Local artists start conversation about ‘belonging in Oakland’

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A group of about 40 Oakland artists met at the Rockridge Branch Library on Friday night to discuss the development of a new city “cultural development plan,” and deemed lack of both space and funding the most pressing issues facing them.

In August, officials at the Cultural Affairs unit, part of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, announced their intention to formulate the plan in an effort to create opportunities for artists and improve quality of life for residents.

The “Make It Yours” community dialogue was the first of seven planned in every district in Oakland over the coming months, at which people will be discussing the idea of “belonging in Oakland.”

“We’ll use the findings of the plan to make adjustments to our services, our program services. And, of course, trying to secure additional funds to address these articulations would be an objective,” said Cultural Affairs Manager Robert Bedoya.

After a string of interim managers, City Administrator Sabrina Landreth announced the appointment of Bedoya last year in order to develop the plan and to support artists who are being displaced from Oakland as a result of the rising cost of living.

“Oakland is kind of in a state of emergency when it comes to the arts,” said David Roach, director of the Oakland International Film Festival, in an interview after the meeting. “Many are being evicted from their places, so a plan is very necessary.”

Roach added that this plan should work towards supporting local artists so that they can preserve Oakland’s identity, which he said has frequently been eclipsed by that of San Francisco. “We’ve always had this thing with San Francisco—we’re the other city but we’re not like San Francisco. We’re very different and I think that’s important because moving forward we want to inspire our young folks to be part of this identity,” Roach said.

Warren Breslau, one of the directors of the Crucible, an industrial arts school, who attended the meeting, added that Oakland’s arts community had been deeply affected by the December 2, 2016, Ghost Ship fire, which he says “completely changed the landscape” for local artists.

“Landlords are now terrified of their liabilities, and coupling that with the blazing cost of living in Oakland, it’s just creating a situation where artists can no longer do their art here,” Breslau said.

The fire, which killed 36 people, occurred at a commercial warehouse named the Ghost Ship in the Fruitvale neighborhood. The warehouse had been converted into a live/work artists’ space and some electrical work had been made without permits, which fire officials have investigated as a cause of the fire. The event shed a bigger light on the lack of legal spaces available for local artists.

“I know at least eight collective art studios that have shut down since the Ghost Ship fire, I still know around 20 that are functioning but they’ve been put on notice,” Breslau said, adding that even the Crucible had to do upgrades to their building that they “frankly can’t really afford.”

Anna Orias, founder of Musically Minded Academy, echoed Breslau’s sentiments, saying that, following an eviction because of a late renewal lease, the search for a legal space for her school has been daunting. She said she has continuously been asked by landlords to bring in a conditional use permit in order to use the second floor of a potential space for her business. Orias said that the process of obtaining the conditional use permit could cost her up to $6,000.

Some attendees also questioned whether the plan would lead to concrete actions that would eventually be implemented. Randolph Belle, founder and director of Support Oakland Artists, a nonprofit art and community development organization, said that there have been at least two formal attempts to create a cultural plan in the past, yet nothing has changed over the years.

“Much of what we’re going to find from a new cultural planning process is similar to what we found in previous cultural planning because nothing was done towards implementing the cultural planning process,” said Belle.

According to Belle, there were cultural planning efforts that occurred in the early 1990s and 2000s by previous managers Mary Anne Hedderson and Samee Roberts, respectively. There were also previous community efforts in the 90s, such as “Oakland Sharing the Vision,” a community initiative to develop several sectors of civic life, including cultural development. It was launched in 1992 and was updated in 1996 and 1999.

“I think the question of many and specifically the artists and arts organizations that have been here doing the work is going to be ‘So what?’” Belle said.

As part of the new plan, the officials at the unit will be working on developing its technological infrastructure for communication or data collection. They will also develop a “cultural asset map” in order to identify and document Oakland’s cultural resources, as well as an economic impact study of arts and culture organizations in Oakland, according to Vanessa Whang, a consultant working with the Cultural Affairs unit. Officials currently provide more than $900,000 in grants to support the arts, as well as more than $1 million in funds for public art projects.

The unit, however, remains “very understaffed” and under-resourced for the current amount of work that it has, Whang said, adding that other than Bedoya, there are only two full-time employees and a handful of part-timers.

“I can’t really recommend anything right now about how big the staff should be because that’s part of the planning process,” Whang said. What she does recommend, however, is for the city to build “a common cause” within the city governments [departments], as culture is relevant to the well-being of many different sectors of the economy.

The planning and drafting of the plan will continue until early next year, with the cultural affairs officials hoping to implement the plan by February.

“I’m hopeful that there are meetings like this, but I feel it’s like an iceberg. It’s going to take a lot of time to change,” Orias said.

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