Oakland artists propose resolution to name uptown a Cultural Arts District

First Fridays, Telegraph Avenue, by Daniel Arauz

First Fridays, Telegraph Avenue, by Daniel Arauz

When Oakland’s First Fridays gets underway next week, Telegraph Avenue will welcome an eclectic mix of visitors. On the last First Friday, revelers rode stationary bicycles rigged up to generate electricity for a stage on 23rd Street while over on Telegraph, a vegan advocacy group spread the word about animal rights.

At that intersection, a new furniture design studio only recently opened its doors to the crowd. The furniture studio was remarkable mainly for what it replaced: the Rock Paper Scissors Collective, which helped start the monthly art walk that evolved into the First Fridays phenomenon. Like others in Oakland, Rock Paper Scissors was priced out of the neighborhood last year and is still looking for a new space.

The First Fridays phenomenon—created ten years ago by Oakland artists and gallery owners—radically changed the demographics and character of the Uptown and Koreatown/Northgate districts of Oakland, so much so that many artists have been forced out of the area by rising rents. In response to the exodus of artists, a few Oakland artists and gallery owners started drafting a resolution that would classify the Uptown neighborhood in Oakland as a Cultural Arts District. For art spaces like Rock Paper Scissors, the resolution is too little too late.

Still, said Chandra Cerrito, an art historian and consultant who owns Chandra Cerrito Contemporary on 23rd Street, “If we do nothing, there’s not much hope.”

Cerrito and several collaborators started working with Oakland City Council President Lynette McElhaney’s office to draft the Uptown Arts District resolution last October. Cerrito said that the resolution would direct the Oakland City Council to designate an area of North Oakland— bordered by Grand Avenue, 27th Street, Broadway, and Telegraph—as a Cultural Arts District. It would further direct the city planning committee to take that status into account when approving new developments. There would be no specific enforcement mechanisms.

Cerrito describes the measure as a “middle-of-the-road request” in that it’s not extreme, and doesn’t discourage development. But Cerrito does believe that it will provide a bit of assistance to artists and gallery owners in the area.

“The character of the neighborhood has already changed,” said Cerrito, “but it can still be a really great place for art.”

Some Oakland artists are not so sure. Conrad Meyers, president of Oakland Art Murmur, a non-profit organization that supports the visual arts in Oakland, said the resolution is too late to make a difference. The neighborhood is the perfect example of what is happening all over Oakland, he said. Art spaces that focused solely on the arts—like Rock Paper Scissors—were forced out, and the art spaces that survived—like Chandra Cerrito Contemporary—had to incorporate consulting into their business model.

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” said Meyers. “The neighborhood wouldn’t be the way it is now without the arts. It was the arts that made it hip, and safe, and exciting.”

Meyers said that the city has a history of benefiting from the arts while refusing to provide any meaningful assistance to its artists. As an example he referred to the tumultuous history of First Fridays.

In 2006, Oakland Art Murmur was launched as a loose collaboration between several galleries and art spaces on Telegraph Avenue. They organized the First Fridays Art Walk at the corner of 23rd Street and Telegraph to attract more visitors to the neighborhood.

By 2010, the event had become so popular that it could not be controlled by a loose cooperative of galleries. Art Murmur started the process of incorporating as a non-profit and artist Tina Dillman was hired as the first executive director. “I sometimes wonder, were we part of the problem or part of the solution?” said Dillman, referring to the changes that happened in the neighborhood because of First Fridays.

Dillman started the process of incorporating Art Murmur as an independent non-profit corporation. When she moved in 2011, Danielle Fox, owner of SLATE Gallery in Oakland, took the top seat at the organization. Fox said that during her tenure, the First Fridays Art Walk became so popular that it was almost completely unmanageable, and there was no support from the city.

“We felt that we were making a big contribution to the city and the community, and the city wasn’t meeting us half way,” said Fox, referring to the good press Oakland got from the event. San Francisco Magazine and the New York Times wrote about the First Fridays Art walk, but city officials declined to help cover the cost of the event.

With no help from the city and no ability to cover the cost of the massive event, Art Murmur publicly relinquished control of the street festival portion of First Fridays in July, 2012.

But the event refused to die. Vendors and visitors still showed up on Telegraph on First Fridays. By September, the Koreatown/Northgate Community Benefit District, which represents property owners in the neighborhood, stepped up to take over the event before it could become a total free-for-all.

Given this turbulent history, many of the members of Art Murmur are skeptical of the city. But Alexander Marqusee, an analyst for Oakland City Council President Lynette McElhaney, said that artists in Oakland do have a committed ally in McElhaney. He said that she is passionately committed to protecting the arts in Oakland, such as her successful push to designate a Black Arts Movement Business District on 14th Street earlier this year.

Marqusee said that McElhaney is looking forward to advancing the Uptown Arts District resolution, but declined to provide specifics regarding exactly what benefits the resolution would provide to local artists.

After seeing so many galleries forced out of the neighborhood, Meyers has a hard time being optimistic. “It’s lip service right now with the city,” said Meyers. “You wonder if the renaissance of experimental art spaces in Oakland is over.”

Meyers became president of Art Murmur in 2014, and he spent the last two years guiding the organization away from First Fridays and away from the exclusive focus on Uptown galleries and art spaces.

For this reason, he has not directed any organizational resources toward the Uptown Arts District resolution. Meyers wants to help galleries all over Oakland get as many visitors as possible, for as long as they are still able to operate in the city.

“This is what artists do,” said Meyers, “we lay the groundwork for gentrification, whether we want to or not.”

McElhaney plans to introduce the Uptown Arts District resolution sometime in mid-October.

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