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Oakland public artists struggle to survive shifting economy

on December 10, 2015

Every Tuesday, muralist Desi Mundo walks four blocks from his home to teach at a small charter school behind a Catholic church near Mills College. Mundo has lived in Oakland for over a decade. When he’s not teaching, he’s figuring out ways to bring more policy support to public arts in Oakland.

Mundo aims to improve the lives of public art creators. He also wants to put in place more protections for local artists whose pieces are painted throughout low-income communities. Mundo strongly believes that Oakland’s Cultural Arts and Marketing Division has overlooked local artists for the past 15 years. “The city’s approach to art is extremely dysfunctional,” said Mundo. “Now there’s even more attention placed on Oakland, and the arts are booming, but I don’t know if it’s benefiting the people that have always been here.”

In order to stay afloat financially, Mundo must teach twice a week at Unity High Charter School and once a week at a community day school. In addition to teaching, he sells colorful portraits of people, tribal patterns and families of fish. His living room acts as his gallery and workspace. Paint bottles are piled up against the walls, and canvases are propped onto chairs. There isn’t an empty or white wall in sight.

“A lot of artists end up subsidizing their work through other jobs; that’s how rough it is. You have to go work eight hours a day, then come home and do all your work at night, and everyone thinks that what’s artists do,” said Mundo. “It’s really difficult for people to make that step and do it full-time and a lot of those barriers are financial.”

Artists aren’t known—nor do they choose their profession— to join the country’s wealthy one percent, although some are able to build lucrative careers through doing commercial work with large companies like Nike or Amazon. But Mundo fears that artists aren’t receiving recognition or financial assistance for the public work done in low-income communities.

Cultural arts are key to Oakland’s marketing division to attract business and revitalize neighborhoods, according to Oakland’s Cultural Arts and Marketing Division’s website. “The good footing that our economy is on is partly due to the artist community. The appeal and vitality they’ve brought, the creativity they bring, is a really profound economic driver,” said Kristen Zaremba, Oakland’s cultural arts manager.

Public arts also help the economy. According to a report published in 2008 by the Center for Community Innovation (CCI), which conducts research on economic and transit-oriented development, “Nonprofit arts and cultural organizations are recognized as a significant industry, generating $166 billion a year in economic activity nationwide.” The report adds that local governments invest in arts as a catalyst for tourism, business development and job creation.

In 2005, Mundo founded the Community Rejuvenation Project. “The original idea around the project was to do murals, community cleaning and block parties,” said Mundo. Today the group is best known for the murals. Public art painters from the project have banded together to create over 200 of them in the East Bay.

The most famous piece is located downtown between Alice and 14th Streets. It’s approximately 10,000 square feet, and covers the walls of the parking lot that directly faces the Malonga Casquelourd Center. Images of Native and African American dancers dressed in folk costume add movement to the painting, as protesters holding signs that read “We Shall Not Be Moved” illustrate the concept of advocacy. Figures that represent Oakland’s culture—and even its tragedy—are also depicted, from jazz educator Khalil Shaheed, who founded the Oaktown Jazz Workshops, to Chauncey Bailey, the reporter who was killed while working on a story about Your Black Muslim Bakery. The mural also focuses on how African-American and Chinese communities intersect at Alice and 14th Streets.

Today, according to its website, the group is a “‘pavement to policy’ organization helping to develop new policy around blight mitigation and abatement strategies, and promote holistic community development centered around public murals.”

But Mundo points out that most of the money for these city beautification projects comes from donations, not the government. The Alice Street project was crowdfunded on the platform Indiegogo. The group raised $8,164 in 28 days, more than their $8,000 goal, which was matched by the East Bay Fund for Artists. The fund is hosted by the Oakland-based nonprofit East Bay Community Foundation. In addition, Councilmember Lynette McElhaney contributed three grants for just under $40,000 from her graffiti abatement mural funds.  

“Public artists only get a few commissions each year. We have contracts with the county for doing murals supporting interests that align with our goals,” said Mundo.

The city has long made efforts to support the arts, although funding for programs has ebbed and flowed with the economy. In 1989, Oakland established the Percent for Art Ordinance, and the Oakland Redevelopment Agency (ORA) passed a Percent for Art resolution. Both “authorize the allocation of 1.5% of the City’s capital improvement project costs for the commissioning of public artwork,” according to the city’s website. The ordinance and resolution are intended to support creations of art and provide the design elements needed in the development of art places.

The Public Art Advisory Committee reviews proposals for public art projects. For a project to be funded by the city, submissions must include examples of the artist’s past work, visual and written proposals, onsite photos, a scale drawing or digital photographic mockup, a timeline, budget, maintenance plan, community outreach/support documentation, insurance documentation and proposed site permissions. It’s a tedious process that Mundo finds unnecessary. “You really have to go justify your existence to do this work?” he asks.

The city once had a Cultural Affairs Commission, established in 1991. It made recommendations to fund and promote artistic projects that supported cultural development in Oakland communities. The commission voted on grant recommendations for public art projects and helped the Public Art Advisory committee identify available funding. But, says Zaremba, “In the mid 2000’s we started to see a challenge that the commission faced, where they didn’t really feel like they had much power.” The commission went on hiatus at the end of 2011 after volunteers stopped attending the meetings. (By August of that year, six consecutive meetings had been cancelled.)

For now, Oakland’s Cultural Arts and Marketing Staff manage the arts. They also have oversight over the Public Art Advisory Committee and Funding Advisory Committee. The funding committee is a volunteer advisory board that votes on grants distributed to artists and cultural programs. But their staff, which once consisted of 27 people, has been boiled down to two full-time employees and one part-time employee.

Zaremba says that artists would like to see a larger body of people working within Oakland’s Cultural Arts Division, but numbers have dwindled due to budget cuts, and so has the budget for local art, which has been on the decline for many years. “California did away with one of the great funders of art programs, including [redevelopment agencies],” she said. “So our ability to capture tax increment financing is no longer available to us.” In 2012, California dissolved all of its redevelopment agencies (RDAs), which received over $5 billion in property tax revenues annually, according to the website of the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Californians pay approximately $45 billion a year in property tax, which is distributed to local agencies like elementary schools, community colleges, counties, cities, and projects that deal with “blighted areas” that needed urban renewal.

Recently, the city’s cultural funding program, which awards money to artists and art organizations, granted $969,500 to 77 organizations and individuals. Zaremba said the city once had double those funds to give out. The program provides financial support to those who focus on art education in schools and the infusion of arts in Oakland neighborhoods. “It funds murals, Destiny Arts, dance, the symphony. It really runs the spectrum, and those are all very much community-based programs,” said Zaremba. “Art is the health of Oakland.”

In the 2014-2015 funding cycle, 77 of the 122 applications were approved. Awards ranged from $4,249 for individual projects to $40,000 for organizational project assistance. Organizations like the Oakland Museum of Children’s Arts and the Creative Growth Center were awarded the largest amounts, according to a city council agenda report filed in September. Individual artists were allowed to apply for $4,999 in grants, but that money was cut back to $4,299—Mundo was one of those recipients.

But despite funding setbacks, public interest in the arts is still booming, and so is the number of artists who are moving to Oakland. The Oakland Art Murmur drove that renaissance, starting in 2006 with the implementation of the First Friday art walk. Eight art spaces located in the Northgate and Temescal neighborhoods worked together to spotlight attention on artists and art programs in the city.

From the art walk, Oakland’s First Friday art festival evolved. Musicians, painters, jewelry designers and other visual artists travel from all over the Bay Area to participate in First Fridays, where they rent booths to sell and display their work. Street fair participants must apply online and await approval in order to vend at the monthly event.

At the November First Friday, artists working the event said that booths were cheaper to rent in Oakland than in San Francisco. In many cases, they’ve even moved from San Francisco for better opportunities. “I moved to Oakland because it was more affordable,” said jewelry designer Anna Costello, who runs a business called Snake Bone Jewelry. It was her first time at the festival since moving to Oakland in late September. She modeled two turquoise and maroon beaded bracelets as she complimented Oakland’s communal community-driven culture. “[Many] places cost a lot of money to rent a table, and it’s a lot more affordable at First Fridays. The sense of community is also much better than in San Francisco,” Costello said.

“I lived in San Francisco for four years, then I took a break, and now I live in Oakland,” added painter Alexander Brown, who sat on a wooden stool and proudly spoke about the portraits of drag queens that graced canvases almost larger than his six-foot frame. It was only his second time vending at First Friday. “After the boom, there has been a lot of people moving to Oakland for opportunity,” said Brown.

Zaremba says that Oakland is transforming into a competitive market for artists, both to work in and to acquire grants awarded by the city. “We predominately fund community-based artists. With the feeling of more people moving in and different aesthetics, people feel like they’re competing. It’s a very competitive program,” she said.

And Mundo said he feels the pressure to compete with the flood of artists who’ve come to join Oakland’s bustling art scene. “The pace has picked up. You have to keep up with all the artists you see on social media. You have to be constantly posting new photos and new things you’ve done,” said Mundo.

To make up for their budget loss, and help support the growing number of artists, the cultural arts division is looking to employ new tools that can ultimately benefit artists, like urging the city to provide more grants and workspaces for small businesses. “Investment that comes from new companies is important. It raises the tax rate and that’s one of our primary tools, being able to turn around and fund things that are of value to a city like Oakland,” said Zaremba.

Oakland’s hotel tax is another contributor to the arts. In 2009, Measure C raised the hotel tax from 11 percent to 14 percent. “As the city grows, if you have additional hotel development, that will help the grant program as well,” said Zaremba. “Sometimes there’s a trickle-down effect with the city’s economy growing.” It was estimated that Measure C would bring $2.7 million of revenue to the city. Fifty percent of that total would go towards the Oakland Convention and Visitors Bureau to fund marketing campaigns to bring more visitors to the city.

The tool that Zaremba’s staff is most excited about is the ordinance Mayor Libby Schaaf enacted in December, 2014, requiring private developers to allocate one percent of their projects’ costs for public arts. Developers are also required to install public arts in buildings. “This is a new key tool, and it’s just getting off the ground,” said Zaremba.

Kelly Koski, special projects manager with this city’s economic and workforce development, adds, “One percent for public art and private development means a lot more jobs for artists, either hired directly by the developers who are now required to place art on their property in a way that enlivens the general landscape.”

But this ordinance has been challenged in federal court. BIA Bay Area, a nonprofit association for building contractors, filed a lawsuit earlier this year against the city. As the members wrote in a statement on their website: “We as a region need to decide if we are serious about increasing housing opportunities in the Bay Area for working households in a responsible and sustainable way. We cannot do that if local governments continue to pile the cost of providing every conceivable social program on new housing development.”

The mayor also convened a task force this year to look specifically into strategies for creating and preserving art workspaces and housing that’s affordable. “We are all so panicked about the displacement of our artists community,” said Zaremba. “The task force will advise the mayor on what are one or two strategies that are doable, that we can operationalize, and actually get some assistance out there to the artists to try to shave off this displacement.”

A major short-term policy intervention that the city plans to establish is a funding program that offers “acute assistance to artists in an acute situation, where they’re facing displacement or their rent is going up,” added Zaremba.

“We owe it to the artists community to figure out ways to protect and nourish them. But how do we do that with the limited resources of the local government?” asked Koski. “That’s what we’re trying to solve right now. It’s a deep sense that the artist community in Oakland is really important, sort of just the health of the city.”

Desi Mundo’s Community Rejuvenation Project recently partnered with the Soul of Oakland to advocate for more funding and legal protection for local public artists. According to the Soul of Oakland’s website, the organization strives to be “a movement to defend the arts and culture of Oakland in the face of rapid gentrification.” Its founder, Theo Williams, says the group was established to help preserve Oakland’s artistic and cultural heritage.

He established the organization in September after he and a group of drummers were confronted by a Lake Merritt resident during an evening jam session. Williams says the man stormed up to the group, forcibly grabbed the drumsticks from his hands, and threw them on the ground. “The cops came out and took his side. I was frustrated,” Williams said. According to an Oakland Police Department (OPD) press release, citations for battery were written for both parties.

Since the incident, the drummers have continued to perform at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater every Sunday. People stop and watch and even stop to dance, throwing their hands in the air and kicking their feet, striving to keep up with the Afro-Cuban rhythms. The group has hosted multiple rallies, including one staged outside of Oakland City Hall on September 29, the day the group was founded. “Soul of Oakland comes from the need for artists to have a political platform,” said drummer Ezra Brista. They believe that the city lacks a central platform aimed at preserving community arts, and that there isn’t an organization that helps artists overcome adversity. “There is no single destination for artists in the community,” added Brista.

Both organizations have been urging the city government to bring back the arts commission, and to put what Williams calls “local folks” on it. He says local participants will “serve as good stewards and get the information from the city and other government agencies into the community so we can be more community represented.”

He’s hopeful that the Artist Housing and Workspace task force Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3) is developing will help determine what should happen next to bring the commission back. “A budget needs to be created and some city staff needs to be appointed,” said Williams. Since the former commission ran on volunteer power and members weren’t paid, Williams says that the panel didn’t do much work outside of the meetings.

Zaremba believes that it will take more dedication from participants in the art community. “To reconstitute a commission, you also need to make sure that you have enough staff. It doesn’t do any good to have a commission that just meets, and then there’s no infrastructure to support it,” said Zaremba. “Having a commission without any staff doesn’t do any good to implement the policy work. [The former commission] didn’t have a budget or any programs to administer themselves.”

The Community Rejuvenation Project is also using other platforms to garner awareness for their work, including video production. Recently, the organization produced a documentary in conjunction with the Alice Street mural project team. A small independent video crew, assisted by Chinese language translators, crafted a feature length documentary titled “Alice Street.” Twenty of Oakland “culture keepers,” who are striving to preserve their communities despite shifting demographics, were featured in the documentary.

Mundo is using the film as a platform to display the positive results of public arts. “We’ve been trying to get the city to listen to our recommendations about creating more avenues for public art and creating more funding for public art,” he said. He also hopes it will bring more attention to the artists that have led the way in Oakland’s art renaissance.

Though he supports the city’s grants programs, Mundo says that grants may help in the short-term, but they are not creating long-lasting jobs for public artists. “My wealth has not increased dramatically in this new renaissance,” said Mundo. “Who is getting all these funds? I may make a little more money than I use to, but it’s not even comfortable to the cost of living in the Bay Area.”

Looking towards the future, Mundo and Williams would like to continue working together to create a collective of artists that can withstand the economic shifts making it harder for them to survive in Oakland. “We’ve really started engaging the conversation about public art policy, and trying to find ways that we could improve the situation for people who are doing the same work that we were doing,” said Mundo.

“How do we preserve what we have and increase our imprint? We can’t stop [people] from buying that building. We can’t stop [people] from charging $5,000 a month,” said Williams.  “But we can try to put up some roadblocks to preserve the soul of our city.”


  1. Andrew on February 25, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    The comment about artists “building lucrative careers” working for Amazon and Nike struck me as dubious. While Amazon has launched an “art marketplace” where artists can sell cheap reproductions of their images, I haven’t heard of anyone making much money there, let alone lucrative careers. And Nike is notorious for paying a princely $35 for their “swoosh” logo – I haven’t heard of them hiring any other artists after that. What’s the source for this bit of information? Inquiring minds want to know…

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