Oakland at the turn of the millennium looked very different from the city that was ranked as one of the top places to go in 2012 by the New York Times.
Since then, the sparse neighborhoods of desolate buildings and fast food restaurants have been replaced by art galleries, restaurants and new businesses. Both a symbol and contributor to these changes, the gallery organization Oakland Art Murmur has been an important force in establishing Oakland as a major cultural center.
OAM began its formation in 2005 as a small group of galleries whose goal was to draw more people into the art scene in Oakland by concentrating their openings on the first Friday of every month. Crowds began trekking to Oakland’s neighborhoods for First Friday Art Walks to see the vibrant art the city was producing.
Though its beginnings were humble, the organization has garnered a national reputation. Now, about 20,000 people show up each Friday, and a group of OAM members exhibited last summer with international artists at the SF Fine Art Fair.
OAM has recently been turning heads at national media outlets. Conde Nast Traveler cites First Friday as the top attraction in Oakland, which they say is “finally starting to get its day in the sun,” and the New York Times published a story in October about the city’s “rambunctious art crawl and street bacchanal.”
Still, the path to success for OAM has been punctuated by growth, challenges and lots of change. None of the original half-dozen galleries are still in existence today. Due to trying economic times, turnover in Oakland’s galleries is nothing out of the ordinary. Unlike galleries in LA or New York, those in Oakland are not funded by highbrow investors and collectors. (Doe-eyed, art-enthusiastic entrepreneurs do not always recognize the challenges of opening a gallery.)
Without significant funding from the art world’s wealthier patrons, OAM has relied on increasing efficiency. They became a nonprofit in 2010 and now employ a regular staff and charge member fees to its 21 galleries and nine mixed-use venues.
These galleries also reap the benefits of the gallery coalition by building off of each other’s popularity and momentum. OAM Executive Director Danielle Fox attends meetings with the community, city and local businesses to lobby for the interests of her galleries. “It might be things as simple as galleries not wanting bands or food trucks setting up right outside their doors,” she described.
Though overall positive for the OAM image, the increasing popularity of First Fridays has made the event challenging to manage. In July 2007, Rock Paper Scissors, one of the member galleries at the time, pulled a permit from the city to shut down the 23rd Street block between Telegraph Avenue and Broadway Street from car traffic.
OAM took over the 23rd Street block in 2010, but closing off a tiny block of Oakland on a Friday evening inevitably led to extreme crowds and fervent revelry. Excitement and energy pulsed through the First Friday events, though often to the detriment of the galleries and the overall thrust of the event. Many First Friday-goers were there to drink and party,and not necessarily to see the art.
Paying for the event also proved to be an incredibly pricey undertaking, with security guards, porta potties, cleanups and insurance tallying to around $17,000.
Because of the hefty price tag and rowdy visitors, OAM decided to pull the plug on closing off 23rd in June. As a result, grassroots and community-based groups not linked to OAM formed a First Friday coalition to coordinate with the city. Beginning with September’s First Friday, 20 blocks of Oakland were closed off and are filled with street trucks, performers and craft vendors.
Although much of the feverish excitement is now spread thinly across a larger area, the empty, slower segments of Telegraph are space for the First Friday event to grow in the future.
When you look at the areas in Oakland now with high concentrations of art galleries, it is difficult to believe what they once looked and felt like. There is little that can match what Fox describes as “that exciting feeling of being out on First Friday that makes Oakland feel exciting, vibrant, accessible.”
Whether admiring the art or meeting the artists at a gallery, grabbing a carrot pate flatbread from a gourmet food truck or bartering with a street vendor for a screen-printed Occupy poster or tiny Bonsai garden in a jar, there is so much to explore at the new major art hub right across our border.
Anna Carey is the lead visual arts critic. Contact Anna at [email protected]