner,” she said. Plus, she notes, building a parking lot seemed like a step backward. “They had parking and they got rid of it!” she said.
As the city council weighed the parking lot plan, dozens of people spoke against it at meetings and emailed alternative ideas, said Saltzman, who was recently elected to the BART Board for District 3. She said people suggested uses like a dog park, a community garden and a soccer field. But the sculpture installation received the most interest from the council and the community.
To sell the idea, Saltzman and Bair asked Cusolito and Das Mann to give a presentation to the council. At that time, the artists were running what is now American Steel Studios together. They brought together hundreds of people to build scrap metal sculptures weighing up to ten tons that had been commissioned for Burning Man. The pair also had experience exhibiting their work at temporary art parks around the Bay Area. Their job was to convince the councilmembers that this project was doable and worthwhile. “It was about getting them excited,” Das Mann said, while “explaining some of the possibilities of what could be done—the value they could get behind.”
That value was quickly evident to Schaaf, she said, even if the parking proposal had seemed pragmatic. “At first the idea of a surface parking lot made sense,” she said. “[The activists] are really the ones that questioned that idea,” she added, calling the effort “a particularly magical example” of citizen advocacy. Schaaf said her role was to make the idea feasible by identifying the Public Art Program’s ability to fund the plan.
But even after the council adopted the proposal in May, 2009, it might have floundered, she says, if Huss had not led the city’s Office of Neighborhood Investment and Cultural Arts and Marketing division in working together on a strategy for the park. Huss is leading the public art team in developing the art component of the site, while Hillmer and others oversee the construction.
The park’s greatest challenge has been funding, Huss said. He secured a $200,000 National Endowment of the Arts grant in October 2010, and the city has contributed slightly over $200,000 to match it. The city funds come from a “Percent for Art Ordinance,” which allocates 1.5 percent of the cost of the city’s capital improvement projects for public artwork. The roughly $400,000 budget is enough to open the park, launch the first exhibit and help fund the second exhibit, Huss said. He plans to pursue other funding opportunities, including donors and partnerships with other art spaces. “It would be great if a foundation would just say, ‘We’ll give you half a million a year,’” he joked.
The city could be liable if anyone gets hurt in the park—crushed by a mammoth steel sculpture, say—so artists, who normally install their own works, will do so with supervision from city officials. Artists will start installing their work 10 to 14 days before the exhibit opens, Huss said. As for concerns about vandalism at an outdoor park, he shrugs them off—it’s not a novel problem in his line of work. “It’s never a pristine environment like a museum or gallery,” he said. “It’s very accessible, which is what we want. There are just a lot of close-up encounters.”
When the sculpture park opens in early 2013 there will be a big party, Huss said, with live music, dancers, and video projections. Alongside the inaugural exhibit, a number of works too fragile to withstand the elements for long will show.
The park will stay in place until a permanent development project begins—there is currently developer interest in the lot, Hillmer said, and guessed that city officials will start reviewing proposals by the summer of 2013. But he says it will be at least two or three years before ground is broken for a project.
Huss said he was told the park will stand for at most five years, and while part of him wants to see it become permanent, he isn’t dwelling on the eventuality of the park’s closure. He said he’ll be happy if he can experiment with the space while it’s here. “It’s a laboratory,” he said, contemplating the partially-completed park from a nearby bench. “I also want it to be a seed bed for other projects that can happen in Oakland. If it works here we’ll take it on the road.”