June 11, 2018

Culture Cash, Part 2: Oakland’s Struggle to Support the Arts

All photos: Stephanie Lister.

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

— Eds.


In 2015, Mayor Schaaf’s Artist Housing and Workspace Task Force surveyed more than 900 artists in Oakland, finding that a majority of them were on month-to-month leases for their studios and homes. The task force included representatives from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and CAST as well as Kelley Kahn, future policy director of art spaces. The group’s 2016 report recommended a property-acquisition program modeled on CAST, as well as a cash assistance program administered by a nonprofit partner such as CAST.

“I’d hate to have a situation where city government is off the hook because private partners are filling the gap to such a degree,” said Kahn, explaining that CAST’s assistance is meant as a temporary complement to the CFP. “When you see a department like Roberto’s, which had two and a half people for so many years…” she trailed off.

According to Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA), public funding for the arts has decreased seven percent over the past twenty years, even before Donald Trump proposed slashing the national endowments for the arts and humanities. Government arts agencies generally prioritize groups that “face systemic obstacles to cultural resources,” according to a 2016 GIA report. “As a result, reductions in appropriations to local, state, and federal arts agencies can have an especially sharp impact on marginalized communities.”

With government funding declining, municipalities increasingly rely on partnerships with private foundations focused on the arts. Private grants are generally fewer in number but larger in dollar amounts. They’re splashier and riskier, calibrated for headline-grabbing results, which can result in geographically or socially siloed distribution. State arts agencies’ media award is $4,390 while, per GIA, the median foundation award is $25,000; Grants from the CFP and CAST, via Keeping Space, similarly compare.

The concern, according to Reich, the Stanford professor, is that programs such as Keeping Space will undercut, not complement, agencies such as the CFP, and that they foreshadow city government outsourcing its cultural-preservation mandate. Once people are acclimated to private instead of public art support, there’s less advocacy for reinforcing city arts infrastructure. “The short-term incentives for cities to accept private funding are strong,” he said. “But when one foundation affixes itself to the municipality, it undermines the independence of the city’s decisions about artistic programming.”

Through a $480,995 grant, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation is funding Kahn’s new position in Schaaf’s office, policy director for art spaces, for two years. In other words, Rainin is paying the salary of Schaaf’s arts-space liaison while Rainin’s real estate arm, CAST, is looking to create an arts complex in Oakland. In one way, it reflects an alignment of interests: every player, like most Oaklanders, wants another cultural center.

Kelley Kahn.

Kelley Kahn.

Trott, Rainin’s director of arts strategy, stressed that Kahn’s only contractual obligation to the foundation is two reports. “We’ve only ever seen eye-to-eye,” she said. Schaaf said, “I’ve never once heard from Rainin, ‘What’s Kelley doing?’”

“But there’s some deep tension,” said Reich. “Public officials should be accountable to voters, but when the budget lines to fund them come through philanthropic foundations, it introduces a line of accountability to the donor — however civically-minded they might be.”

City officials, CAST staffers, and most arts figures I spoke with rejected the idea that philanthropic partnerships will supplant city grants. “I’m going to say no, but I’m mindful of the possibility,” said Bedoya. Kahn was more adamant: “I don’t see that on the horizon at all.” And without the Rainin Foundation, she emphasized, her position wouldn’t exist; the grant is actually a “runway,” she said. “It catalyzes advocacy for this position, then there’s still time to build out our budget for it more permanently.”

CAST program manager Tyese Wortham called Kahn, a longtime city planner, “instrumental” to its search for property in Oakland, which is differing from its approach in San Francisco. In 2013, CAST announced the acquisition of the Mid-Market building housing Luggage Store Gallery, plus a former Tenderloin porn theater that’s now home to the performing arts venue CounterPulse. Both pay below-market rate rent, with an option to buy within ten years.

Tyese Wortham.

Tyese Wortham.

In Oakland, Wortham said, the focus is instead on creating a multi-tenant art center: studios, offices, and programmatic space. New construction, rather than rehabbing extant structures, seems likely, but Wortham and Kahn were reluctant to share details. “It’s an alternative to the ownership model [in SF] because we found that most artists don’t really want to own,” Wortham said, explaining that CAST considers few Oakland arts groups prepared for property acquisition. “There are things they don’t realize about it up front.”

Assisting CAST is only part of Kahn’s job. She’s helped engineer various initiatives supporting cultural outfits, often leveraging her proximity to Schaaf. For instance, Kahn worked on legislation protecting live-work tenants from being evicted by incoming cannabis cultivators. “She’s place and I’m space,” said Bedoya. “As in I need to animate the space, and she deals with the built environment.” David Keenan, who’s advocated for dozens of live-work units through Safer DIY Spaces, similarly described her as an ally.

Kahn has also helped craft new leases for galleries in city-owned properties, which she described as a model for subsidizing cultural groups in public facilities. But in the case of Pro Arts, a nonprofit contemporary art gallery downtown, it might be of little relief.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the University of California-owned Wetmore Pardee Building contained studios for artists including Richard Diebenkorn and Robert Bechtle, and by the 1990s it also housed several bookstores. In 1995, it was sold to the City of Oakland and demolished, over the inhabitants’ protests, to make way for administrative offices.

After breaking the artists’ leases, the city built an art gallery in the nearby Lionel J. Wilson Building, guaranteeing free rent until 2012. The Oakland Art Gallery, which opened in 2001 under the direction of displaced Pardee artist, shuttered after several years (“the constant struggle for city funding played a significant role in the closing,” according to a 2013 article), and Pro Arts, first established in 1973, took its place in 2009.

Natalia Mount.

Natalia Mount.

When Pro Arts Executive Director Natalia Mount arrived in 2015, she learned that, though the gallery still wasn’t paying rent, it had no formal agreement. Already nearby nonprofits were getting displaced, and she was eager to secure a long-term lease. “So this process started two years ago with the real-estate people at the city,” she said. “They could’ve been nastier, yes. They could’ve said, ‘You don’t have a contract — leave.’”

The ensuing negotiation gave Mount the impression that, aside from helpful liaisons such as Kahn, officials were pretty clueless about Pro Arts. She said real-estate officials suggested Pro Arts put its CFP grant towards the new rental cost, even though that money is explicitly tied to education programs, or that it explore corporate rentals. The disconnect felt especially troubling because Pro Arts and City Hall are neighbors, separated only by Frank Ogawa Plaza. “I think they were trying to be helpful,” she said. “But the conversations revealed there’s really no ground knowledge of what we do.”

The agreement calls for graduating rent from $0 to $885 to $2876 over the next five years, and requires various “in-kind” services: use of space by the city or nonprofits, and curating public art on the plaza. Mount said she had to negotiate for the ramp-up, and that the annual cost of the “in-kind” services exceed the city’s estimates. She appreciates the lease’s security, but worries the new expenses will necessitate cutbacks to staff and artist fees, especially because grants are dwindling. There’s the uncertainty of the NEA, a key funder, while a regular grant from the CFP recently dropped from $20,000 to $12,000.

“So it’s a rent increase from the city at the same time that our support from the city is actually being cut,” Mount said.

CAST’s work in San Francisco also relies on political relationships. “Rainin and CAST are trying to create long-term solutions to stabilize the arts sector,” Wortham said. “It’s important to secure public will and also political will to do that.” But in San Francisco, which spends more than $16 million on art grants annually, CAST has more of an auxiliary role, complementing the dozens of staffers at the arts commission. In Oakland, by contrast, CAST’s staff of six exceeds the amount of workers overseen by Bedoya.

According to the cultural plan, the Oakland Museum of California is the city’s largest art organization, with a budget of $12 million, followed by industrial arts school The Crucible, with approximately $3 million. “Then there’s dozens of organizations with budgets of less than $200,000,” said Kahn. “It’s a different landscape.” Indeed, Wortham said that Keeping Space’s criteria for cash aid at first excluded every hopeful applicant.

Keeping Space was announced days after the December 2016 Ghost Ship fire, which killed thirty-six at an underground electronic music event. The program unfolded in two rounds: technical assistance, involving a series of real-estate readiness workshops, and cash assistance. A spate of evictions after the fire heightened the urgency, and the first round proved to be a crash-course in the instability of Oakland’s art scene, impressing on CAST how grant eligibility requirements can repel the neediest organizations.

Keenan of Safer DIY Spaces helped write seven Keeping Space applications. He underlined the tension between institutional support and the political conviction of small organizations forming Oakland’s cultural fabric. Many see philanthropic largesse as textbook recuperation, guaranteed to defang programming; others lack the professional capacity for the paperwork. “They’re unplanned spaces, they effervesce,” he said. “And they don’t pay taxes on rent parties.” Still, Keenan thinks the urgency overwhelms the contradictions.

“I’m like, let’s scoop up some of this money for people whose backs are against the wall, but the applications I helped write were like square pegs for round holes,” he said. “The requirements, and not only CAST, the city’s too, they don’t address the crisis context.”

Conrad and Willis Meyers.

Conrad and Willis Meyers.

As CAST adjusted to Oakland, leaders of some local organizations received mixed-messages. Willis and Conrad Meyers of Aggregate Space Gallery, which opened in West Oakland in 2011, said they applied with the understanding that CAST wanted to support spaces in precarious situations; Aggregate’s lease is month-to-month, and the space is in need of an estimated $50,000 in code-compliance work. But, as CAST initially designed the grant, applicants were supposed to have a long-term lease, or at least a letter-of-intent, in order to qualify for assistance. So the Meyers negotiated a tentative lease agreement.

“They basically assured us that, if we did that, we weren’t going to be disqualified from the cash round,” Conrad recalled. (Wortham denies this.) “Then we were disqualified.”

And then Aggregate’s lease negotiation unraveled. The property manager, according to the Meyers, threw out the proposed terms, gave them an $800 rent increase, and told them to pay for the code-compliance work themselves. (In May, Conrad said they’d been on a limited rent strike for two months, declining to pay the extra $800.) The Meyers lightly suggested that a bias against visual art was at play; they said that some of CAST’s feedback was that Aggregate, because it lacks an emphasis on, say, events or education, isn’t engaged enough with the community, even though most artists the gallery exhibits are based in Oakland. None of the eventual cash grant recipients primarily show visual art.

Wortham said that, though the funding priorities were around displacement risk, “It doesn’t mean we weren’t considering artistic discipline.” She emphasized that, like the CFP, even Keeping Space’s funding wasn’t enough to meet the need. “We had twenty-eight eligible applications for financial assistance,” she said. “All of the groups met the funding priorities around displacement risk, cultural equity, and financial need. We had $350,000 and the need was easily $1 million — no one was fully funded.”

The fourteen cash grantees, announced in November, reflect CAST’s effort to recognize a range of cultural groups: there’s the Black Culture Zone Collaborative, a coalition formed to fight cultural erasure in East Oakland; established outfits such as the Oakland Ballet Company, which often collaborates with the Oakland Symphony; and Peacock Rebellion, a QTPOC-centered “crew of artist-activist-healers” that put the money towards purchasing its mixed-use building with the help of the Oakland Community Land Trust.

A grant to the 30th & West Live/Work Community Arts Center addresses some of the Ghost Ship fallout. Castle Von Trapp, an unpermitted live-work complex in West Oakland, received an eviction notice days after the fire. Then resident Tanya Retherford, a dancer and architectural designer, eyed a massive warehouse at 30th and West streets listed on Craigslist, and launched a plan to convert it legitimately to live-work.

Retherford and a handful of other former Trapp residents negotiated a lease with an option to buy in fourteen years. The idea is for the loose collective to morph into an affordable housing nonprofit, with the goal of applying an income restriction to seventy-five percent of the eventual bedrooms — a dozen units lining the perimeter of the building, with a shared kitchen and common space. “There’s never been a legal, from the ground up, for the tenants by the tenants warehouse built out like this,” said Jae Starfox, a self-described “radical accountant” and former Trapp resident. “We want it to be a model.”

Misha Naiman and Tanya Rutherford of the 30th & West Live/Work Community Arts Center.

Misha Naiman and Tanya Rutherford of the 30th & West Live/Work Community Arts Center.

The group still needs to finance construction to the tune of $800,000. They pooled their savings, formed a “finance team,” and retained BuildingBlox, a nonprofit consulting firm based in San Francisco. Tom Dolan, a prominent local architect and live-work advocate, suggested Starfox apply for a Keeping Space grant about twenty-four hours before its deadline. The resulting $20,000 award is a relatively small sum (“Sprinklers cost twice that,” said Retherford), but it attuned them to the philanthropic sector. “We’re also connecting directly with the Rainin Foundation,” said Starfox. “So CAST is a stepping stone to that.”

The building’s redbrick façade features a vibrant mural, originally created in 2012; aerosol artists Mike Threesixty, Desi Mundo, Pancho Pescador, and Release PYC dubbed the piece “Healing Song,” filling it with references to indigenous mythology and contemporary activism. “That piece originally focused on connecting issues around oil, sovereignty, and water to local causes and heroes,” said Mundo, founder of the Community Rejuvenation Project. “To us that’s the Bay Area aesthetic.”

Starfox and Retherford, seated in their future common space, weren’t familiar with a local icon included in the mural: Pam the Funkstress (Pam Warren), known as DJ to the Coup and Prince, who’d died five days before our interview in December. The next evening there was a vigil on the block, with Pam’s picture awash in purple light.

Mundo worked with a different, intergenerational crew of artists — including his mentor, Raven, and his student, Reco — to update the mural in 2014. He was troubled to learn of the work’s pending erasure, to make way for the collective’s bedroom windows.

“There’s different levels of engagement that art has with the community,” he said. “Sometimes artists move into a neighborhood that they feel has nothing, but often it’s super rich with culture that, to them, maybe isn’t outwardly visible. So they see an opportunity to create their own world, instead of respecting the one that already exists.”

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