Sunday, May 1, 2016

How To Solve Oakland's Art Crisis: (a dialogue, to be set to music): #KeepOaklandCreative

“There is no institutional understanding that the arts are an economic engine for the city, they are not just a cynical lure to make a neighborhood pretty to attract outside investors,” Pamela Mays McDonald, Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition and External Affairs Chair for Oakland Art Murmur[1]

D: Did you know that Oakland recently received an NEA grant for the purpose of creating a cultural plan to preserve our art? I sure didn’t….

B: It’s probably a tiny bit of money, and won’t do any of us any good.

D: You’re such a cynic. But at least it shows they recognize that art has value…

B: But what do they mean by “art?” Do they mean only painters with an easel, or the arts in the broadest sense? Does it include musicians?

D: The article doesn’t say. Nor does it say if it will include poets and writers. We don’t even have a good locally based press…

B: They probably call that “culture” instead of art…

D: And they probably call musicians “entertainment” instead of art…

B: They certainly don’t consider outdoor BBQs in public parks “art”

D: But theoretically, in a democracy we can be part of the discussion. After all, they declared 14th St. The Black Arts and Business District, and the Black Arts Movement’s all about art in the widest sense of the word (including music, poetry, and activism). Certainly, that’s a good sign!

B: But that’s all it is….signage! Beneath those signs, Wood Partners and the Bay Development group (to name but two) are building condos who are diametrically opposed to the intent and work of this district.

D: You gotta admire the way that woman from Bay Development [Maria Poncel] uses language when she claimed her condo would provide a community benefit by “activating the ground floor” with high priced real retail stores. She said it will make the streets safer….

B: Would it be safer for the vendors of the black arts and business district? The young folks peaceably congregating outside the 15th St. galleries—with bass guitar, drums, dancing and a microphone to anybody who wants to try out a rap---are working to activate the ground floor, and make the neighborhood safer, and doing a good job at it until the curfew police clears them out to make room for the kind of “activation” we see at other recent non-affordable housing developments…

D: Well, at least the mayor shows up at parades with a big smile in her Art Snail!

B: She moves so slow, a snail is a greyhound by comparison. She won’t even resurrect the Oakland Arts Commission until she appoints a Cultural Affairs Manager! She offers no timeline, but says “work is underway.”

D: She’s been listening to those outside consultants from Bloomberg who are forming a working group---get this—to study Oakland’s art ecosystem!

B: They’re studying us?? Smells like colonization to me. Why doesn’t she just ask the artists, the musicians, the stand-up comics, those who need cheap and convenient culture, those with a sense of civic pride and a day to day stake in improving the city, but are thwarted?

D: Judging by City Hall’s actions, they don’t want to support arts.

B: Can it be possible that the majority of people who voted for her---her base in the Oakland hills---don’t want to support the arts, may even be afraid of the arts?

D: you rarely hear anybody boldly claiming Don’t Fund The Arts….but I know when I talk to other low-income folks who don’t see themselves as artists that, for them, funding the arts is a much lower priority than creating and sustaining affordable housing….It’s a little hard to rally the lumpen behind the cause of “art.”

B: I understand their resentment, maybe it’s not worth it to fight for “art”--for if we can take care of providing affordable housing, it will take care of providing the art.

D: Or we can convince these “non-artists” that the two issues are the same, that supporting the arts will actually create more jobs for them and more affordable housing much more than wasting tax-dollars on a Bloomberg working group, task force think tank. Besides, a lot of these “non-artists” are really artists, and have more of a stake in local art than they might think… We have to take back the word “art” from the rich!

B: So what should we do? Show up outside city hall with placards that blare: WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THAT NEA MONEY?

D: Why not? But if we’re visual artists, we gotta make those placards pretty, at least as pretty as graffiti, or murals from the Community Rejuvenation Project…

B: It may be more important to blanket Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with catchy memes (I hate the word memes).

D: That’s what they want us to think—that that­ has more power—to keep us more divided, but, sure, we could work that front too…

B: Maybe the poets will join us, and write a poem called “HOW ARE YOU SPENDING THE NEA MONEY?”

D: Maybe, but knowing the poetry world, it will take a few years to get published anywhere people see it….or the poem would get rejected for being too “strident.”

B: That could be where we musicians come in, put that phrase to beats. After we record it, we can get in cars and bikes and blast it around town….hold a dance party in San Antonio Park….a contest for dance songs on this theme open to any resident of Oakland (and those recently priced-out). Dance songs bring people together! All songs are welcome. Imagine the industry that will result, the activated ground floors, and streets. Recording time will be donated. Visual artists and dancers will be enlisted. This could be funded by the NEA grant!

D: That’s circular logic. You can’t promise to pay people with the money you don’t have yet.

B: The city, state, and federal government do that all the time! Okay, maybe it’s better not to worry about money yet---that always stops any innovative thinking even before it gets a chance to start….We don’t need money if we can work with those artists and activists who are already fighting for this, and other related, causes, and who have already brought some people together. We just have to convince them that we can give them something with our art if they help create contexts for it….

D: Makes sense to me. Hiroko Kurihara, from Mayor Schaaf’s Artist Affordable Housing and Workplace task force, might be someone to try to work with. I like the way she talks.

B: I didn’t even know the mayor had an Artist Affordable Housing and Workplace task force! That sounds like a joke….it gives me an idea for another song, We are the Artist Affordable Housing And Task Force,” (trying to sing it to the tune of “We are the Village Green Preservation Society”); we could create an ad hoc band named that!

D: But listen to what she says, she wants to create “a city-wide cultural district that would try to reap funding from the statewide California Arts Commission budget. That way, Oakland’s art community won’t be divided. There’s a little pot of money, and then all these competing interests end up squabbling over scraps. We can’t really do that if we’re gonna really try to coalesce, and build a cultural arts-based community.”

B: Well, it sounds better than anything coming out of the mayor’s mouth. I like her broad vision. She seems to get the spirit of “unity in diversity” I’m talking about. I like what she says about stopping “squabbling over scraps,” but it’s easier said than done.

D: Not if there’s strength in numbers, and by working together on a “city-wide level” we are able to bring more money in….from both the state and the federal governments.

B: But the city has this terrible policy of sending back funds unused….

D: Or squandering them on consultants, working groups and task forces…or not even applying for federal and states grant (like they just did with the summer youth program)

B: Apparently, the city leaders don’t even know that every empire has fallen when the bureaucratic class takes over and the creative class falls by the wayside... Anyway, Kurihara is just talking about government funding. We should be able to get money for the arts (including affordable housing for artists and non-artists who need art) from other sources…, say, Big Tech

D: Big Tech, you’ve got to be kidding!

B: Well, Pandora’s here, at the intersection of Big Tech and Music, right smack dab in the middle of Oakland, only a block away from where the great radio station KDIA used to be….

D: Pandora certainly shows no interest in cultivating and re-elevating a sustainable local music economy. Sad, because you think they’d be a natural ally, that they’d see how they’d benefit by forging strong connections with local Oakland music and art scenes to help brand a marketable, yet eclectic, Oakland cultural identity as a cultural export…

B: Maybe we should hold our demonstrations in front of their office. If you can’t fight City Hall maybe you can convince big tech. And if Pandora doesn’t come on board, maybe Uber could require its drivers play music from one of Uber’s Local music channels (the passenger could choose from a wide variety of genres)…Certainly some of these techie hipsters must like to go to art galleries, read and dance…

D: They’re probably into that Burning-Man “ecstatic dance” kind of stuff, and certainly wouldn’t be down with helping to fund Hip Hop For Change….with no strings attached…

B: Perhaps, but we can appeal to a sense of civic pride for all of Oakland, not just them. If we don’t want to squabble over scraps, we can’t let musical taste get in the way. This is what unity in diversity means. Yes, there’s this nagging civil war over the soul of Oakland, and yes they may hate our culture…

D: And we may hate theirs

B: I don’t hate it, I just don’t see it. Their culture’s like a giant eraser….made of food (and nothing but food)----but even with this culture clash, or culture crash, we could still find common ground: if nothing else, we all live here! And if we can join forces, there will be more room for both their culture and our culture. All we have to do is convince them to value what’s here more than the imported virtual culture from LA. This could be win/win, baby!

D: Of course, we’d have to convince some of our people of that too….

B: I don’t think so, we can appeal to their needs, needs that are thwarted---so many young artists who give up on their art (as at least one of the many part-time jobs they must have to survive) because they see no hope, the young who don’t yet realize that they’re shooting their dreams in the foot when they’re glued to the imported culture….

D: Those who complain about how the techies are taking over this city and driving them out, yet are dutifully enriching them by being glued to their smartphones and ipods….

B: Imported mass culture and Big Tech colonizers have such a way of seducing us from our intuitions and gifts at a young age. But I’m convinced we can help the kids have more fun creating their own art, and providing that “economic engine” that could fuel an Oakland cultural and economic renaissance, for all of Oakland.

D: Imagine, if you will, a locally-owned and operated radio station broadcasting from one of the city’s many live/work warehouse space/art gallery that also holds dance parties and organizational meetings…..this station’s programming would consist of at least 75% local programming (music, talk) with the purpose of helping to brand an Oakland cultural identity that would utilize the talent of Oakland’s currently underused creative talent “content providers” and generate revenue for the city.

B: Or at least sign the petition to Re-establish the City of Oakland Arts and Culture Commission to #KeepOaklandCreative….


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the educational and provocative and inspiring post, Chris! And, what IS the mayor doing with that NEA money?!