Oakland's Gallery Scene is Exciting, But Does Exciting Sell Art?

In Oakland’s evolving art gallery scene, achievement is defined more by community and expression than by commercial success.


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“First of all, I love art,” she adds. “I love creative-thinking people, writers, painters, musicians, dancers. I just love that. And then I like doing this, because so many artists put so much of their life and everything into their work, so when they see their art go up on the wall, just the look on their faces! I just love it.

“And I think [the gallery] is important because it adds a lot, and it’s more a community base. A lot of people have come through here and have never been in a gallery or a museum before, and [we] get them to be comfortable.

“I’ll stand at the door and people, they’ll walk and they’re looking. … I say, ‘Come on in,’ and they say, ‘Oh, I can come in here?’ ‘Of course you can come in here.’ ‘How much does it cost?’ ‘It doesn’t cost anything. Just buy something!’

“It’s a healing environment,” she says. “It really is healing. I’ve had guys walk in who look like they’re ready to shoot up the joint. I say, ‘Just give me five minutes; just sit for five minutes.’ And they just calm down.”

Like many Oakland galleries, Joyce Gordon Gallery does more than exhibits. She’s recently started Brew and Brush, encouraging amateur or would-be artists to engage in art while socializing.

Many galleries put on screenings or performances or make their spaces available for community events.

Anyka Barber, director of Betti Ono Gallery in the heart of downtown, calls her gallery, named for her heroes Yoko Ono and funk singer Betty Davis a “creative social enterprise.”

Her gallery started in 2011 following a series of artists’ events she put on at nearby Somar Bar and Lounge, drawing sessions with models for up to 100 artists at a time.

Barber, an artist and a curator and arts administrator who has worked at the Richmond Art Center, OMCA, and in education, came together with a developer who had space to spare and understood that arts attract positive attention. Hence Betti Ono’s prominent site at one of the city’s crossroads at Broadway and 14th Street. Raised in Oakland, Barber lives a six-minute bike ride from the gallery.

“I work with everyone, but I primarily am interested in artists whose work may not be considered really standard, so to speak,” she says. “I’m definitely looking for those who are on the fringe. I’m interested in people whose life or work may be marginalized. That means it often is people of color, but I work with everybody.”

Like several Oakland galleries, Betti Ono sells not just art but jewelry and smaller items as well, including prints and cards.

“The bottom line is not to become some millionaire-billionaire establishment,” Barber says. “It really is about supporting the creative community that is here and being an economic agent for small businesses. Artists are small businesses.”

“We’re thinking about surviving as artists,” she says, “surviving the moment and getting to the next.”

Uptown, which got its start as a gallery district in the mid 2000s, with Esteban Sabar’s eponymous and now-defunct gallery, Kimberly Johansson’s Johansson Projects and others, attracted Jasmine Moorhead to open Krowswork in 2009.

Moorhead, whose art history thesis at Yale was on contemporary American artist Bruce Nauman, edited art books for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, then moved west. She was working as a researcher for a large gallery in San Francisco and hitting up local galleries and noticed a lack of exhibits of video art.

“I finally said I’m going to just put my money here” and start a gallery, she says.

“The first two, three years, I didn’t know what I was about,” she says, noting that her day job in the city “took care of a little bit of my trepidation.” She has since quit that job and relies on the gallery for a living.

Opening a gallery is a financial leap, she says. “But it was also an emotional and a spiritual leap.”

Gallery owners are often seen as visionaries who can tell what art and which artists are worth looking at. Who is she, Moorhead wonders, to proclaim, “I’m someone who you should listen to. Hey, I have something to tell you.”

It is also a leap to define what, if anything, makes contemporary Oakland art “Oakland.” Do we have a School of Oakland Art here?

Barber thinks so. “There’s just been so much happening with Oakland being ground zero for a whole lot of things,” she says, mentioning Occupy Oakland, other struggles for social justice, and a focus on improving people’s lives in the city.

A decade from now, she hazards, people will look back and say, “That scene was experimental, that scene was multicultural, that scene was street art, that was the indie scene, the bootstrapping scene.”

“There’s a big theme around local, about representing where you’re from, and really being a part of where you are, and being in Oakland to be creative,” Barber says. “Like the makers’ scene, the made-in-Oakland scene.”

Brian also sees something distinctive in the city’s art. “It’s slightly urban,” he says. “It certainly has a sophistication that’s West Coast. There’s an interest in color, there’s an interest in new imagery, and imagery that may be inspired partly by the diverse population that lives here.”

One of the best places to imbibe the new Oakland spirit is an increasingly charming block of 15th Street between Harrison and Webster streets. It has erupted with street murals, and with galleries and things like galleries—eight at a recent count, mostly artist-run—just in the past year.

On a recent Saturday, Josef Lucas, curator at Naming Gallery, was getting ready for the night’s event, musical performances that would fill the sidewalks, and an auction of artist-painted chairs.

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