Rock Paper Scissors Collective seek out alternative venue after leaving old space
on October 12, 2016
Library community rooms. A studio at Faultline Artspace in East Oakland. MetWest High School. A home. Fairs, festivals, and events.
These are just some of the places where the arts nonprofit Rock Paper Scissors Collective (RPS) now works, according to Kristi Holohan, the organization’s youth, internships and community director. The volunteer-run nonprofit, which helped found Oakland’s popular First Friday/Art Murmur event, left their 11-year Telegraph Avenue location last August, in what some have called the “end of an era” for Oakland’s arts scene. Now without a brick and mortar storefront, the group is trying to stay together by existing everywhere.
At their old space, the organization’s members and volunteers ran arts and crafts classes, hosted workshops, art shows and community events, and sold clothing, music, crafts and zines. Since leaving, they have struggled to continue their programming. Instead of hosting classes at their space, Holohan said, they work with community partners, like the Oakland Public Library. Instead of selling artists’ work in their boutique, they sell at festivals and fairs. Their zine library, which people from all over the world used to visit, said Holohan, now sits unseen in her basement.
The group and their former landlord disagree over the reason they left their old space. Andrew Seko, an RPS member, said that the group was forced to leave because their landlord wanted to increase the rent. In an email, Seko wrote, “He didn’t quote us a firm amount that he wanted to raise the rent to, although he said several times that he could get at least double what we were paying. We had hoped to bid on the increased rate, but in the end he decided to go with other tenants rather than offering us the chance.”
He also wrote that the group’s struggle to pay a potential rent increase was due to a combination of factors: they weren’t getting the retail or art sales that they needed to afford a higher rent. They offered many of their programs for free or at low cost. (“We’ve never turned someone away due to an inability to pay, and generally left it up to the individual instructors to set the price point for their classes, since they were paid a percentage of whatever funds they raised,” wrote Seko.) And they were going through a member reorganization at the time, with several long-time members leaving because they had gotten married, moved or had new jobs. With that came a loss of institutional knowledge that left them less prepared to respond to a rent increase, Seko wrote. “We were addressing all these issues, but they all hit at just the wrong time,” he wrote.
But John Mervin, the owner and landlord of RPS’s former building, said the idea of a rent increase was just a rumor. “The rent didn’t increase. They just weren’t paying the rent,” he said. He said that at that point, the organization had dwindled in membership, it was “never open,” and “it had turned into kind of like a clubhouse for two or three people, basically.” He also said that at any given time, the group was up to three months behind on rent, and they left the space owing him one month of rent, which he said he let slide.
“It’s unfortunate because the intention of what Rock Paper Scissors was, was a positive organization, but in the end it just sort of wound down to the point where it really wasn’t functioning like that anymore,” Mervin added. He also said terminating the lease was a difficult decision because he had been personally close to several of the founding members.
Former member Mark Nicola remembers Mervin reaching out to him to try to get in touch with Holohan because Mervin said the group hadn’t paid the rent in several months. “Many times when we were there, [we] were late or had issues [with the rent], and he was always super understanding,” Nicola said. “So I tend to just believe him when he says that they hadn’t paid and hadn’t worked it out.”
But Seko wrote by email: “We were never behind on the rent. There were two months where we made two payments instead of one lump payment, but we never missed a month at any point during our time with him. I contest that strongly.”
Holohan concurred, saying that she wasn’t financial head of the organization, but to her knowledge, they paid the rent consistently and only had to split the rent one month in early 2015. In response to Mervin’s “clubhouse” comment, she said, “From my perspective as the youth and internship director, it wasn’t a clubhouse for me. It was a space were youth would come throughout the year.”
That said, she didn’t want to continue the rent dispute. “We’re not really about pitting people against other people. That’s not how we build community,” she said.
Whatever may have led to RPS leaving their Telegraph space, since then, the group has been working nomadically while searching for a new space to rent.
In September 2015, RPS moved to the Flight Deck, a performance arts space in downtown Oakland, where they stayed for six months. According to Seko, because the space is set up as a theater, they weren’t able to use it as a retail or gallery space and it wasn’t cost-effective to stay there. “Now we don’t have any location. And rather than spending the $500 a month that we were to be in that office space, we’re now spending $50 a month for storage, which is much more sustainable in this sort of fallow period,” he said.
Meanwhile, the organization has had three leases fall through. Seko said they lost one space, near the Laurel and Dimond Districts, because the members, who volunteer their time to RPS, couldn’t coordinate their schedules to go see it. They lost a space in the Fruitvale to a massage parlor. Seko said that he thought the landlords passed RPS up because they are all working artists, with less than sterling credit histories, despite a “stellar rental history.”
The most recent lease that fell through was in West Oakland; Seko said the group didn’t have enough liquid income for the landlords to move forward.
Looking for this new space has created additional tasks for Holohan–namely, reviewing legal paperwork and meeting with lawyers and developers. Between her volunteer and paid work with RPS, her part-time teaching job at MetWest high school, other volunteer work, and creating her art, Holohan said her typical day lasts from 9 am to 1 am, with a mid-day jogging break.
“It’s everything that I can do not to feel like it’s total chaos, and continue to be able to answer these text messages” from the students with whom she works, Holohan said. “Sometimes I just bring the youth to meetings with the lawyers.”
Holohan said that developers have offered RPS a generous deal to move into a yet-to-be-built downtown Oakland building. But the deal has not yet been finalized, it will be a year and half before the building will be finished, and RPS will have to build out the interior, according Holohan.
In the meantime, the group is trying to work without a space, and that’s meant some challenges.
“I think the hardest part of it is not having one central location with all of our stuff, and kind of having to make a mental note of where everything is,” Holohan said while working at Faultline Artspace, preparing for their annual silk screening workshop at Oaktoberfest. This is one of the few spaces that has remained consistent for RPS throughout their move: They’ve always stored their silk screening equipment at Faultline.
But even for a routine event like this, not having a space has changed the way that Holohan prepares. Later that day, she planned to make additional copies of flyers for the event because the extras in their storage unit would be too hard to find amidst the other equipment. If they still had a space, Holohan said, all of these items would be in one easily accessible “to-go box.”
For Seko, the biggest change has been the loss of community. “Since we lost the space, I haven’t had that tent-pole to organize my week around,” he said. “When we were in there, I would work in the shop one or two days a week. We’d be meeting every week with the volunteers. There was just more community.” Now, he added, most conversations happen virtually, and any in-person gatherings tend to include just the core RPS members, rather than the larger collective of volunteers.
Peggy Simmons, the director of Green Windows Writing Groups, taught her first writing workshops at the collective’s Telegraph Avenue space and continued teaching monthly workshops for eight years. “It was a place where if somebody wanted to come in and teach something, they could go in and teach something,” she said.
She said that the fact that she and RPS split the fees she took in from students and that RPS didn’t require teachers to earn a minimum amount made it possible for her to charge workshop participants on a sliding scale, allowing people to pay at different levels without it being a big deal.
“Really, the diversity of people who come to my workshops is phenomenal, and that’s what makes them wonderful and really unique. And the Rock Paper Scissors Collective helped me do that because of their ability to be welcoming to anybody,” she said.
After RPS moved to the Flight Deck, Simmons tried to follow, but said that the theater’s schedule made it more difficult for her to keep a regular monthly workshop. She tried a few other spaces that either proved to be unreliable or the wrong fit before settling on Omni Commons, an arts collective in Temescal, which she said is working out.
RPS is just one of many arts organizations that have closed their doors in recent years. In July, Lo Bot Gallery in West Oakland received a notice to vacate their space of 13 years, after facing a 90 percent increase in rent over two years, according to their website. Ghost Town Gallery received an eviction notice in May after 13 years in their West Oakland space, as a result of a trial ruling in favor of the landlord’s claims about unsafe conditions in the space, according to the East Bay Times. Mama Buzz, an arts-oriented café in Downtown Oakland and another one of the pillars of First Fridays/Art Murmur, closed their doors in 2012 after their lease was not renewed. (The space remains under the same ownership and is now a bar called Telegraph.)
Holohan said she thinks the city isn’t doing enough to support artists and poor people. Last November, the mayor launched an artist housing and workspace task force, in an effort to address the threat of artists leaving the city due to rent increases. That December, the task force released a memorandum that recommended three strategies: working with the private sector to acquire real estate to rent on a long-term basis to artists; providing direct financial assistance to artists and arts organizations; and providing information to artists and building the city’s internal capacity to address this issue.
According Kelley Khan, the city’s staff lead of the task force, said the city has made some progress on these recommendations. It hired a new cultural affairs manager, Robert Bodeya, to lead the city’s efforts in supporting the arts. In June, it launched a series of trainings to help staffers of arts organizations strengthen their business skills to help them be more resilient, as well as to assess their ability to own real estate, which Khan says is the most effective way for artists to protect against commercial rent increases.
For the costlier recommendations–creating grant programs and a real-estate acquisition program–Khan says the city has undertaken a huge fundraising effort. So far, they’ve secured commitments from two major foundations to fund an anti-displacement mitigation grant program to help artists cope with rent increases, operating expenses and moving costs.
Whether these plans will come to fruition in time for artists and arts organizations to continue living and working in Oakland is an open question. Katherin Canton–a former member of RPS, a participant in the mayor’s task force, and co-founder of Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition (OCNC), a cultural preservation advocacy group with a focus on communities of color–said that the issue is “a super complex one, but not really a complex one.”
As economic and arts activity grows in a neighborhood, she said, using downtown Oakland as an example, investment from outside of the region grows and “provides more platforms” for those with a higher income. She said that Oakland’s tourism bureau, Visit Oakland, and the city government used the booming arts scene as a way to sell Oakland, which was great, but didn’t consider anti-displacement measures.
“Yes, investment is amazing. Yes, new people, new buildings, new restaurants, new entertainment areas are good, but at the expense of what and who? And I think that’s been the conversation for a lot of artists and arts workers in the Bay Area and in Oakland,” Canton said.
There are solutions to the problem of artist displacement in the works, according to Canton. She’s part of the Uptown Arts District (UAD) work group, which is trying to pass a city council resolution to classify the area between Grand Avenue, 27th Street, Broadway, and Telegraph, as a cultural arts district.
Canton said the group also wants to “add policy and planning guidelines that would actually incentivize developers and land owners to develop in a responsible, respectful, inclusive, mindful way.” She said the group has a draft resolution and set of guidelines, and is currently workshopping it with councilmembers Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3) and Rebecca Kaplan (at-large), and within the arts community, including OCNC and Eastside Arts Alliance.
Evelyn Orantes, co-curator of the current “Oakland I want you to know…” exhibition at Oakland Museum of California, said that “the pressure is really on in local galleries.”
She said one of the stories from the exhibition–which focuses on gentrification in Oakland–is about Betti Ono, a downtown Oakland gallery that opened on Broadway when few people wanted to move into that area. Now, Orantes says, the gallery’s rent has been hiked and the group is being pushed out. According to the East Bay Express, in March 2016, the gallery’s rent increased by 60 percent, leading the group to launch a fundraising campaign, as well as a series of events to raise awareness about artist displacement.
Orantes said that Anyka Barber, the owner of the gallery, “provides a platform for those who don’t usually have access.” (The gallery is led and operated by black women and focuses on underrepresented artists, according to their website.) Orantes added, “Those are the kinds of voices that we stand to lose if we don’t pay attention to what’s happening around us and really play a role in really keeping our Oakland artists and our smaller Oakland venues still here.”
For Canton, RPS was that kind of space. It “actually operated, for, by, with residents of this neighborhood, and of the multiple backgrounds of disenfranchised communities, those identities, could go, authentically, organically to take space,” she said.
She struggled to come up with the right analogy for what losing RPS meant to her. “I’m thinking something about losing your favorite teddy bear. But it’s more important than that,” she said. “But that can also be pretty traumatizing. These are all like small moments of trauma: losing your cultural identity, it being washed away.”
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