Hype Man for the Arts

Jerry Brown talked about the arts, and then the arts flourished. Does that mean he deserves the credit?

In his January 1999 inauguration speech, Mayor Jerry Brown pledged to support the arts and encourage festival and celebration in Oakland. Even the most minuscule evidence of such support would’ve bucked a national trend of scorn and rejection for the arts. In that regard, Brown succeeded.

The Oakland Art Murmur, hyphy music, and Luka’s Taproom owe Brown little for their homegrown, organic successes. But many say his status as a figurehead or hype man — the Flavor Flav to Oakland’s Public Enemy — helped catalyze the buzz around the city’s art, music, and food subcultures. Although some are critical of the mayor’s follow-through, there can be no doubting that his rhetoric about the arts and downtown housing helped sow the seeds of the city’s current cultural renaissance.

Brown’s much-hyped 10K housing plan had rippling effects on restaurant and gallery culture in downtown Oakland, but elicited mixed reactions from local club owners. Brown’s press secretary, Gil Duran, credited the plan with bringing more people downtown on evenings and weekends. Clubs such as Uptown, Air Lounge, and the renovated Historic Sweet’s Ballroom will probably benefit from all the additional housing now being built. Yet hip-hop clubs such as Sweet Jimmie’s, Zazoo’s, and Mingles — which catered to a young African-American crowd from across Oakland and as far away as Richmond and Vallejo — clashed with the loft yuppies who infiltrated downtown and Jack London Square.

Brown had curried favor with the hip-hop community during the campaign by holding block parties and visiting the West Oakland studio of former Tony! Toni! Toné! frontman D’Wayne Wiggins. But today, though the mayor isn’t directly responsible for the increased police presence around the city’s hip-hop clubs, he’s the figurehead most often blamed. “We basically sold the club because we was tired of all the pressure we were going through from the city for three years,” said David Ward, son of restaurateur and club owner Sweet Jimmie.

In fact, business turnover typically claims several clubs every year. Nonetheless, city officials say that eighteen new clubs opened in the downtown area alone during the eight years of the Brown administration. Fifteen new art galleries also opened during Brown’s term, and his legacy will no doubt be associated with the Oakland Art Murmur, which flowered under Brown. The Art Murmur consists of a dozen art galleries that hold collective openings on the first Friday of every month, drawing thousands of visitors to the blighted region around Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street. Some of the galleries benefited from city Redevelopment Agency capital improvement funds, but cheap rents and operating costs really drove the culture boom. “We take no credit for that; it was totally organic,” said Samee Roberts, manager of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs and Marketing department, which pays and promotes artists.

Still, Roberts said, Brown did his job hyping the arts and clearing barriers for artists hoping to work with the city. “He looked at the role of the government as one where we set the tone,” she said. “I don’t think he ever thought he should get in there and be a hands-on person and tweak the arts.”

The 10K Plan drew attention to what became the Art Murmur scene, noted Swarm Gallery owner Svea Lin Vezzone, but the resulting art sales have been offset by rent increases driven by all the buzz. “I think 10K is a real positive development,” she said, “but it can be challenging for a lot of artists.”

Sonia BasSheva Mañjon, chair of the Center for Art and Public Life at the California College of the Arts, said Brown’s effusive self-promotion surpassed his actual accomplishments. Appointed codirector of the city’s new art department in 2000, she quit after only six months and became a vocal critic of the mayor. Asked to characterize Brown’s arts platform, Mañjon said the platform was really art czar Jacques Barzaghi’s pet project. “He really had a thing for Paris artists coming here,” she said, adding that Brown, famous as the California governor who launched the California Arts Council, ultimately overlooked the funky, grassroots stuff. “It wasn’t about education of arts in schools or communities. It wasn’t about venues.”

The statistics are somewhat kinder to Brown. In fiscal terms, public funding for art held its ground despite a nationwide and statewide retreat. The city’s Cultural Funding Program doled out $1.2 million per year to artists, roughly the same amount as the general fund of the entire state’s primary grant apparatus, the California Arts Council. Governor Schwarzenegger slashed Arts Council funding 90 percent, while Oakland’s program grew, although it shrank alongside the entire city bureaucracy during the lean years of the post-dot-com recession. Moreover, Brown sacrificed staff to save grants during the shake-up, though the departure of Barzaghi came for more ignominious reasons.

In other arts funding, Measure DD kicked out $2.8 million in art grants, and the city finished a $385,000 public arts project at I-880 and Broadway. The Oakland Artisan Marketplace at Jack London Square and City Hall provides newfound revenue for one hundred Bay Area artisans, while the annual Art and Soul Festival has seen its attendance quadruple to 80,000 in the six years since its inception. The city of Oakland also aggressively courted film companies during Brown’s tenure, generating a 41 percent increase in feature film permits (585), compared to those granted in the prior eight years.

Explosive growth in the arts mirrored a revitalized food culture in Oakland. Thirty-six new restaurants and cafes opened during Brown’s reign, Roberts said, and 2007 promises a round of downtown restaurant openings so big that they’d seem to be a victory lap for Brown’s rhetoric of revitalization.

Owners point to the 10K Plan as, at best, a single factor. No one is banking on it in five-year business plans. “It really hasn’t made a difference aside from a lot of people saying, ‘Isn’t it great that all these people are going to come down here?'” said Rick Mitchell, owner of Luka’s Taproom & Lounge, which opened in 2004 at Broadway and West Grand.

Luka’s own success seems to have done more to stimulate restaurant buzz in the city’s core than the mayor’s philosophers’ tables pondering the city-as-place. Luka’s proved that a menu packed with duck confit and steak frites can be just as viable in a former hofbrau at the unglamorous edge of downtown as in the foodie zones of Rockridge and Piedmont Avenue.

Instead of relying on the mayor’s promise of Pinot-drinking single-earners streaming into downtown, Mitchell filled Luka’s with some of the same folks who’d been hofbrau patrons. “I remember the first time I came through and saw people — just the people you see on the street on West Grand — sitting down and eating oysters and roasted quail salad,” he said. “It was amazing.”

Next spring, Mitchell and chef Jacob Alioto plan to reach even deeper into the neighborhood, with a New York-style wine and panini bar directly across Broadway. Mitchell’s breakout success with Luka’s may be a more enduring legacy downtown than Brown’s talk of urban renewal.

In June, Dona Savitsky and Thomas Schnetz, owners of Doña Tomás in Temescal, plan to unveil a restaurant inspired in part by Mitchell’s vision. Sprawling through six black-tiled Art Deco storefronts in a former flower market near the Fox Theater, Flora will have a huge bar and food that Savitsky promises won’t be Mexican. She thinks the mayor may have had some hand in courting them, but neither he nor 10K were the ultimate dealmakers. “Luka’s has taken a big part of the fear out of it for everyone,” she said.

But fear persists. Downtown still isn’t the place of lively evening streets the mayor imagined in his 1999 inaugural. Linda Braz, a retail broker in Old Oakland, thinks downtown is still a tricky sell, even with the success of pioneering restaurants like Luka’s. “It’s a great area for someone looking to locate their second or third business,” she said. That should help the Jack London fusion bistro Soizic draw customers to a planned second location in Uptown. And the Mexican small-plates restaurant Tamarindo is negotiating for a big space at Washington and Clay. Alfonso Dominguez, Tamarindo’s designer and son of owner Gloria Dominguez, envisions a sexy tequila bar. “You build it, they will come,” he said. That’s proved true at Tamarindo, with its nightly throngs from Contra Costa, Montclair, and even San Francisco. But when, exactly, will the downtown residents come?

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