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You Tell Us: Support Oakland Artists (Damnit!)

on June 9, 2010

Support Oakland artists (damnit!)

That’s been my credo for the last 19 years that I’ve lived, served and invested in the Oakland art scene. I’ve operated commercial arts facilities, been active in civic participation and run nonprofit arts programs through three mayoral administrations. In that time I’ve come to a few stark realities and noticed a really annoying pattern happening in the arts community. We (they) rarely ever prepare, react or respond cohesively, except for in times of change or crisis — new mayor, bad policy or massive funding cut. We also aren’t really good at showing up at meetings — the planning meetings, committee meetings, commission meetings, council meetings, meetings about meetings.  This is likely not even unique to Oakland, but in terms of art’s place in politics, it’s huge, since without our participation, our voice is rarely heard or heeded.

Because of that, every four to eight years we’re made offers to keep our attention, and subjected to a new and unimproved arts planning process from which we rediscover the findings of the last report. With each administration comes new bad-or-not-policies, which make crises, massive funding cuts and underinvestment in the arts convenient, simple and inevitable.

That reality is most acutely felt during these recessionary times. The current funding environment has had the most acute impact on community based arts, arts education and nonprofit arts, which should actually be considered vital city services.  A distinct but also undervalued category of artists is the professional, semi-professional and eagerly aspiring; the new media and software designers; and the host of people who comprise our vibrant micro economy. We have no comprehensive strategy for capturing and directing that energy, and without a policy of incentive, the City of Oakland is leaving money on the table in terms of revenue from sales tax, licensing and tourism, not to mention the boost to the city’s public relations, educational resources and community building efforts. With the high levels of rich, natural creative resources in Oakland, there exists a global cultural commodity to go with our position as an international trade portal.

To understand what the arts community needs from an investment, planning and policy standpoint, we’ll consider it to include any person or group who makes, designs or performs any form of creative expression or intellectual property, most broadly defined, for money or no money; who patronizes cultural activities; who learns, educates or enriches through the arts; who serves a clientele of artists; or who willfully engages in obviously interesting things.  We’ll throw in the design, film and entertainment industries, bars and nightclubs, culinary arts and urban gardeners.  It’s all the same wonderful blend of people and truly exhilarating to think about the number of folks in Oakland who fit that description.  As the tale goes, “Oakland has more artists per capita than anywhere outside of New York City.” It seems though, like that should be worth a lot more than we’re getting for it.

Because artists and the broader arts community will always exist and continue to do what it does through changing times, it’s hard to tell if we’re doing better or worse over the last few administrations.  Artists are great at making something out of nothing, so we find creative ways to survive, regardless of the economic or political environment.  I was commiserating with a friend about the state of the arts and we were referring the early 90’s as the “good ole’ days.”  We didn’t know it then, but at the time, the Cultural Arts Division had staffing levels that we wouldn’t experience again. I was active early in the Elihu Harris’ administration, serving as Vice Chair of the Cultural Affairs Commission, President of ProArts, running an arts business and heavily involved in community arts programming, but the first new administration and campaign for me was the “Jerry years.”  A lot of talk and hope was generated, but what a kick in the ass that turned out to be. We did get a loft district out of the deal, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any significant amount of artists who can afford to live there.

So there goes another eight long years — when along comes the current administration.  As a task force co-convener of the Arts and Economic Development Task Force, part of an epic undertaking of public forums and work groups, I was asked to lead a group of community participants in the development of policy recommendations, which would ultimately make life better for us.  That experience felt more like a punch in the stomach. Despite the hundreds of hours I personally spent on two rounds of task forces, each and every recommendation submitted by the group was ignored.  It’s always seemed as if “they” just didn’t really understand the true value of the arts — and if you don’t understand a thing you can’t value it, and you won’t make the necessary investment in it.

There are though some encouraging signs for the art scene in Oakland with the organically spawned informal arts districts, community arts facilities, youth art programs and all the downtown development and nightlife happening.  That along with a variety of citizen-led policy initiatives make this prime for something big. I think there is a confluence of timing, opportunity and creative energy, which could have a great potential impact on the local arts landscape.  I’m not just talking about for the hip, “New” Oakland, but also for those who have been here and who understand that there’s nothing wrong with the old Oakland.  It is the rich diversity of Oakland that has brought and kept people here for generations and it’s vital that this is preserved or Oakland will most definitely lose its cool.  There must be opportunity for investment in deep East Oakland and downtown; Montclair and the Lower Bottoms. Since the thing now is to buy local, SUPPORT OAKLAND ARTISTS, they’re everywhere.

And it is because we’re coming up on another four-year cycle that these patterns have to end.  I’m really tired of this ride and I want to get off.  To me that means a renewed call to the arts community and to supporters of the arts to participate in the civic process, engage others and help shape the policies that will fuel growth in the sector.  The combination of economic policy and community engagement can and must work.  Look for opportunities to engage in the important discussions on the arts in Oakland from groups like the Oakland Cultural Trust and my nonprofit organization Support Oakland Artists (SOA). SOA will be conducting a series of public policy forums, along with an Oakland arts census and the launch of the arts community building initiative, Art-CAN! (Community Action Network).  The network will connect the art community and supporters of the arts to disseminate information on artists, cultural activities, community service opportunities and civic issues. Art can…fuel economies, build communities, educate, and enrich lives.

Randolph Belle is the Founder and Director of  Support Oakland Artists, and has served as the President of Pro Arts, Vice-Chair of the Oakland Art Commission and Convener of the Arts and Economic Development Task Force for the City of Oakland.  He also operates a small design and consulting business and serves as the Special Assistant to the CEO at Urban Strategies Council. He can be reached at


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  1. Amy Kweskin on June 9, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    Randolph – I too love Oakland for what it has been, is and can be – an inspirational catalysti of the Bay Area’s creative culture. Thank you for playing a leading role in articulating our thoughts and highlighting the opportunity to make a difference.

    Amy Kweskin

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