Oakland’s Black Artists Make Space for Themselves 

Responding to gentrification and the political climate, artists are creating work reflecting an increasing urgency to preserve the local legacy of Black culture.

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Money is always an issue with the arts, but the lack of available space in the East Bay has made funding even more crucial. "It's difficult when you are competing with private companies who are supporting their wives' friends and personal colleagues," Weefur said. "That's how you get a lot of white spaces — it's because people who already have access are the people who already have money."

About a year ago, Oakland hired its first cultural affairs manager, Roberto Bedoya. The move suggests a recommitment to the arts, with Bedoya tasked with managing grant funding and reviving the city's arts commission, which dissolved in 2011. Bedoya gave out $1.1 million in grants in 2017. That figure is only slightly down from the city's peak of arts funding — $1.3 million in 2003 — but the cost of living today is significantly higher.

The issue here isn't that the city's grants ignore Black arts. In fact, 57 percent of 2017's individual arts grants went to Black artists. There just isn't enough money for the number of artists living here. According to Bedoya, 64 percent of grant applicants are turned away due to insufficient funds.

This year, Bedoya has $250,000 more to work with, and given that the funding comes from the city's general fund and hotel room taxes, it's possible it could grow more in the future. "There will be a little bit more coin — not a lot, but enough to comfortably strengthen the support system for individual artists," he said.

The city recently started working with the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), a San Francisco nonprofit that purchases and leases space to local art nonprofits in an effort to fight displacement. CAST is also behind Keeping Space Oakland, which works with Oakland arts groups to find workspaces.

"Cities change and struggle to maintain spaces for creativity," Bedoya said. "We're trying to address that through our partnership with CAST, but there are many variables at work going on here that are beyond my division: the economy, development, housing."

With a full year under its belt, The Black Aesthetic is starting to apply for grants, but the process is time-consuming — and given the city's grant rejection rate, it's no sure bet. Instead, many artists turn to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or GoFundMe in an effort to secure money for projects — or, according to Samudzi, even rent.

"The thing that's fucked up is the people who are helping these people pay their rent are also broke-ass people who could also probably benefit from a GoFundMe," she said. "On one hand, it's beautiful. There's always been this history of alternative cultural productions but ... if there's no capital being injected and we're making things that require resources, we can only do it for long. We cannot depend on our broke homies."

While Oakland's current Black arts scene feels like a response to the city's changing landscape, many artists agree that these overall conversations about funding, equity, and the concept of holding space aren't new.

"It's a certain kind of chronic crisis where Black people are always having to organize themselves around forces that are trying to separate them," said The Black Aesthetic's Jamal Batts. "Right now, it's expressing itself spatially."

Some members of the community doubt there are actually more Black-centric events and art productions than usual these days. Perhaps, they're just more visible. Okoye of Black Life said she thinks media outlets across the country have shown more interest in covering Black communities ever since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Meanwhile, The Black Aesthetic's Imhotep sees a correspondence with the rise in coverage of police brutality and the wider public seeking out Black culture. "When people are forced to engage with Black folks in the news, they look for them in art to satisfy white guilt," she asserted.

The idea that Black artists are having a moment is problematic for Orange for two key reasons.

"One, the need to categorize art by perceived race. Two, that the resilience of Black folk is most aptly displayed under duress. There's more at play," he said. "White is an idea, Black is an idea. If there is a whitening of the canvas, then anything with color is going to appear more vividly."

Is the East Bay in the throes of a Black arts renaissance? Artists say that's the wrong question. What's more important to ask is if we want to keep seeing Black art at all. With the affordability crisis, Asfaha said all the progress the Black creative community has made could crumble quickly. Even the future of Alena Museum is tenuous. Asfaha's lease is up next month and he expects the rent to rise by at least a third.

"My landlord stands to make a lot of money when he sells this building and he bought it for really cheap," he said. "I'm building that relationship, but I don't know. It's his call."

When rents become unaffordable, artists leave. The Black Aesthetic's members said they are constantly having conversations with fellow creatives about folks who have left, folks debating leaving, and folks who have no choice but to pack up soon. Weefur wonders if it's a cycle: "If people are starting to move again, how many times is this going to have to happen? How many times will we have to start and build something new over and over again?"



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