Culture Cash, Part 1: Oakland’s Struggle to Support the Arts

All photos: Stephanie Lister.

All photos: Stephanie Lister.

This is the first half of a two-part story; read the second half here.

— Eds.


 

For more than a decade, Rock Paper Scissors was a flagship storefront of the Uptown district in Oakland. The windows, resplendent with the accretion particular to open-door creative resources, formed a living installation at the corner of 23rd Street and Telegraph Avenue. Behind the bricolage, one could find a zine library, a gallery, a meeting space, and a hangout with workshops and day-to-day congregations over crafts. Volunteer-run with a budget of less than $100,000, RPS operated more like an infoshop than a nonprofit, its community engagement rivaling that of more professional organizations.

The Rock Paper Scissors Collective formed in 2004, and landed its storefront the following year, soon cofounding Oakland Art Murmur and First Friday as a modest neighborhood gallery-crawl. The storefront’s few neighboring businesses bore a similarly mussed and improvised aesthetic. Gradually, though, white cube galleries and beer gardens filled the vacancies. In the 2010s, RPS started to look anachronistic. By 2015, it was the last Art Murmur cofounder standing; the East Bay Express called it “the only remaining space in the area that refuses to conform to the standards and values of commercial galleries.”

Rock Paper Scissors was forced out of its space that year, after the landlord tripled the rent. A since-deleted blog post (accessed via the Wayback Machine) announcing the closure emphasized that RPS didn’t capture the value generated by its cultural cachet; it didn’t make money from First Friday, for instance, as the evening became a byword for Oakland’s post-millennial art scene. “Eleven years ago we could afford market value for the space, but thanks to our success in building a vibrant community in downtown, market rate is now far out of reach,” read the post.

“Rock Paper Scissors will continue, despite this.”

Kristi Holohan, an artist and core collective member since 2008, resolved not to despair; her response to the ouster was to buy a suit. While RPS programming continued at satellite locations such as local library branches, she sought funding for a new brick-and-mortar. In Oakland’s mercenary real-estate market, the task involved professionalizing the freewheeling collective — for example, reestablishing a functional board of directors — to market it to funders and developers. “The grant process is very impersonal and competitive,” she said. “You really fight against other organizations for crumbs.”

As the longtime norm for Oakland arts organizations — artist-run, estranged from the nonprofit scene, leery of government agencies, lodged in quasi-habitable spaces on handshake terms — grows increasingly untenable amid fierce competition for space, many are doing the previously unthinkable: looking to philanthropy and city grants for support. Some worry the pursuit of perceived legitimacy undermines their original value.

But the city’s Cultural Funding Program (CFP) remains dramatically under-resourced, its $1 million arts grant budget comparable to the annual expense of buffing graffiti. And Oakland, despite its cultural legacy, hasn’t attracted the level of philanthropic giving seen in San Francisco, San Jose, or even smaller cities such as Berkeley.

Demand for this meager pot of culture cash raises critical questions about the roles of government and philanthropy in arts support. What values are reflected in institutional giving, and when do cultural preservation initiatives mask gentrification? What subsidies does the city, as a landlord, owe its arts organization tenants? At the bottom line, why is there so little money available to operators of Oakland arts organizations to begin with?

In 2016, the Artist Housing and Workspace Task Force recommended bolstering the CFP with cash and staff, which prompted the first-time hiring of a Cultural Affairs Manager, charismatic poet and arts administrator Roberto Bedoya. But his city agency, composed of just a handful of staffers, remains tiny, and a source of its funding from developers is being challenged in court. Although grant applications are up seventy-four percent since 2012, sixty-four percent of eligible proposals were denied due to budget limitations in the round ending in 2017. Bedoya described the CFP budget he inherited as “anemic.”

Activists who’ve agitated for increasing CFP funding say the shortfall reflects a lack of political will; while the city experiences an economic turnaround, arts programs haven’t benefitted. Eric Arnold, a writer and community organizer, said that Bedoya has brought a “sense of optimism,” but argued that the CFP is structurally enfeebled by its miniscule tax allotment. “You have to look for ways to increase arts and culture investment as part of both an economic development and an anti-displacement strategy.”

Instead of meaningful change, he continued, “We are talking about Band-Aids on large festering wounds.”

CAST. From left to right: Tyese Wortham, Suneetha Venigalla, Owen Levin, Catherine Nguyen, Moy Eng, Matthew McTire.

CAST. From left to right: Tyese Wortham, Suneetha Venigalla, Owen Levin, Catherine Nguyen, Moy Eng, Matthew McTire.

While the CFP wavers, the city has avidly partnered with the private sector on cultural initiatives. Oakland city council voted to accept $480,995 from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation to fund a newly created, two-year position, policy director for art spaces, within the office of Mayor Libby Schaaf, an arrangement similar to the philanthropy-backed creation of Oakland public servant positions such as chief resilience officer and education director. The Rainin Foundation also underwrites the San Francisco-based Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), Oakland’s partner in the arts grant and real estate acquisition campaign dubbed “Keeping Space — Oakland.”

Through Keeping Space, CAST has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to local organizations, and plans to use millions more to create a multi-tenant art center à la San Francisco gallery complex Minnesota Street Project. Bedoya and Arnold applaud the partnership, saying the city should encourage such private investment. Berkeley has five arts organizations with budgets exceeding $4 million, compared to just one in Oakland. “Besides Rainin,” Bedoya said. “Oakland doesn’t really have a philanthropic base.”

But critics fear that Keeping Space points to more privatization, eroding transparency and equity and undermining officials’ accountability. Rob Reich, co-director of Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, said that officials should consider “whether or not the decision to enter into these public-private partnerships diminishes or even displaces the future possibility of ordinary public funding for arts programming.”

Schaaf said that critics “have every right” to say cultural affairs deserves more funding. “I don’t think we do justice to any community with this budget, which is why I won’t apologize for going out to hustle private money,” she said, adding that she agrees with “some of the cautionary feelings that people have about […] ensuring that private money doesn’t come with conditions or strings that aren’t consistent with our mission.”

“Mayor Schaaf is a champion of the arts, even if it hasn’t been expressed in her budget because of competing interests,” said Shelley Trott, Rainin’s director of arts strategy. Trott and Schaaf said that, by collaborating, they’re addressing an emergency more swiftly than either can do alone. As Schaaf argued, “To look for something that’s fast and more dramatic by bringing in outside funds in a moment of crisis is very appropriate.”

Leaders of local art organizations credit Keeping Space with turning their lights on, and in some cases helping them buy property. One recipient of CAST’s cash assistance round, announced in November, is Rock Paper Scissors. “I actually ended up having to apply twice, there were all of these glitches,” she said. “I put more than twenty hours into it, and this is still a volunteer thing for me.” For the past year, Holohan has been negotiating to lease space in a new development behind the old storefront. She said that the tentative agreement provides RPS with a “cold, dark shell” — no electrical, no plumbing. “So the [CAST] funding is enormous,” she said. “It will literally open our doors.”

Bedoya might’ve remarked on the old Rock Paper Scissors storefront’s rasquachismo, a vernacular Spanish term for creative ingenuity borne of little means. He grew up in the Latinx enclave of Decoto, present-day Union City. When he was a kid, in the 1960s, activists halted the state’s plan to pave a freeway over his neighborhood. In a 2014 essay, Bedoya recalled white churchgoers scoffing at his neighbor’s hot-pink house. “For me the brightness represented Rasquache — an aesthetic of intensity that confronted our invisibility, our treatment as less than,” he wrote.

Bedoya went on to become associated, as a poet, with the New Narrative movement. A board member at the Grantmakers in the Arts association, he led the Tucson Pima Arts Council for nine years before starting as Cultural Affairs Manager in September 2016, working out of a messy, unadorned office on the ninth floor of Oakland City Hall. He laughs often and speaks frankly, in a mix of practiced anecdotes and elliptical digressions, amusedly describing his new role as “serving white-gloves and anarchists.”

“It’s the rarefied experimental poet at Mills and the street preacher with the boombox — they’re part of the city’s aesthetic voice,” he said. “What do I with that? I truly believe I love both. Do they love each other? I don’t know. Do they know each other? Probably not.”

In March, Bedoya’s office released a ninety-six-page Cultural Plan, the city’s first since 1988. It describes his vision for a department “reset,” endeavoring to improve city-community relations through a new focus on racial and social equity. Central to the plan is Bedoya’s fondness for “creative placekeeping,” which “puts the people who live in a place at the center of the frame, as well as their right to make and keep the places where they live.”

Roberto Bedoya.

Roberto Bedoya.

The buzzwords amount to a point: Bedoya wants his department to address the sources of cultural erasure, not just the resulting crises. It’s an implicit critique of familiar politico gestures such as, say, ceremonially anointing a “cultural district” while it hemorrhages nonprofits. “The necessary complement to more robust funding of under-resourced communities is to identify and rectify the underlying policies that established the disparities in the first place,” the cultural plan reads.

Bedoya envisions a “creative fellows program” embedding artists within city departments. “How about an artist in residence in the planning department while shaping the city’s downtown-specific plan?” He said, “Have the artist doing problem-solving, not just beautification after the fact.” He floated neighborhood-specific collaborations between arts and community groups. The cultural plan also vows to overhaul “context-impervious” grant requirements such as insurance and full-time paid staff. He noted that, in a recent CFP round, “two organizations decided to forfeit their grant because the contract requirements were too onerous.”

The subtext of the cultural plan is a plea for resources. Bedoya manages approximately $1 million each for grants and public art. He has three full-time and two part-time staff; one person manages more than thirty public art projects. At a workshop, a CFP staffer recently advised grant seekers to apply in the middle of the night, when the web portal is less “glitchy.” According to the cultural plan, when adjusted for inflation Oakland’s grant budget has actually plummeted from $4.29 per capita in 2001 to today’s $2.38.

And the main source of public art funding is potentially in jeopardy. Oakland’s “percent for art” ordinance requires most developers to spend 0.5 percent of project costs on art, or put the equivalent amount in the public art fund. In 2015, the Building Industry Association Bay Area, a developer trade group, sued over the requirement, arguing in part that it unconstitutionally compels speech. A judge dismissed the lawsuit in February, but noted shortcomings in Oakland’s defense. An attorney with the firm representing BIA said they’re considering an appeal. “It could be disastrous,” Bedoya said.

Part of the budget for city art grants, meanwhile, comes from the transient occupancy tax, commonly known as the hotel tax. But the fund doesn’t appear to be capturing the boom in short-term rentals. In 2015, the city struck a tax agreement with Airbnb, which has thousands of listings in the city, and the company says that, since then, it’s paid millions. But a recent city report shows that, while hotel tax revenue has increased every year since 2013, the growth actually slowed following the agreement. City and Airbnb spokespeople refuse to share details of the deal, but Bedoya senses that the CFP is being shortchanged.

Of more concern, Bedoya said, is the distribution of the hotel-tax revenue set aside by the 2009 passage of Measure C. Fifty percent of it goes to the tourism bureau, with the remainder divided evenly between cultural affairs and organizations such as the Oakland Zoo and Oakland Museum of California. The cultural plan mildly notes that the CFP’s 12.5 percent allotment “does not match its responsibility to support cultural vibrancy throughout the city.”

Bedoya also took issue with a fixed slate of festivals receiving subsidies from the city. “You can’t apply to be on that list, it’s chosen by the mayor and council,” he said, suggesting a competitive process for the subsidies instead. Asked if the current system amounts to patronage, Bedoya replied, “There’s a lot of that in this town.” (Schaaf said she supports creating a competitive process for festival sponsorship.)

Arnold, spokesperson for muralist collective Community Rejuvenation Project, said that privileging tourism over cultural affairs is backwards: Attracting visitors isn’t more important than retaining artists and preserving cultural character, and the former can work against the latter. For example, he faulted the tourism bureau for soliciting murals that shy away from social commentary in favor of commercial messaging.

Eric Arnold.

Eric Arnold.

“[It’s] counterintuitive to the spirit of community mural movement, not to mention counterintuitive to Oakland’s own history,” he said. “There’s a real danger in putting so much emphasis on creating a tourist economy while also accelerating development.”

Schaaf is skeptical of restructuring hotel-tax distribution. She pointed to the percent-for-art program, which she sponsored as a councilmember in 2014, as an example of using the city’s regulatory power to generate funds for culture. “It didn’t cost us anything,” she said. “We didn’t have to take money away from somewhere else in the budget.”

Anyka Barber, proprietor of the Betti Ono Gallery, cofounded the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition specifically to advocate for the arts in the city’s budget process, organizing with activists focused on homelessness and police reform under the umbrella Refund Oakland in what she describes as a strategic partnership. “It was critical to get culture on the table for a full meal,” she said. “Who’s the city for? Culture means being able to leave work and see something that validates your existence.”

Last year, OCNC supported a budget proposal from councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Desley Brooks that would’ve earmarked $800,000 for art grants and $300,000 for cultural affairs infrastructure. At the end of June, after bitter debate, the council approved a competing proposal by councilmember Larry Reid, boosting art grant funding by $233,333 from the general fund, plus $150,000 for Bedoya to hire an additional staffer.

To OCNC, it was an upset. “We proposed a number that’d keep Oaklanders in Oakland,” organizer Brytanee Brown told me at the time. The grant boost, they pointed out, was one-time only, not in perpetuity, and it doesn’t go into effect until the next round of funding. Barber said that the cultural plan reflects many of OCNC’s priorities, and that without a budget process to rally around, they’ve since focused on its implementation.

“With grants, we’re like, how can these be responsive? The building’s burning right now,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”

Bedoya, meanwhile, hasn’t received what little was promised. “[The staffer] was supposed to be full-time starting in January and contracted for eighteen months, but that hasn’t happened,” he said. “I don’t know what the delay is. That’s one of my frustrations. How many times do I have to ask, who do I have to ask, and when do I have to throw up my hands?”


 

Read Part 2 here.

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