Oakland, CA: Uptown Art Park

Group of people clustered together around a woman with a large pair of scissors ready to cut the ribbon to open an event
Photo © 2013 Nathanael Bennett

How can an undeveloped urban lot be used to create an urban laboratory for public art and public space?

When the economy hit a downturn, a parcel in Oakland’s downtown that was slated to become a residential tower was left undeveloped. Residents expressed the desire to turn the site into a public amenity for the interim. As a result, the city’s Public Art Program came together with the city’s redevelopment agency (later renamed the Office of Neighborhood Investment) to find ways to create a temporary use for the site. Working closely with the city’s arts community, including a noteworthy sector of industrial artists, the partners were able to create Uptown ArtPark, an exhibition space that has helped to bring attention to some of the city’s unsung artists.


Located across the bay from San Francisco, Oakland is a busy port city that historically served as the early terminus for the transcontinental railroad. Today, the city still maintains its identity around the transportation and manufacturing sectors, but recently has become known as a hub for area artists. Central to this new art scene is the downtown area where the Uptown District is located. The district once served as the city’s main shopping district but began to decline in the 1970s when many cities across the nation experienced a downtown exodus due to suburbanization. After several unsuccessful renewal projects were attempted to help turn the area around, then-Mayor Jerry Brown spearheaded a number of initiatives aimed at transforming the depressed area and bringing people back to downtown. These initiatives, along with a growing economy, transformed the district into what is known now as an area for entertainment and housing.


Economically less affluent than neighboring San Francisco, Oakland saw a surge of new artist residents when the dot-com boom brought skyrocketing housing costs to the region. Today the city boasts of having one of the highest populations of artists per capita in the nation. Already home to many artistic and industrial fabricators, Oakland became home to a burgeoning community of industrial artists, and today a high percentage of the large-scale interactive artworks shown at the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert are fabricated in Oakland.


In the Uptown neighborhood, just a few blocks from city hall and a block away from Bay Area Rapid Transit (regional subway) and bus lines, sits Parcel 4, which was purchased by the city’s redevelopment agency in 2005. In the 1800’s, Parcel 4 was part of a large estate owned by Frederick Delger, “Oakland’s first millionaire.” Later it was developed into a drugstore and then into a Sears Auto Center with a three-story parking garage. Within the last ten years, many new residential developments have been developed around Parcel 4. Having taken down the existing parking garage, the redevelopment agency was looking to redevelop the site as well. When the economy weakened in 2009, however, it was no longer possible to attain the financing needed to build the planned high-rise apartments on the property. With feedback from the local business community about the lack of parking, the redevelopment agency considered using Parcel 4 as a temporary parking lot, until the timing was right for commercial development of the site. Hearing these plans, local residents began to engage city officials about the future of the space. They were wary of seeing a parking lot develop and encouraged the creation of a temporary public space for their neighborhood. This idea for a temporary public space caught the attention of Oakland’s Public Art Program staff who saw the need for a temporary sculpture park, the chance to highlight the local industrial artists community who rarely have the chance to display their work “at home” in public, and an opportunity to carry out the program’s emerging vision for public art in the Uptown.



Through conversations between the Public Art Program, the redevelopment agency, and neighborhood representatives, it was decided that the needs of the three different groups could be addressed with a temporary art park. The neighborhood could avert having the parcel used for parking, the public art program could support the local arts community (including industrial artists and fabricators), and the redevelopment agency could activate the parcel with an appealing site use that would help it to retain its value while the economy recovered. “It was a real stoke of luck that we were able to use the lot, as it’s in one of the most desirable locations downtown,” explained Oakland’s Cultural Arts Manager Steven Huss. Although there were concerns that the local stakeholders would become too attached to the temporary use and might oppose future redevelopment efforts, it was agreed upon by all partners that the core project vision would be about experimentation and focus on the temporary activation of the space.


To pull the project together, Public Art Program staffers Steven Huss and Kristen Zaremba in the City of Oakland Cultural Arts & Marketing Division led a team of public and private partner organizations which included: the redevelopment agency/Office of Neighborhood Investment (ONI), San Francisco-based Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF), Lake Merritt/Uptown Association, Downtown Oakland Association, the City’s Public Art Advisory Committee (PAAC), and Oakland Cultural Trust (OCT), an ad hoc association of local arts organizations. ONI, which owned the property, provided design services, engineering, consultation, and staffing to support the physical construction of the art park. BRAF contributed planning, coordination, and publicity/outreach for the opening of the art park and commissioned a new work called “The Bike Bridge” for debut in the space. The business associations assisted with outreach to the business community and downtown neighborhood, and the PAAC advised on artwork selections and programmatic policy. To ensure that the site’s programming was done in collaboration with area arts organizations, the OCT coordinated engagement with the area’s nonprofit arts community and helped to develop ideas on how the site could be used for different events throughout the year.


Working with additional supporting funds from the city’s percent-for-art program (which collects 1.5% of the budget from capital projects built in the downtown area), the Public Art Program staff coordinated with ONI to configure the site for temporary use. Since the strategy was to create an exhibition area for temporary works of art, the team proposed a smaller site design that used only one-third of the site and primarily occupied the perimeter in order to create a walking and display area that was easily accessible while simultaneously allowing the team to address both budgetary and safety concerns. The partners then created a curatorial direction around the theme of “Reuse” to help draw in work from the city’s industrial artists and provide them a chance to exhibit alongside more traditional studio artists. To select the final nine artworks which would be displayed for one year, an artist selection panel was created of three members from the City of Oakland Public Art Advisory Committee. Of the nine sculptures that were installed, five were illuminated which helped to create a different experience of the site at night.


Today known as the Uptown ArtPark, the park’s four- hour opening event welcomed an estimated two thousand visitors. With its prominent downtown location and more than one hundred thousand commuters per year passing by, the site has helped to raise awareness for public art in Oakland and created a larger conversation about industrial arts within the city. The creation of the temporary park also helped the city begin to more systematically approach the display of temporary works. As project director Steven Huss said, “We removed barriers for the non-traditional temporary installations and helped to negotiate the City’s permitting process.” The growing ability of Oakland’s Public Art Program to support temporary and loaned works was also paralleled by its increased ability to create site-specific programming and performance events that could support the display of these works.


The park has become a much more broadly inclusive cultural space than anticipated, reports Huss, citing its positive impact on the surrounding area and use by over one thousand local residents, particularly families with children, for recreation and gatherings. The public space has also become an informal outdoor classroom and rehearsal space for students of the Oakland School for the Arts, the performing arts charter school located directly across the street. However, the creation of the park was not always easy, and some project components proved challenging for the arts agency. With a rotating collection of sculptures and a schedule of temporary installations and performance events, staff grappled with the volume of management tasks required to oversee the park. Seeing issues ranging from garbage pick-up, to site monitoring, to graffiti removal, public art program staff had to exceed their traditional tasks to make sure the site was maintained and functioned well. The efforts, however, were well worth it, as its creation has now spurred further collaborations in other city neighborhoods to begin thinking about the creation of temporary cultural space outside of the downtown area.


City of Oakland Public Art Program

  • The Bike Bridge, 2012, Michael Christian, lead artist
  • Offering, 2009, Bruce Johnson
  • The Pressure to hold together that which held things back - Part 2, Randolph Colosky
  • Barbican – Part 2, Randolph Colosky
  • Vinaya, Eric Powell
  • Trumpet Flowers, Karen Cusolito
  • Uprising, Bruce Johnson
  • Skiff, Eric Powell
  • Dandelion, Karen Cusolito

Like the location itself, the sculptures in the exhibition speak to mutability and reuse: the materials have a memory. For a time, they exist as these forms; one day they may be recycled and recombined in new ways. The selections reflect the resourceful repurposing of Bay Area artists working in an eclectic range of mediums but sharing common values: the celebration of the environment, the conservation and reuse of materials and energy.

Music & Dance of Bali by Gamelan Sekar Jaya, 10/19/13. Traditional dancing and drumming, gamelan performance, audience-participation workshop on the Kecak chant, and cross-continental collaboration with performers in Bali via live-camera feed on Skype. Performance specially adapted for presentation in the Uptown Art Park-adjacent pocket park common cultural space.

Buried in the Body by Ragged Wing Ensemble, 10/24 – 10/26/13. Presentation of an original theater work and interactive installations and participatory performance stations. Project developed exclusively for performance at the art park and two other outdoor venues; its thematic concerns were directly linked to and interacted with these chosen physical spaces and their environs.