MICD25 Spotlight on Oakland, California

Oakland, California

Fluid Dynamics by Fernanda D'Agostino and Valerie Otani, Oakport Street at Zhone Way, Oakland. Photo by Fernanda D'Agostino

Oakland, California's Cultural Arts and Marketing Division provides services to the arts community and provides strategic marketing support that positions Oakland as a desirable place to live, work, celebrate, and do business. The arts play a large part in communicating Oakland's livability. To further these goals, the division plans the creation of the Uptown Arts District Park. We spoke with City of Oakland Cultural Arts Manager Steven Huss to learn more about Oakland's project.

NEA: Please give a  description of your project and what you hope it will bring to the residents of Oakland.

STEVEN HUSS: The project site is along Telegraph Avenue in the center of Oakland?s Uptown, an historic but long-neglected arts and entertainment district that?s now re-emerging. We?re transforming an unused lot into a long-term temporary art space through innovative design. It will be a home for dynamic existing artwork in need of a large public venue and for experimental new commissions, as well as for performances and other cultural events. Advocacy for use of this site as cultural space began with the community---open space advocates, bicycle activists, neighbors.

One challenge we have is that it is a commercial development site, and down the road---in approximately four years---new development will replace the temporary art space. Part of our approach is to conceive it in replicable programmatic terms, as a sort of urban arts laboratory. Then we?ll take what we?ve learned in the 4+ years of site activation in the Uptown and go on the road to underserved neighborhoods, where we?ll work with community-based nonprofits and local funders to adapt the mobile gallery concept and develop projects and programming with resonance for those individual communities.

Our hope is that this project builds on the momentum of the Uptown, bringing in a broad audience from throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and specifically engaging our great community of artists and arts organizations as an exciting alternative venue for visual art, performance and cultural activity, celebrating Oakland?s vibrant arts culture.

NEA: Why is it important to have arts and culture at the table when planning community revitalization efforts?

HUSS: I believe the work and vision of artists is very effective in helping to define and crystallize the unique identity of a community. And we know that people choose to live in a place because of the culture that?s present. It?s an essential fact that the arts sector is a $100 million per year industry in Oakland. This project is absolutely an economic development initiative---it will draw larger audiences into the district and increase revenues in many forms.

In the case of the mobile gallery idea---which will have its genesis in the Uptown project seeded by the MICD 25 grant---we hope that it will be a boon to community revitalization through the arts in several neighborhoods of Oakland.

NEA: How do you think the creation of arts districts benefits the civic life of your community?

HUSS: Well, of course there?s much evidence that it is important to our city?s economic development. The arts are a magnet and residents and business follow. In Oakland, as is surely true in many cities, the unique character of neighborhoods is best expressed through the arts, and the creation of arts districts can shine a light on the distinctive cultural heritage of these places. Oakland?s hallmark is its diversity, and if we can create arts districts that both celebrate and differentiate the many cultures represented here, we will be successful.

NEA: Given the nature of your project, how do you define public art?

HUSS: There are many definitions of public art. In the context of our temporary art space, we?re defining it as an encounter with something arresting, engaging, or thought-provoking; creative work that?s not only accessible and free to all, as is common with public art, but that fosters a collective experience---a shared engagement in the public realm that might expand the possibilities inherent in civic life.

NEA: How important is MICD25 funding for the success of your project?

HUSS: Oh, it?s an essential catalyst. Without the MICD25 grant, the possibility of activating this site with temporary art interventions would still be a dream. The award gave us a jumpstart. And we?re very excited about the ripple effect---the second-generation development that we expect will result. Certainly the opening of the Uptown art space will spur even more cultural development and nightlife in this district, but beyond that, we?re taking the template, the program model, that MICD 25 funding is enabling us to develop and we hope to use that to stimulate the design and development of publicly accessible outdoor art spaces throughout Oakland.

NEA: Any last words?

HUSS: Oakland?s artist population is one of the highest per capita in the country. The MICD-funded project in the Uptown is a golden opportunity to showcase many remarkable Oakland and Bay Area artists in a public venue, right in the center of an exploding cultural scene.  Come and visit Oakland!