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The Oakland Art Scene: In Place
by DeWitt Cheng

Cheryl and David Calleri, “Ladder,” 2020, pinhole photograph, archival pigment print, 8 x 8”. Courtesy of Vessel Gallery, Oakland


Nearly nine months into the self-isolation imposed by the pandemic, everyone is ready — some of us, irrationally so — for a return to normalcy and social interaction. The election of the Biden-Harris ticket augurs well for reality-based government policies, but we cannot defy the realities of public health, either, no matter how much we may want to believe in radiologist Dr. Scott Atlas’ concern for grandma’s last Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving. We mask up and soldier on, looking forward to the vaccines that we anticipate are coming next year. 


With the prospective, gradual return to social mobility, I thought that now might be a good time to take stock of part of the Bay Area art scene. As a critic who has covered that scene for years, although in absentia during The Great Sabbatical, I wondered how the East Bay gallerists in Oakland and Berkeley were faring, now that receptions and walk-in traffic have been largely supplanted by online exhibitions and Zoom talks. Oakland will be receiving new press attention come January, as Kamala Harris, born in Oakland in 1964 to a mixed-race family, will become the first woman, the first Asian-American and the first Black to serve as vice-president. Though she is technically a boomer (just), she symbolizes the emergence of a younger, liberal, energetic (nice sneakers!) post-race Millennial demographic in U.S. politics. 


I sent out an e-mail query; what emerged from the responses was a little surprising. I had expected a certain amount of “tales of woe and intrigue,” to quote Click and Clack, but the gallerists were matter-of-fact about the challenges of the pandemic, and upbeat about returning to normal, armed with new skills in online marketing.


It has not been a picnic, of course, but neither have the problems been insurmountable. 


Jean Durant, President of the Oakland Art Murmur Board of Directors, points out that, while the local eviction moratorium and local grants for artists, small businesses and nonprofits helped to a certain extent, PPP funds were not available to her all-volunteer organization, necessitating increased fund-raising efforts. OAM has promoted online virtual art events on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube; informed the public that protocol-compliant gallery-going is safe and rejuvenating; encouraging consumers to think and buy local (“Buy Local Buy Art”); and collaborating with other institutions to promote local artists adversely affected by the shutdown. While the carnivalesque First Friday crowds are no longer joyfully swarming the Uptown streets, exhibitions continue, now assisted by digital innovations.


TaVee Lee at Transmission Gallery has opened an artist’s showroom, featuring small rotating groups of work by different artists that can be purchased immediately, without waiting for the shows to end; she has also added handmade artisan jewelry and accessories, much of it made in Oakland. Lee adds, “Almost without fail, those who have come into the gallery have emphasized the uplifting satisfaction and pleasure of viewing real art in a real space … Like Transmission Gallery, Gearbox [Gallery, downstairs] has had nearly as many in-person visitors during regular gallery hours as before the pandemic ...”


Kathleen King of Mercury Twenty Gallery, who has also successfully initiated online art sales, concurs on the value of the real art-going experience as “a good COVID-era activity” for art fans afflicted with cabin fever.


Lonnie Lee was forced to close her popular Vessel Gallery by pandemic regulations shortly after it reopened last year, after a one-year post-eviction hiatus. Vessel has gone online as well, with an “Art is Essential” series of online exhibitions that has generated new interest, attendance, and sales. She notes: “An online art exhibition can remain online for as long as you post it. So a show can go on for years!” Look for a new online show by local sculptor Evan Holm whose canceled spring show will re-emerge, slightly adapted for an online audience.


Two galleries that had already been marketing heavily online have continued business smoothly during the shutdown. Danielle Fox at Slate Contemporary: “We have always gotten most of our business from internet and website marketing, as well as through word-of-mouth and old-fashioned networking ... [W]e market online, and people then e-mail us to find out more about the artwork and eventually make an appointment to see it in person at the gallery, or we bring it to them to see in their home ... Covid has not actually disrupted it at all.”  


Katrina Traywick of Traywick Contemporary has a similar story: “We were largely operating by appointment before, and were offering special access by video or Facetime to out-of-town clients ever since we started doing national art fairs. Zoom has brought a whole new level of online outreach ... mostly around programs like artist talks. Our attendance for these Zoom events has often been double or triple in-person attendance for similar events here in our space.”


Contrary to the negativity that still permeates American culture to an extent, the East Bay art scene seems to be handling the challenges of the pandemic with creativity and grace. The last word goes to Art Murmur’s Durant: “It is common to hear the word ‘resilience’ used in reference to Oakland. We are resilient, and scrappy, and passionate about our home. We love our artists and we know that Oakland is the heart of creativity in the Bay Area … The only way to come through this tough time is for arts organizations to come together, collaborate, share resources, share ideas. Make something new.”

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