One of the great absurdities of the Bay Area art scene is that Oakland, home to a staggering number of local artists, has long lacked many viable outlets for showing and selling art. The city has struggled for several years to engineer an arts center in the freshly minted Old Oakland district at 10th Street and Clay, where immaculate Victorian façades and ornate lampposts imbue the area with the eerie hyperreality of a stage set. No doubt city planners hoped to replicate the astounding economic redevelopment seen by neighborhoods like New York's SoHo and Chelsea, Brooklyn's Williamsburg, and San Francisco's Mission, after artists swarmed these previously blighted areas in search of cheap rent. But art districts aren't boy bands — you can't just hold an audition and cobble one together — and the misguided experiment lost much of its already dwindling substance when the Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery relocated from Oakland to posher digs in San Francisco last month.
Happily, the area around 23rd Street and Telegraph — an unremarkable stretch of Oakland dotted with vacant storefronts, a couple of withered bars, and a quickie mart — is emerging as the nexus of a more genuine (and sorely needed) arts community for the East Bay. Artists first colonized the block several years ago, with a now-defunct apartment/gallery called 2310. A coffee shop named Papa Buzz opened up and quickly filled with hipsters meeting over waffles on weekends. Papa Buzz, which continues to serve as a gathering place for the many artists who live and work nearby, was sold a year ago to Ivan Blackshear and Jeannie Lydon, who've transformed the adjoining storefront into Door.7.Gallery. Ego Park, another exhibition space, is just around the corner, and a block farther down on 23rd Street is 21 Grand, an interdisciplinary, nonprofit arts arena. The three galleries join forces on the second Saturday of each month, coordinating their opening receptions to create a boisterous block party that draws as many people from San Francisco as from the East Bay.
Blackshear, a graduate of CCAC, envisions Door.7 as a training ground for emerging artists. He's aware that success is as much about marketing as talent, and counsels newcomers on putting together portfolios and presenting their work to dealers. His focus is on selling work, and he sets prices accordingly — rarely does anything go for more than $100. He sees little revenue from such transactions, but no matter: The goals are to round out the résumés (and confidence) of the artists he shows and to encourage his East Bay peers to collect art. “It's brutal, trying to sell art in Oakland,” he laments. “People just aren't of that mentality here, and there's no foot traffic. The money's all in S.F.” In fact, Blackshear is currently negotiating the sale of the cafe, which has been steadily losing money for the past year. He hopes to continue to run Door.7 in partnership with the new owners. Ideally, though, he says he'd like to follow Oliveria's lead and relocate to San Francisco.
Kevin Shlagle and Aisha Burnes, co-founders of Ego Park, have different priorities. “For us,” says Burnes, “it's not about what's hip or what sells. … There's this whole world of artists, in the East Bay especially, who aren't that concerned with selling work. It's nice to make money doing what you love, but for us it's more about the creative process.”
There's a sticker on the door of the gallery's nondescript white storefront that reads, in bold black caps, “WHAT THE FUCK IS EGO PARK?” It's an unconventional welcome mat, but it does the trick. In the East Bay, things are best kept a bit raw; the ultra-polished aesthetic of most commercial art galleries won't fly here. Ego Park has shown an eclectic mix of work in the eight months it's been operating as a gallery — from photographs of Crisco-sculpted snowscapes to power-tool cozies. Currently on view are lush poured-enamel paintings by Matt Volla, who works out of a nearby studio. The gallery has inspired a fervent following, generating so much attention that Burnes and Shlagle are trying to scale it back somewhat. “It's become this beast, totally out of our control,” Shlagle says with a smile. “I don't want to kill it, but it definitely needs to be tethered.” He and Burnes have found it tough to work on their personal projects (the space also houses Burnes' freelance graphic design business and Shlagle's carpentry studio) while installing and promoting a new exhibition every month.
Sarah Lockhart, programming director at 21 Grand, is familiar with their predicament. “I'm here 30 hours a week, sometimes more,” she says. “There's so little time to work on my own stuff.” The gallery has been around for a couple of years, but landlord troubles recently forced it to relocate from its eponymous site at 21st Street and Grand Avenue. Newly outfitted with a board of directors and well on its way to 501(c)3 status, the collective is as focused on experimental music and performance as on the visual arts. Lockhart books several performances a week; ticket sales for these events help offset the high costs of mounting gallery exhibitions. On a Thursday night last month, for instance, 21 Grand hosted a raucous festival of accordion players, at which the requisite polkas and shanties were superseded by brash covers of the Dead Kennedys and the Smiths. Lockhart and Gallery Director Darren Jenkins see the space as a resource for local artists and musicians looking for a spot to meet, rehearse, perform, and exhibit. The current exhibition, a series of hand-sewn “sensory integration cloaks” that emerged from a collaboration between Bay Area artist Nora Auston and five autistic children, reflects this altruistic spirit.
In many ways, these galleries are labors of love. Their owners understand that the chances of turning a profit selling art in Oakland are slim. But profit is beside the point: The idea is to get people excited, to create momentum and energy that nourish the art and the lives of everyone involved. To that end, they've been enormously successful. “You need to build your own community in Oakland,” Shlagle says. “It's not the most convenient place to live. That's the eternal paradox of living here — it's so inspiring, so stimulating, and at the same time such a struggle. But the payoff is big.”