Friends of newly-reopened art center fret over its future
on October 13, 2008
By ANNA BLOOM
As Oakland officials consider how to tighten the city’s fiscal belt, a group called Friends of Studio One is reaching out to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department about the newly retrofitted art center in Temescal. Two years and $10 million after the upgrade the friends say the center — which has served as a public space for creative exploration and learning since the late 1940s — had a lackluster return when it reopened its doors this May, and are worried the anticipated budget cuts will further impact Studio One’s new beginning.
“We’re looking for Studio One to reach its potential and everyone’s anxious for that to happen,” says John Momper, an administrator at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare and Friend of Studio One who has taken photography classes at the center since 1995. “Now that we have an operational facility, we want to see it get used. The last 10 years have been all about the building, now we need to turn our attention over to the programming. It seems to be behind schedule and I’m not sure why.”
Momper says he is concerned about empty rooms, like the computer lab, which still don’t have the proper equipment. “Without computers, we can’t have digital photography,” he says. “It’s kind of like a bridge to nowhere.”
He notes also the Web site for the center continues to have only one photo of the center and it’s an old one, taken before the $10 million renovation. He points to these items as symptoms of a greater problem, which is that months later, there aren’t many patrons attending classes at Studio One.
Momper recognizes that many of the Friends’ dreams have come true for Studio One. He remembers when the perception was that the city wanted to walk away from the building, which for the better half of a century had given adults and children alike a place to meet, create and learn everything from ceramics to yoga. An inspection of Studio One following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake revealed the building was not seismically safe and that an elevator needed to be installed for the building to meet the American with Disabilities Act requirements.
In the late 1990s, the old orphanage interior built to house 100 boys and girls at the turn of the 20th century, remained. Blake Maxam, a longtime drama teacher at Studio One, remembers interrupting figure drawing classes to get to his room, because in many cases there were no hallways to use as an alternative route. At the time, a sign was posted warning that it was “an unreinforced masonry structure,” that the studio was, in effect, unsafe and needed major upgrades.
With the city unwilling to pay for improvements, Momper, along with other Friends of Studio One, began to organize to save the building. The Friends saw themselves as reviving the same spirit de corps that prevailed in the 1940s, when hundreds of residents in Temescal, then known as Little Italy, pitched in to purchase the property at 365 45th Street from the Ladies’ Relief Society. As the story goes, in 1948 these residents then sold the U-shaped building, built in 1894 as an orphanage, and its plot, back to the city to repurpose it as a community center. The next year it opened as Studio One.
A folder in the Oakland City Planning Office bulges with newspaper clippings of articles and letters to the editor from residents about the Friends’ efforts. “Studio One has more years and even generations of Oaklanders to welcome and encourage,” writes Cindy Neveu in 2001 to the Oakland Tribune. “Oakland needs this place of art and culture, history and creativity. A new building or a new location will not do.”
With the support of neighbors behind them, the Friends appealed to councilwoman Jane Brunner to get the Studio One upgrade onto Measure DD, a $198 million bond aimed at projects like trails, bridges, land acquisition and historic building renovations. Voters passed the bond in 2002.
“The key was in getting the money from Measure DD, and that was the accomplishment of the Friends,” Momper says. “If it wasn’t for the community’s support, the building wouldn’t be there.”
In 2006, Studio One’s programming temporarily moved to Malonga Casquelourd Arts Center on Alice Street, and BBI Construction broke ground on the project. The building was gutted. A new foundation was poured. Sustainable materials were also incorporated into the design, such as quartz tiles, cork flooring and infrastructure for a future photovoltaic system.
During the renovation, the city hired Kola Thomas as Studio One’s new director. Originally from Nigeria, Thomas moved to the Bay Area in the 1970s. He received his undergraduate degree in drama from the University of San Francisco and a graduate degree in arts administration from Golden Gate University.
Thomas says facilities like Studio One are vital to cities like Oakland, especially when it comes to reducing violence.
“When you look at the fact that Oakland has had over 100 homicides already, a center like ours is very necessary to provide the avenue for kids to do other than what can decimate themselves and others in the community,” he says.
He says this was evident when Richmond closed all of its recreation centers and incidents of violence shot up.
“There’s a direct correlation between avenues for creative engagement of the community and the incidence of violence in the community,” Thomas says. “So something like this center is not just a shell that you just come through, it must be a shell that you come to to seek solace, to develop, to nurture and to revive yourself.”
Thomas believes people are rediscovering Studio One again. In just one day this September, he says from 9 a.m. to 3 in the afternoon, the center received nearly $2,000 in fees for classes which cost anywhere between $80 and $200. Still, he says, “We have a lot more work to do in terms of marketing and publicity, because while we were gone from here, we lost part of our community, big time.”
Thomas says before construction began, Studio One’s database had 4,500 students. He doesn’t have a precise count now, but guesses from this year’s class registration the numbers are about a quarter of what they were before. He plans to have marketing at full-force by spring of 2009.
“The city provided us with the foundation,” Thomas says, but adds any additional funding for Studio One does not entirely rely on the city. Studio One may need $144,000 for digital photography equipment, he says, but that money needs to be raised through donations and grants.
Betsy Yost, an architect and also a Friend of Studio One, has been impressed by Thomas’ enthusiasm and by the results of the renovation. “It’s very different on the inside and I think they did a great job,” she says. “Kola is very enthusiastic.”
She notices, however, that the programming has gotten off to a slow start.
“It was difficult moving back to put the program back together again. Everything done at Studio One didn’t fit at Alice street,” she says. “I don’t know the extent to which it was cut, but ideally (Studio One) would have opened with a bit bigger splash.”
Yost and other Friends of Studio One want to upgrade the programming pamphlet sent out to the community, add equipment in the computer room for digital photography, open Studio One on Sundays and create a better Web site for the center.
They would also like to start renting out multi-purpose spaces to raise money for the center. During the retrofit, a new kitchen was installed with such rentals in mind, to complement funds from the city.
“For now, our job as Friends of Studio One is really to hold the city’s feet to the fire,” says Momper. “There are numbers we don’t know. There are significant developments happening with the city’s budget right now and we don’t know yet what it means for Studio One. We have to generate income somehow.”
Yost says she believes that Audree Jones-Taylor, the director of Oakland’s Office Parks and Recreation seems to be more invested than some directors in the past. Other directors have been more focused on sport-related centers, she says.
“At some points in time Studio One has been sort of a stepchild center when other ones had basketball courts — it depends on who is in charge of the recs department,” she says.
Yost says Jones-Taylor has attended a fundraiser Friends held during the summer and has been present at other events at Studio One.
The Friends plan to present their concerns to Jones-Taylor later this month.
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