Downtown Oakland’s Emerging Art Scene Is Thriving

In 2014, vacant storefronts in downtown Oakland began blossoming with inclusive art spaces, adding to pre-existing spots to form a happening district.

When LeQuiVive Gallery first opened its doors on Webster Street, the sidewalk outside was quiet. Co-founder Sorell Raino-Tsui and a few partners moved into the building between 15th and 17th streets in 2006 with silk-screening businesses and hopes of eventually starting a store and gallery. Now, after many collaborative shifts, he and co-founder Michael Broberg have been running the flourishing LeQuiVive for three years. Over the past nine, Raino-Tsui has watched the neighborhood outside his windows gradually transform. But 2014 marked the most drastic changes for the area south of 20th Street and east of Broadway. New spaces sprouted up throughout the neighborhood, filling vacancies between long-standing establishments, and many of them are arts-oriented. Meanwhile, pre-existing galleries and venues are gaining momentum. The dense stretch is coming to life as a district, and many local business owners agree that the recent developments are likely just the beginning.

Because rent is still cheap in the area, many of the curators in the new spaces have taken the opportunity to show work by young, emerging artists, creating a hub at the city’s center for art that might otherwise be pushed to more marginal galleries or warehouses. That often translates to work that is risky and relevant, engaging a youthful gallery audience quite different than that of Art Murmur collectors. And, as the neighborhood is livening up, with many new trendy shops, eateries, and art spaces recently opened or set to open soon, foot traffic is steadily increasing.

Much of that foot traffic has been on 15th Street, just past Webster. In the past year, the block has blossomed. Naming Gallery opened just a few months before 2014 began, and then came Mary Weather in January, then Omiroo, Tilde, Sidequest, Burnt Oak, Shipping and Receiving and Third Eye Studio —all in less than a year. The group of galleries and businesses that support local artists has quickly built a creative community that draws crowds to the block with coinciding events on the second Saturday of every month. The Express wrote about the development of the block in depth in its Local Economy issue (“The Art of Neighborhood Creation,” 6/11/2014). And Oakland magazine even called it “The Most Exciting Block in Oakland” in its December issue.

Mary Weather is coming up on its one-year anniversary, and owner Judy Elkan said that it’s been a whirlwind experience to see the block pick up. Feeling privileged to have a space, she immediately began offering up the Mary Weather walls to whoever was interested in putting their work on them, almost entirely without discretion. “I just think there’s so much talent here, and people are looking for spaces to have a show, or throw a party, or put their wares, or even give them away,” she said in an interview. “People just want to get their stuff out there.” By constantly saying “yes,” Elkan has developed a broad community. In the coming year, though, she’ll be passing off the curating duties to someone more practiced.

Brothers Ian and Jared Jethmal had dreamed of starting a gallery since elementary school. Late into summer, Elkan saw that there was an open storefront on 15th and told the brothers that they should check it out. The young Jethmals partnered with friend Calvin Wong, and thought that their moment had come — until their application was denied. But then they found a spot on 13th Street between Broadway and Franklin Street that turned out to be larger and cheaper. They were initially hesitant about opening up shop seemingly far away from friends like LeQuiVive and VAMP, on 19th. But after taking a step back, they realized that the extra two-block stretch was nothing, because they predict the entire neighborhood will blow up in the next few years. “What’s going on out there in the city, it’s all being pushed here, and we’re at the start of something new,” said Wong. The three Bay Area natives feel that it’s the perfect time to secure a space, and downtown Oakland is the ideal place to do it. Their gallery, Good Mother, is set to open in January.

Next door to Good Mother is E.M. Wolfman Small Interest Bookstore, a cozy book shop and gallery that Justin Carder opened in April of this year. Carder’s primary goal was to create a space for writers, artists, musicians, and community members to gather and hold events for free. He felt that a bookstore was the perfect retail outfit for that, because it’s welcoming and familiar to all kinds of people. Although Carder was unsure what the response from the community was going to be, he immediately found that there was a heavy demand for that kind of space downtown, and he has been hosting around twelve well-attended readings a month. Specifically, a lively community of emerging writers, poets, and zine creators has taken to the intimate, alternative feel of the space. “In the Bay Area at this point there’s such a premium on space that just having an open space is key — is crucial,” he said.

At Good Mother, too, the focus is on providing an inclusive creative venue. Wong and the Jethmals hope to showcase artists that are producing solid work, regardless of how well-known they are. They will be placing emerging artists next to established ones in a way that they hope will create opportunity for young artists, and inspire them to stay motivated. Their goal is also to avoid the elitism of the art world that they sometimes encounter at San Francisco galleries, by offering an art space that’s accessible, yet maintains a standard of quality and taste. “With art, it’s a language, you know, and I feel like the language has been made to be jargon for a lot of people in the scene,” said Wong. “We’re trying to make that language coherent to people again.”

B4BEL4B, a warehouse art gallery and performance venue that popped up on the corner of 10th and Jackson streets in April, has the same goal of providing space for emerging artists with experimental leanings. All of the artists it has featured so far have been between 20 and 35 years old, and the crowds for their packed opening parties reflect the same demographic. B4BEL4B’s shows have included an elaborate live-sculpture performance piece called Islands of Flesh and a night of immersive and experiential “tech-art” installations called Ephemeral Vessels. The idea is to provide a large space for art to be lived, not just seen. “I don’t want to have to go to Burning Man to experience that,” said cofounder Tiare Ribeaux. “I would like it to be more in a gallery setting.”

The general opinion among the new downtown inhabitants is that they appreciated what the Art Murmur galleries were doing, but hope for more diversity in the Oakland art scene. Carder said he moved downtown specifically because he wanted to do something separate from First Friday, something at which he knew attendees were there because of interest in art and not just because of a street party. But, all were also concerned about contributing to gentrification and figuring out the best ways to benefit their immediate community. Carder said that he didn’t want to crowdfund or apply for grants specifically for this reason, because he felt that if he could stay afloat by selling books to the community, then that was a clear sign that they wanted it there. So far, sales have been good, and Carder has been curating the retail offerings based on community requests.

One of the biggest benefits to the neighborhood in recent years has been the murals that have brightened the urban landscape. Local artists are glad to get the exposure, while local businesses are happy to see less tagging. The majority of these murals have been facilitated by LeQuiVive, which worked with local artists to paint eleven walls in the area this year alone. The gallery saw many milestones this year, and has been establishing a name for itself on the West Coast and beyond. In November, its show with popular San Francisco street artist Zio Ziegler brought out a promising crowd of art patrons to the Oakland neighborhood. The gallery is paving the way for the area as an arts district, and if others nearby can follow with similar success, things are looking up for the area.

Still, at the beginning of December, Psychic Reality, across the street from LeQuiVive, put up a big red sign that read: “Lost our lease.” The building that the shop has inhabited for nearly a decade was coincidentally the one on which Ziegler painted a massive mural in conjunction with his show. Owner Ginny Carlson-Todd said that the doubling of her rent was an inevitable symptom of the wave of migration from San Francisco. The blaring lease sign has served as a reminder of the ways in which even arts-related development can contribute to a broader issue of displacement.

In terms of the arts scene, a common complaint is that the gallery landscape in Oakland is too flat, without enough summits to climb for better exposure. Having another concentrated arts district outside of Art Murmur that focuses on different work and offers a variety of entry levels could help that issue. At this point, the outcome remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the area is going to see a lot more attention soon. “It’s gonna come when people know that they can just come east of Broadway a couple blocks and spend an entire afternoon, and go and have coffee and stroll, and go shopping, and then see some galleries,” said Elkan. “We’re here — we just need the people now.”

scattered clouds
62.1 ° F
68 °
58.9 °
51 %
40 %
67 °
66 °
68 °
68 °
66 °