Pro Art, Pro Democracy

Pro Arts instills some order into the representative democracy of Open Studios.

Rosesharon Oates could barely squeeze a four-by-six-inch giclée print onto the walls of Pro Arts Gallery by the time she arrived last Thursday morning. Two weeks remained before East Bay Open Studios, a thirty-year-old, annual exhibition that takes place every year in homes and work spaces throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Already, the walls were crowded with art: dioramas, portraiture, cartoons, fused glass, turquoise jewelry, graffiti sprayed on a wood panel, pencil sketches of naked people, photographs of Raggedy Ann dolls, a large still life of a ripening pear, a wire bird’s nest with buttons, an installation made from the spoils of a recent Dumpster dive. Some pieces looked pretty slapdash; others could have been culled from a museum collection. Many were small replicas of large-scale work, since Pro Arts stipulates that every piece fit within a twenty-by-twenty-inch frame. Staffers Margo Dunlap and David Huff traversed the gallery floor, beaming. Neither had any qualms with the haphazardness of their preview exhibition. To them, it’s a representative democracy, applied to the art world.

Like other creative subcultures, visual art has the odd distinction of being very accessible and very insular at the same time. It’s easy to make art; it’s hard to be successful at it. It’s even harder to make money at it. The East Bay may be teeming with galleries, but those slots are still pretty hard to get. Gallery owners can serve as enablers, but they also can function as gatekeepers. Not every artist has enough market potential to keep a business afloat. “There are a lot of venues — like coffee shops and pizza parlors — that would like to have stuff on the walls,” Huff said. “But they don’t necessarily sell work. And they don’t necessarily insure work. Sometimes artists put their work up and it gets stolen or damaged.”

It’s apparently not that hard to get stuff hung in a cafe or an informal artist-run space. But a professional, well-lit, fully-staffed gallery is a different story. Even in Oakland — where the market is young and unestablished — working artists have to contend with commercial interests on one hand and cronyism and snobbery on the other. Oakland doesn’t have a strong buyer’s market, and nonprofit spaces have difficulty securing funding — especially during a recession. Many artists complain that it’s not a meritocracy.

But Open Studios serves as an antidote to the market system, in that it operates on an entirely different set of principles. It’s egalitarian. Anyone can pay the annual $55 membership fee to join Pro Arts, and the standard entry fee of $110. Pro Arts will even help defray costs by letting people volunteer in the gallery. And anyone can hang his work up at one of three preview exhibitions in Oakland, Berkeley, or Richmond. Dunlap, the executive director of Pro Arts, said the whole point is to “interface between hundreds of local artists in the region.” To that end, Pro Arts gathers contact information for everyone who participates, and publishes it in a huge directory. It’s designed so that folks can find work they like in the preview exhibits, then venture out to the artists’ studios. “Cafe owners will use it and identify artists to contact,” Dunlap explained. Other artists browse the directory to find peers in their area and form networks. Many people attend Open Studios out of curiosity.

The big downside to Open Studios is that it’s extremely diffuse by definition. It’s one thing to peruse art at a centralized location in downtown Oakland (Pro Arts recently moved to Frank Ogawa Plaza, right across from Oakland City Hall). It’s quite another to go into the trenches and find artists in their natural habitat. Industrial artist Bart Trickel has participated for more than twenty years, but says he gets low foot traffic because he lives in a relatively remote neighborhood of the Oakland Hills. Other artists suffer because they live in Albany, El Cerrito, or Hercules — far from the locus of studio activity in Berkeley and Oakland. This year Pro Arts tried to rectify that problem by expanding to the art centers in Berkeley and Richmond. Having satellite exhibitions not only broadens the audience for Open Studios, said Huff — it also helped concentrate artists from a particular region or neighborhood, which made it easier for them to network. Folks in Jingletown, Jack London Square, and West Oakland are adept at that sort of thing, said Dunlap. It would be nice to see their efforts duplicated in Albany and Contra Costa County.

The other big innovation from recent years is the Pro Arts Open Studios directory. Five years ago it was distributed on newsprint. It served the immediate purpose of getting people out to the artist work-spaces, said Huff, but everyone threw it away right afterward. But since that time it has added a glossy cover and a well-organized index that functions exactly like the key to a map. Each artist submits a small image of his work to go alongside his contact information. The new catalog also includes a twelve-month calendar of local art events, and a directory of East Bay galleries, organized by region.

For early-career artists like Oates, it’s an incredibly useful tool. Oates works as a massage therapist by day and paints in her kitchen at night, after her son goes to bed. It’s a very isolating activity, she said. Julianne Sterling agrees. She took a long hiatus from art to raise her two children (now seven and four), and like Oates, she currently paints at night. Sterling said she’s using Open Studios to rebuild her career, now that she finally has a full series of paintings to display. (Sterling’s exhibit, The Mommy Assassins, features paintings of a handsome woman brandishing a gun made of tinker toys. It runs through June at Mercury 20, which is participating in Open Studios for the first time this year.)

Trickel sits at the other end of the spectrum. He already has a fruitful career designing visual effects for Hollywood, and a fairly good relationship with Donna Seager Gallery in San Rafael. He says Open Studios isn’t as lucrative as a gallery showing, since a lot of people show up with no intention to actually purchase the art — and if you don’t sell at least $165 worth of stuff, you won’t break even. But it’s a great excuse to clean out his work space.

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