Oakland Art Scene:

A Changing Landscape

David Burke • 2019

Just before my 40th birthday, Vessel Gallery became my first official representation here in Oakland. As an artist who had worked mostly under radar through my late twenties and thirties, I can't overstate the thrill of having the opportunity to exhibit my work in a space that has been one of the cornerstones of the Oakland art scene for years. 

Vessel will be closing its doors next month after they were informed by the building owner that he is moving the building in a different direction.

Why are independant Oakland art spaces important?

It is critical that working artists have outlets where we are able to have critical dialogue about what art is today, where it is going, and how to navigate the ever shifting landscape of the art market. The art gallery is a place to build community, spark ideas, and seed movements. Art practices like painting, drawing and sculpture are solitary acts and galleries are a primary way for us to build community and give the public an opportunity to engage the artwork in an intimate way. Galleries are also a place for younger artists to see work made by someone other than the dead white guys hanging in museums. The rising trend of online galleries and art fairs fuels a trend of depersonalization in an art market that is driven more and more by sales. Brick and mortar art spaces provide an antidote to this satellite art movement.

It's also important to point out that large percentage of the music you listen to, the art that you admire and the fashion that eventually hits the mainstream is conceived in and born out of galleries and artist spaces.

These are the spaces that we retreat to in order to express ourselves, unfiltered, uncensored and raw. Artists fill in the cracks of cities, occupying forgotten and in-between spaces. It is here where we feel free to explore the unknown without any outside pressure or expectation of creating a finished product ready to be consumed. We fertilize these spaces and surrounding areas with our creative output and we occupy them...until we are eventually pushed out. And the cycle starts over. 

With the with new wave of transplants comes a new, affluent demographic that is attracted by the Oakland art scene on a surface level, but needs to be educated about how they can support the arts in a tangible way that extends beyond passive consumption.  

The reality for working artists:

For working artists there are no promotions, bonuses, health insurance, or any of the other safety nets that come along with more traditional career paths. We hustle, piecing together odd jobs, not-so-odd jobs, side hustles and upside down hustles. We work...and then we go to work again to do our real work. People that aren't in the arts sometimes make assumptions about artists as being lazy, unmotivated or unqualified to do anything else. The truth is that artists are some of the hardest working, most intelligent and community focused people I have ever known. I chose this life knowing the pitfalls, shortcomings, and financial insecurities that come with it. It's a somewhat of a fool's errand to rely on painting sales as a portion of one's income, but that's what I do. It's risky, irrational, and at times even irresponsible but it's a balancing act that I have become accustomed to over the years.

The Oakland Art Scene

Long before the First Friday street festival with music, food trucks, and local vendors lining Telegraph Avenue, the Oakland Art Murmur was conceived out of the local art community and the galleries that populate the Uptown district. Our city's leaders love to flaunt this monthly event as a cultural asset as it brought national attention from publications like the New York Times citing Oakland as cultural destination with a booming art scene. A mistake that young artists often make is that they think that the art world is somewhere else, lurking in another city, hiding in another community with a healthier market. The art world is here, in Oakland. Here is a vibrant, soulful place, with as many artists per capita as you will find anywhere in the world.

Oakland’s leaders have made it clear that while they support the idea of the city being a haven for visual and performing artists and the spaces we occupy, they are not willing do to enough create protections for our community in way of affordable housing and spaces that make it possible for this type of work to continue. The price is just too high when faced with a tidal wave of investment, development and the money that comes with it. These circumstances are framed as unintended consequences of growth, the collateral damage of progress.

Development, Gentrification & how it impacts the Oakland art scene

Developers absolutely love the narrative that murals, galleries and art spaces pave the way for gentrification. This narrative directly benefits developers as it takes the spotlight off of them and their associates and turns it back onto the community itself. It's an old story, one that has played out in cities across the nation over and over again. It's also a story that has been told enough times that people start to believe it. In some cases communities end up becoming suspicious of artists that are such a critical component to healthy neighborhoods and cities because they buy into the storyline that we are ushering in the next wave of gentrification and development. As a studio painter and muralist, I have found myself in the cross hairs of this narrative. I take the civic responsibility of being an artist seriously and spend a large portion of my time engaging local youth through community driven public art projects.  Every time I paint a mural in Oakland I have to ask myself if I’m contributing to the mechanism that could eventually lead to my own displacement.  

All the while decision makers sit behind closed doors and move their chess pieces in a calculated fashion. In this current climate, community art spaces drive down the price per square foot of real estate. This triggers red alerts in the algorithms that filter out many of our cultural assets and focus solely on the bottom line. In order to get top dollar for their spaces, landlords have begun replacing long standing Oakland art spaces that have served as creative havens for artists for decades. Vessel Gallery is just the most recent casualty for the Oakland art family, and there could be many more in the near future. The rising rents become check mate for arts spaces that already run on extremely thin margins.

Is there a bright side for the Oakland art scene?

Fortunately there are still many wonderful galleries in Oakland that you can still support and visit. If you want the Oakland art scene to survive this next wave of growth, you need to go to the shows, support your local artists and buy our work. If you happen to work for a company that has the resources to support and promote local artists, encourage the decision makers to make it a priority to invest in the arts by either donating to local arts organizations or starting a permanent art collection in your workplace.

The good news is that artists are resilient bunch and our creativity extends beyond the work that we make which translates to our ability to adapt and survive. We will continue to create, build, protest, and express ourselves with love and fierce defiance.

Here is a link to my last solo show, Mined Matters, at Vessel last Fall.  

Other Oakland Art Galleries:
Aggregate Art Space
Chandra Cerrito Contemporary
Johansson Projects
Joyce Gordon
Betti Ono
The Compound Gallery
Creative Growth
SLATE Contemporary
Mercury 20

Running on Cargo
David Burke •
Oakland • California