Directing an Oakland festival that merits more than murmurs

Oakland Art Murmur/Courtesy

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Last Friday, art, music, performance, food and thousands of people exploded onto the streets of Oakland for the first Oakland First Friday Art Festival of the semester.

The event now boasts upward of 20,000 visitors, but its beginnings were far more modest. The original First Friday in January 2006 was an art crawl presented by the eight associated galleries, which they called Oakland Art Murmur.

OAM has come a long way since then. It now has about 30 members, and while it still participates in First Friday, the management and organization of the event are now under the responsibility of a distinct First Friday organization. From the Saturday Stroll gallery walks to fundraising events to programs in schools, OAM is aggressively moving into new territory and will continue to evolve and grow in pursuit of its mission: to bring art to the people of Oakland.

The Daily Californian talked with David Abernathy, who became the new executive director of OAM in June and is now charged with steering the organization forward.

The Daily Cal: Can you tell me a bit more about your background?

David Abernathy: While I was working at (an) investment bank, I took on a position … for a tech startup. And then I quit the investment bank and the tech startup right before the big financial collapse of 2008, which was sort of a fortuitous accident.

(In 2009, I helped) start a financial services and consulting firm for the medical cannabis industry. We launched that firm and ran it from 2009 to 2012. In 2012, I volunteered to help bring Oaksterdam University back after they were raided by the federal government.

DC: How did you get connected with OAM?

DA: I heard that they were looking for a new executive director, and I had previously co-founded and helped run this arts organization. I have always been passionate about the arts, especially because I am not an artist (myself).

DC: Where do you think that passion for the arts comes from, then?

DA: I’ve always sort of been impressed with (art) just because a talent for creativity, especially visual creativity, has never been one of my strong suits … I also like the fact that it’s a way for a lot of people who don’t fit the standard paradigm of academic success to find a sense of fulfillment in their own lives through producing art and sharing it with the world.

We have a very narrow definition of academic success in this country, generally speaking — one that is based on Industrial Revolution-era thinking. As manufacturing jobs become more and more scarce, and as more and more jobs are being outsourced overseas or taken over by computers and robots, we really need to find new outlets for human productivity. I think that art is one of those outlets that almost by definition has to remain in the human realm.

DC: What do you think OAM has done for Oakland in the last five or 10 years in that regard?

DA: Certainly, we have made the country more aware of the fact that there is a huge and thriving arts community in Oakland. We’ve made Oakland more aware that there is a huge and thriving art community in Oakland.

Many of these galleries are only open a few days a week, and they often struggle to survive … A lot of the galleries end up not making money at all … but they’re still important to the atmosphere in Oakland. They help bring in visitors from other cities and even other states to spend their money in Oakland. They help raise property value in Oakland — and just add to the beautiful and wonderful diversity that Oakland has.

DC: OAM has changed significantly since its inception. Can you discuss where OAM is now and where you could see the organization being in 10 years?

DA: One of the first things we did when I came on as executive director was to have the board vote to remove all geographic restrictions other than the city of Oakland. We’re in the process of taking on quite a few new galleries in areas of Oakland that previously were not covered in OAM.

The stated mission of OAM has remained … it’s to promote awareness of and participation in the visual arts in Oakland. One of the things that I’m very actively pursuing is figuring out ways that we can more broadly pursue that goal … We’re going to be launching quite a few initiatives to help existing organizations with — as well as eventually launch our own — charitable outreach programs to try to develop new audiences for the arts and spark interest in the arts among Oakland’s youth.

DC: What goes on during First Friday — crazy activity in the street, the shooting last spring, etc. — can often get conflated with the organization OAM. Do you think that the massive growth of First Friday has been overall positive or negative for OAM?

DA: My opinion is that it has been very positive. Among our members, there are a variety of opinions about whether or not (First Friday) is good for their individual galleries. A lot of our members think it’s absolutely fantastic and love it; some of our members think it’s a little too high-energy and not in line with their specific target audiences for their art.

DC: What do you think is the best part about that First Friday walk?

DA: Absolutely the diversity. Diversity in every sense. The diversity of the art that’s represented. The diversity of the people that show. And that diversity is not just racial or ethnic diversity … Geographic diversity — people come from all over the place. Socioeconomic diversity. Diversity of age. Everyone from babies to senior citizens enjoy Oakland First Friday.