Galleries and street art have helped transform Oakland into an international hot spot. 2016 Edge checks out the scene
By Adam RismanPhotography by Rob Brodman
The afternoon Bay Area sun beams through my panoramic Vista Roof® as I turn onto Oakland’s sleepy 26th Street. Suddenly, the landscape is transformed into a sea of vibrant blue as I pass an azure wall 22 feet high and stretching a full 157 feet down the block. On the wall, nine unique, mind-bending trees are painted.
Splashes of art like this—both on Oakland’s streets and in its many galleries—have helped spur a cultural renaissance that’s transformed an area once known for crime and blight into a magnet for art aficionados. Since I moved to San Francisco this past summer, I’d heard more than a few whispers that the area’s artistic epicenter lies not in the city, but across the Bay Bridge. So I slide behind the wheel of Ford’s newest utility vehicle, the 2016 Edge Sport, to go explore Oakland’s burgeoning contemporary art scene.
I pick up my guide, Conrad Meyers, president of the Oakland Art Murmur (OAM)—a nonprofit that supports and promotes the visual arts communities—and we head to the Thelma Harris Fine Art Gallery, one of the city’s artistic pioneers. After using the available Perpendicular Park Assist feature and its 12 ultrasonic sensors to autonomously back into our parking spot, we walk up to a glass-walled corner suite.
Textured Sculptures: Conrad Meyers speaks with consultant Amira Richmond at the Thelma Harris Art Gallery
Inside, sculptures on the walls blend energetic greens and reds with pieces of wood and bamboo. The gallery opened in 1990 as an experiment to test the area’s appetite for contemporary works by African-American artists. And when young professionals and creatives came pouring in 25 years ago, the gallery exposed a whole new generation to this genre of art.
Today, it’s the oldest establishment in OAM, which gained momentum nearly a decade ago by starting a First Friday gallery walk with a few galleries. Now its coalition of 47 galleries and exhibition spaces has helped fuel Oakland’s meteoric arts growth.
Meyers and his partner, S. D. Willis, think big picture—but they’ve also created a micro-community in their nonprofit exhibition and performance space, Aggregate Space Gallery, on Oakland’s more industrial west side. We drive over to check it out in our own piece of art: Edge’s sculptured appearance and jeweled LED lighting make for a head-turning design. Guided by audible directions from the available voice-activated SYNC® 3* interface, a brand-new feature of the Edge, we arrive at a white building marked by three commercial garage doors.
As part of its mission to promote the exploration and presentation of immersive works like video and installation art, Aggregate is also home to a writer-in-residency program, fabrication studio, darkroom and theater-style screening room. When I visit, people are watching a meditative performance piece by Minji Sohn, who is using a mound of sand to reference her childhood memories. She shovels sand into a red plastic bucket while counting to 25, dumps the bucket and repeats.
The takeaway is clear: No matter how the art is presented, this East Bay community supports the full artistic spectrum—even solo projects whose work can’t be commodified. Across the street, Transmission Gallery “has more easily collectible work,” Willis says. “That’s the beauty of Oakland Art Murmur. It connects all of these different spaces to each other.”
Yet even with OAM’s support, gentrification and rising rents are challenging artists and keeping Oakland in a state of flux. In response, galleries are changing as well, often becoming multifaceted. Classic Cars West, a gallery on 26th Street, doubles as a vintage auto dealer and will soon open a vegan restaurant. Athen B, a contemporary gallery with roots in street art, houses a T-shirt print shop in back and rents its upstairs to an eclectic group of artists.
But keeping existing artists in business is just one key to the future of Oakland’s arts community. Without a renewable well of youthful energy, support for any cause will fade. That’s where The Crucible comes in. This art school, housed in a 56,000-square-foot facility and surrounded by public housing in West Oakland, is cultivating that essential support system.
Soul Cycle: A bicycle was modified by a local youth at The Crucible
Heavy machinery grinds and hammers in the background as education director Kristy Alfieri shows off the facility’s 18 different vocational arts trades, including glass blowing and metal bell casting. And its free “bike shop” program teaches local youth how to modify their bicycles into unique shapes—picture double-deckers or one with a very literal steering wheel.
“The intent is for people to learn a skill or design a piece of sculpture within 15 hours,” Alfieri says. The school is even teaching some of the people changing the fabric of the neighborhood. “Lawyers have come in, discovered they love jewelry, and become metal artists,” she says.
This idea of discovery lingers with me long after I leave The Crucible and slide into the Edge, with its snug, available leather-trimmed seats. In many ways, Oakland is a perfect microcosm for artistic discovery. Between the beautiful and the bizarre, the painting and the performance, the old and the new, this city has a creative angle for everyone.