Creativity, crowds, improv: it’s Art Murmur day

on September 4, 2009

Artist Jenny Ottinger hangs her work at the Johansson Projects gallery.

Artist Jenny Ottinger hangs her work at the Johansson Projects gallery.

Some come for the art. Some come for the chaos. But most come to the Oakland Art Murmur for a little bit of both. With nineteen galleries participating in the Murmur this Friday, there will be a wide variety of styles and mediums on display, from the traditional (paintings) to the unorthodox (skateboards) at what has become a monthly mob scene of art, culture, and debauchery.

On the first Friday of every month, hundreds of gallery-goers converge at the intersection of 23rd Street and Telegraph Avenue, forming a block party filled with vendors and performers of all kinds. Street musicians, performance artists, and improv poets clog the streets and linger long after the galleries close.

The Murmur was created in January 2006 by local art gallery managers who wanted to draw a larger audience to the artists they were showcasing. Since then, the event has been drawing ever-growing crowds to Oakland. Today the participating galleries are spread across a swath of downtown Oakland that stretches from Grand Avenue on its south side to 66th Street on the north, and from San Pablo Avenue on its west side to Broadway in the east.  Some galleries open their doors from 6-9 pm, others from 7-10. (For a full listing and map of the Art Murmur galleries, click here.)

“There is a lot more interest in the past couple years in visual art,” said Darren Jenkins, exhibitions director at the 21 Grand Gallery, who has been involved in the Art Murmur since its beginning. “A lot of that, I think, can be attributed to the Oakland Art Murmur, which has grown into something that the city of Oakland has sort of unofficially adopted as their art stroll night.” Since the Murmur began, Oakland galleries have received an influx of publicity and patrons, especially to the galleries surrounding the Murmur’s epicenter at 23rd and Telegraph.

One of those galleries is Johansson Projects, a space that attracts some of the most innovative artists in the Bay Area. This month, Johansson Projects’ featured artist is painter and illustrator Jenny Ottinger. Two days before the Murmur, Ottinger was busy sorting through dozens of paintings stacked on the gallery floor, sizing them up before deciding which would stay and which would go. In a seemingly senseless manner, she would arrange images together a wall—two racehorses sharing space with a group of somber nuns and a gun, for example, or a classroom scene set between a plain white house and a Superman suit.

“I’m really interested in the idea that, when you put a couple of images next to each other, your brain will make a story to justify them being together,” said Ottinger. While her work carries a serious undertone, Ottinger thinks that gallery-walkers will enjoy trying to piece her puzzles together. “It will definitely be fun, at the very least,” Ottinger said. “And there are babies and pistols and kittens, so there’s really something for everybody!”

Johansson Projects’ perch on the corner of 23rd and Telegraph often brings a huge crowd inside, with a line of people extending out into the street. Many people come to the Murmur to be part of that scene, but for others it can be overwhelming. Luckily, within just a few blocks of the Murmur’s center lies a wide selection of less crowded galleries. For example, the 21 Grand Gallery, located just three blocks away at 25th and Broadway, attracts a good crowd but nothing close to the craziness that occurs at 23rd and Telegraph.

“It can be a madhouse down there at that intersection,” said Jenkins, who helped create 21 Grand in nearly a decade ago. “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s great to go down there and just hang out and see so many other people hanging out.” Still, Jenkins appreciates a few blocks of separation from the party — and not just because of the noise. “I think the people that show up here, they’re going to show up here for the art,” he said. “If they’re actually going to make their way away from the block party, they’re definitely making an effort to see the art.”

Last month’s block party got so crazy that new measures will be taken this Friday to keep the crowd under control. There will be no food vending allowed this month and art vendors are required to get a permit in order to participate. In addition, amplified sound has been outlawed and the Murmur will begin hosting curated events in the street rather than allowing the free-for-all that has occurred in the past.

These measures have been taken in an effort to refocus the event on the arts. But despite the party atmosphere that has evolved, Jenkins says that the Murmur has always been built on a foundation of creativity and artistic expression.

“The block party at 23rd and Telegraph is definitely a defining aspect of what’s going on,” Jenkins said, “but it’s still centered on the arts, and I think a lot of the people involved there are involved in a conversation in their lives with the arts.” That conversation might mean collecting or creating art, or it might mean simply appreciating it. “They might not be there to buy the art,” said Jenkins, “but they’re still there in some way supporting it.”

For more information, visit the Oakland Art Murmur’s home page.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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