Something to Shout About
The Art Murmur Storms Oakland
By By Alex Handy
Nicole Neditch didn’t mean to become one of the architects of the Oakland art renaissance of 2006. She just happened into it while planning a party. It was 2002, and Neditch and her new friend, Jen Loy, were putting the finishing touches on the first issue of Kitchen Sink, a creative writing magazine the two had built after meeting through friends. The women were looking for a good venue in which to throw a launch party, and they noticed an orange sign that read “Papa Buzz” on Telegraph Avenue near 23rd Street.
Jen noticed this place and wanted to know more about it,” says Neditch. “Ivan, who was the previous owner, had just closed up and was looking for a potential buyer. Randomly at a meeting that night, she jokingly asked me if I wanted to buy a cafe and gallery, and I was like, ‘Sure, let’s do it.’ So, we met with him two days later. We bought it in November 2002, and we opened on Jan. 31, 2003.”
Right from the start, Mama Buzz was half joe joint, half art gallery. The coffee-sipping hipsters drawn to the place built a tight-knit community out back in Mama Buzz’s concrete and sheet metal garden. Inside, monthly art exhibits took form.
By 2005, Telegraph Avenue and its numerous nooks and crannies were dotted with other art galleries, such as Boontling Gallery and Auto 3321. Others, such as 21 Grand and LoBot, were already in place but searching for a way to maximize traffic. The diversity and placement of these underground art facilities made it difficult to form a cohesive whole that could be presented to the public. Neditch and others began to discuss expanding the art scene’s visibility.
“Everybody’s main goal has been to make Oakland this viable place to come and look at art,” says Neditch. “There’s a ton of artists that live here, there’s a ton of artists that work here, and unfortunately, up until recently, there haven’t been a ton of places to show here. People had to go to San Francisco at least, if not New York and LA to show their art. So I think all of us wanted to get together and figure out how to really put Oakland on the map.”
But when the folks at Boontling Gallery and the indie art e-zine Fecalface.com whispered the idea of a cross-promoted first Friday opening at these fledgling frontages, all of the pieces to build the most exciting monthly artistic event in the Bay Area fell into place.
And so, the Oakland Art Murmur was born.
So intriguing has this movement been that the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts showed the work of Murmur artists all summer. And in November the museum will offer a second Oakland exhibit curated and designed by Murmur associates.
Among the 12 galleries that now participate in the Oakland Art Murmur, the classiest joint on the tour is by far the Esteban Sabar Gallery. A former contractor’s office, the white painted brick walls now host a half a dozen artists a month. The gallery was created by, who else, Esteban Sabar, a psychology Ph.D. with a passion for the artwork of his husband, Marty McCorkle. It was McCorkle’s work that drove Sabar to open his gallery on 23rd Street near Telegraph, and when it opened in January, just in time for the first Art Murmur, McCorkle’s rippled portraits adorned the entryway.
Unlike the other galleries, Sabar did not find his artists, save McCorkle, through word of mouth. Instead, he placed an ad on Craigslist seeking exhibitors.
Guy Colwell was one of those responding artists. Colwell has been striving to make a living as an artist since 1969. Colwell lives in Berkeley and has kept a day job for many years, despite the occasional periods of financial independence his art has brought him. He’s a quiet man who speaks in measured tones and seems shy of the spotlight. His work, however, is anything but shy. Colwell’s magnum opus is Litter Beach, a large painting that hung as the centerpiece of the gallery’s Urban Realists show in July. The cartoonish painting depicts a crowded public beach so packed with shallow people, discarded wrappers and brand-name products that not a speck of sand can be glimpsed.
Until his July showing, Colwell hadn’t sold a single piece during 2006. But on this very night, he would sell Contrast, the painting hanging to the left of Litter Beach. Contrast portrays a high-society woman with arms full of boxes standing next to an emaciated African woman with empty hands. Colwell’s own personal collector, a large, boisterous man who calls himself J. Paul Ghetto, purchased Contrast for $600-plus. Litter Beach, however, remained unsold with a $30,000 asking price.
Colwell is not the only person selling art on the first Fridays of every month. The Oakland Art Murmur has fostered an entire community of capitalistic artists, all scrambling to make a profit from their passions in their own ways. Neditch says that her own gallery has seen a marked uptick in art sales since the Murmur began. She credits this surge to both the large number of people who attend the Murmur and to Sabar’s ability to draw in serious art buyers.
Another space that’s seen an increase in sales is Rock Paper Scissors. This artistic collective on the corner of 23rd and Telegraph is a stone’s throw away from the doors of Sabar’s gallery. The collective that runs the store sells a mishmash of homemade postcards, clothing, sculptures and other creations. The group is quick to point out that it is not an art gallery, and nowhere was this more evident than at the July opening when the group staged a massive cake construction—a miniature city encrusted with frosting—in its window.
Directly next door to Sabar’s gallery is Ego Park, a live-work space that is part home, part art installation. The gallery’s founder, Kevin Slagle, installs a new artistic statement every month, and as the Murmur has expanded, the gallery has made increasingly more earnest attempts to sell art items.
Previous Ego Park installations included a massive Mad Lib written in one long string around the outside wall of the one-room gallery. The Mad Lib was taken from a speech by George W. Bush, and at each blank space, a rag and piece of chalk were hung so that visitors could add their own verbs, nouns and adjectives. A September Ego Park showing, however, offered large canvas paintings of little houses nestled in towns and also offered dozens of tiny wooden houses for $20.
During the week, Mama Buzz is the nexus for all things artistic in the downtown Oakland Telegraph Avenue area. While the other galleries are closed and preparing for first Fridays, Mama Buzz is open and slinging burgers, brews and bagels to the hungry artists who mope around, fretting over their latest works. Here, the art ranges from murals rendered in office supplies to paper maché ice cream men with pastel ice cream carts to printed cartoon portraits of police mugshots.
Neditch says that, come first Fridays, she’s usually not sure exactly what will be hung on the walls of the cafe. She books her artists on personality and face-to-face meetings. Then, after they’ve been scheduled a few months in advance, she forgets about them until the week of the show.
“It’s just a sense of aesthetic, really what I like to look at mostly. I get an aesthetic by just sitting down and talking to somebody and seeing the work they’ve done before. I never know exactly what’s going to go up before it goes up, and I like it that way,” she says.
There is no doubt that the Oakland art scene has begun to boil over. For years, Oakland’s cheap rents and expansive warehouses have been a haven for struggling young artists drawn to the Bay Area. It’s this very struggle that has crafted what some consider the hallmark of the Oakland scene: the reuse of common materials.
Nowhere is the reuse of trash and everyday materials more apparent than at the Yerba Buena exhibit, Sampling Oakland, which ran from July through October.
Sampling Oakland offered many works wrought in trash and everyday materials. Artist Eric Groff, for instance, designed a two-story mock-up of a city in paint and salvaged cardboard, and other artists created their works out of Irish Spring soap and scrap pieces of camping equipment.
What made the Sampling Oakland show so pertinent, says Berin Golonu, associate visual arts curator at Yerba Buena, was its sharp commentary on gentrification and its effects on Oakland—it’s exactly what Murmur artists are experiencing.
“The trend seems to be that artists move into a downtrodden area, an area that has really cheap rents, that’s largely unoccupied, that’s somewhat post industrial ... and they revitalize the area,” says Golonu. “They do certain things to their environment to make it more livable, to make it a little more aesthetically appealing. And they become the first wave of gentrification.
“Soon thereafter, other people take notice of the changes that the artists are bringing into this area, and other interests step in. And it ends, of course, with the developers stepping in and building living units, supposed artist live-work lofts that are unaffordable to artists, and the artists become a victim of this wave that they started, and they get pushed out as well,” Golonu says.
That did happen to 21 Grand, the oldest of the Murmur galleries. After opening in 2000, the combination performance space and art gallery was forced to move out of its original 21 Grand address. That building has since been torn down to make room for a new condo development. 21 Grand is now nestled at 416 25th St. near Broadway.
Much of the Art Murmur’s success comes from the spirit of camaraderie that permeates, perhaps a result of the shared experience of struggling to survive in the expensive Bay Area. In a region that’s markedly competitive, the Art Murmur’s focus on symbiosis between galleries is refreshing.
The rules are simple: Each gallery should prepare its new showings to open around 7 p.m. on the first Friday of every month, and each gallery owner should attempt to make the rounds and view everyone else’s exhibits. Beyond that, it’s all about simplicity. Murmur galleries contributed a handful of money to print up some postcards heralding the Art Murmur and to host a common Web site at www.oaklandartmurmur.com. Some galleries throw in free booze, which helps to make the crowd that much more enthusiastic.
But at the heart of it all, this event is about freedom of expression. Despite the upscale feeling of Sabar’s gallery, it doesn’t seem out of place among the emo-hipster art of Rock Paper Scissors or the quietly quirky work at Ego Park. Each facility offers something unique to the artistic tourist, and the massive crowds that clog Telegraph Avenue are a testament to how successful this loose congregation of artists has become.
Back at Sabar’s gallery, Colwell says he is happy to see Oakland and its artists finally getting the recognition they deserve. An art dealer who categorizes himself as a brilliant marketer, Sabar engineers his gallery to stand out: He offers free wine and beer to his patrons every first Friday, a practice of big league galleries in New York and San Francisco; and he shows multiple Bay Area artists, whereas most Murmur galleries concentrate on an artist or two at a time.
Front Gallery at 35 Grand Ave. is one of the Murmur’s more conventional galleries. A five-minute walk from the Murmur epicenter at 23rd and Telegraph, this small photo studio is run by Bob Jew, a meek Asian man with a gentle voice and a firm hook into the traditional Oakland art world. In June he displayed the work of Ed Moses rendered in threads woven on a 200-year-old loom in Belgium, and in May he featured photos taken every mile on a drive from Colorado to California, a lengthy exhibit stretching from the front of his studio to the rear and back around the other wall. Jew changes exhibits every other month; otherwise, this is a working photography studio where he makes his living.
The Murmur is not limited to the epicenter at Telegraph and 23rd. Far from the Murmur proper, Blank Space, on San Pablo near 66th Street, sells its own collection of geegaws and doodads. Earlier in the year, this venue offered up a miniature fairyland, complete with a path, wooden bridge and suggestively gyrating trees. Here, the tchotchkes for sale were thematically linked to the special magical land laid out inside.
Down on Broadway at 330 40th St., the Rowan Morrison gallery offers fine art and artistic books to customers willing to walk or bike the 17 blocks between it and the rest of the Art Murmur. On Telegraph, Auto 3321 offers gallery-goers a breath of fresh air and a basement full of bands to go with its swank renovated building. And in the Temescal district, Boontling Gallery at 4224 Telegraph Ave., presents a unique set of work every month, both during the Murmur and on its own schedule.
A bustling little economy has sprung up around the
Art Murmur. Gutter punks and wayward emo
kids sell trinkets, patches and small duplicated
works of art on the sidewalks, and Art Murmur
enthusiasts aren’t calling foul. These emo-hipsters and cultural spelunkers wander the Murmur with the wide smiles and knowing nods that come only from being in that place at that time. They wrap themselves in the smug knowledge that they were there, are there, will be there, when the whole thing boils over.
And Berin says the Oakland art scene has only just begun to fulminate. “Artists have been moving to Oakland for years,” she says. “Ever since the dot-com boom came to San Francisco and a lot of artists got pushed out, they either moved to LA, or they moved to Portland or they moved to Oakland. The reason the scene in Oakland has really exploded is because this handful of spaces opened up. These spaces are really providing the resources and the showcases for these artists to explore new possibilities and to create new work. They’re definitely communal spaces where people meet to hang out and inspire one another and open dialogues. To me, it seems like a very interdisciplinary scene.”
Sabar, too, is glad that Oakland is finally getting its due. He likens the Murmur scene to a 1960s-era SoHo or Santa Fe in the 1980s and dreams of making Oakland one of the top 10 art cities in the world by 2007 through collaborating with other galleries and tirelessly promoting Oakland and its artists.
With new galleries popping up, he may realize his goal. As more galleries join the Murmur, more art lovers are drawn inside, and their words go elsewhere to spread the tale.
But Neditch worries that all of this enthusiasm and attention could harm the city’s artists. She frets that Oakland’s success in the art world has its consequences. “It does worry me a bit that we’re on this tip of the arrow that is causing gentrification to spread throughout Oakland. And it does make me afraid of all these condominiums going in all around us. It makes me worry that these spaces aren’t going to be here in a few years, so maybe it’ll be like SoHo was in the ’60s, where, yes, there are a ton of people creating art here, but the only way it will be on the map for that is if it goes away. And I don’t want to see that happen,” she says.
Perhaps these galleries and artists can survive gentrification, however. The unbridled capitalist spirit that permeates the Murmur could be its own salvation. A fresh infusion of well moneyed dot-com 2.0 executives could be just what the scene needs to sustain itself. Or could all that money and affluence be the Murmur’s undoing? After all, what is a happening new scene unless it eventually sells out and vanishes?
Until then, however, the Murmur has only just begun. And the artists that are benefiting from this new visibility aren’t showing any signs of getting day jobs.
416 25th St.
3135 Filbert St.
3321 Telegraph Ave.
6608 San Pablo Ave.
4224 Telegraph Ave.
355 24th St.
492 23rd St.
Esteban Sabar Gallery
480 23rd St.
35 Grand Ave.
Mama Buzz Cafe
2318 Telegraph Ave.
Rock Paper Scissors Collective
2278 Telegraph Ave.
330 40th St.