Broken Promises 

On the arts: The City Wants Respect, But Artists Just Want a Wall of their Own.

Ben Hazard paces from one window to another in his office on the ninth floor of City Hall, hardly able to contain his excitement as he talks about the state of the arts in Oakland. The head of the city's Craft and Cultural Arts Department is so energized he can't even sit still for an interview; he ticks off the city's great accomplishments in run-on phrases. This year, he says, saw the opening of the city-funded Oakland Art Gallery, the birth of the Third Thursday Oakland Art night (downtown galleries keep their doors open until 8:00 p.m.), the expansion of the Oakland Artisan Marketplace on Fridays in Frank Ogawa Plaza, the lighting of the Fox Theater sign. Gesturing with his hands as if stirring the very air around him, Hazard proclaims that Oakland is experiencing an arts renaissance.

Funny -- that's not what the art community thinks.

"I have a pretty grim view," says playwright and poet Judith Offer. "Every time I go [anywhere else], I'm amazed at our lack of everything."

"[Jerry Brown] can talk about the arts, but his heart is in the military. I think that's antithetical to the arts," says Pro Arts director Betty Kano. "The city has not really embraced the arts."

"I think the state of the arts is not even on the city's radar screen," summarizes Sonia Ma?jon, associate director of the Center for Art and Public Life at the California College of Arts and Crafts. Mañjon should know -- the former codirector of the city's newly created art department quit in frustration last year after only six months on the job.

If a recent hour-long documentary about Jerry Brown's efforts to revitalize Oakland is any indication, Mañjon's assessment is right on the money. The Celebrity and the City, which aired in October, examined three of the mayor's four platform issues. Noticeably absent was the fourth: supporting the arts.

None of this comes as a surprise to local artists, who have long complained that Brown talks up arts in Oakland while refusing to ante up the cost of its flourishing. And disappointment is always more severe when hope is dashed: When Brown came into office, he elevated city arts oversight from a division under Parks and Recreation to its own department. This telegraphed the right message, and arts and performance groups were thrilled that having their own department would eliminate the double-bookings and disorganization they'd experienced under Parks and Rec. But dysfunction of another variety set in almost immediately, and of course, the money wasn't -- and still isn't -- sufficient to begin to deal with the multiple problems Oakland artists face.

Meanwhile arts organizers are bracing for a slim 2002; private and corporate funding has decreased with the economic downturn, and the city's grants only go so far. Mary Marx, director of children's museum MOCHA, says individual donations have fallen significantly. "As soon as September 11 happened, we started doing a forecast because it was pretty clear that it will probably be more competitive to get grants," she says. "The other concern I have is the impact on school districts. It's difficult to know if they're going to be able to support and improve [arts education] when they're looking at significant shortfalls themselves."

Still, bad times come and go; in Oakland, lack of affordable space has become a constant. Even though the rental market has come down a bit, it's still very difficult to find available spaces that can be rented for either performances or studios.

And then there's the ongoing Jacques Barzaghi soap opera. Barzaghi stepped down as codirector of the Craft and Cultural Arts Department in July after a city employee accused him of sexual harassment, but that was only the latest wrinkle -- he's been under fire ever since the department spun off from Parks and Rec. According to critics, Barzaghi turned much of his job over to others but retained the power to make decisions, which left the department unable to move ahead on key issues.

The city's interactions with artists, in terms of awards and art commission dealings, have fared little better. Local artists protested when the city picked New York artist R.M. Fischer's sculpture for the fountain in Frank Ogawa plaza; a new dispute arose when the city rescinded its offer to Fischer and picked Oakland sculptor Bruce Beasley's piece Vitality instead. Beasley had been vocal in his opposition to Fischer's piece, and other artists cried foul, alleging that the city didn't cast a large enough net in its second search.

A group of artists called the Team of Five, who won a design proposal to install guardrails and a light sculpture for the I-880 underpass nearly two years ago, has seen their project called off, then on again. Former gallery owner and arts commissioner Beth Gates raised eyebrows when, after lobbying the City Council on the merits of a city-financed gallery, resigned her commission post to head it. Most recently, an outcry erupted over Scott Donahue's sculpture Sigame which, while ostensibly honoring women, has offended some people because it's a composite of twenty different women, with different body parts visibly bolted together.

Dan Fontes, who is becoming as well-known for his criticism of Oakland's arts policies as for his murals, notes that the city should have followed its own process. "What all three [sculptures] should have had was public input. Why wasn't it there? Sigame is a process issue -- an issue of why women's voices weren't allowed to surface."

It's unclear whether Sigame even gained approval from the arts commission. And the commission itself, whose members are appointed by the mayor for four-year terms, has come under fire for being well-meaning, but ineffective.

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