Studio One Goes Begging for Support 

Historic arts program threatened by its own history as supporters clash with city over funding

On a cold November morning, Sally Cahill jockeyed to be first in line for Studio One's annual art sale. It was a comfortable, decade-old routine for this longtime student and supporter of the Temescal neighborhood arts facility. But this year Cahill did not need to get up very early to beat the crowds of Christmas shoppers. The line was not very long.

The Studio Arts Association, which traditionally has helped plan and promote the event at Studio One, was mostly left out of running this year's sale -- and it showed. On the day of the sale there wasn't even a sign outside the building promoting the event. Inside, where tables were laden with exquisite pottery at bargain prices, past revenue sources were missing, including the silent auction, the collectibles sale -- even the traditional cookies and doughnuts. Undaunted, association members did what they could to support their beloved arts program. They bought art.

This year's scaled-down arts and crafts sale was just the latest evidence of the continuing disconnect between the city and boosters of the fifty-year-old arts program, the only city-run program devoted to visual arts instruction. With its devoted following of teachers, students, and patrons, Studio One has long provided low-cost art classes in everything from drawing to glass blowing. But city support for Studio One has been less than exuberant because the program has a $10 million problem.

Studio One's programs live in a historic former orphanage built in North Oakland's Temescal neighborhood in 1894. Walking up the tree-lined path into the arms of the U-shaped building feels like a walk back in time. Once you are inside, the facility exudes church basement with its tiled floors, neutrally painted walls, and smells of paste and damp clay. But the old orphanage badly needs a good modern retrofit. Studio One's facility has needed serious improvements ever since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but the repairs have been overlooked consistently in the city budget.

A 1998 task force on the problem, the election of arts-friendly Mayor Jerry Brown, and a small fund-raising appropriation from the City Council and the state raised supporters' hopes for a rescue. But real fund-raising has slowed to a crawl as relations between the city and Studio One's community advisory group, the Oakland Studio Arts Association, have become strained.

To supporters, the fight to save the fifty-year-old art program is about more than money. "This is not just about Studio One," says Sandy Strehlou, president of the facility's citizen advisory board, the Oakland Studio Arts Association. "It's about where the arts are at in Oakland. Do we just look at it and buy it -- or do we make it?"

While many consider Studio One a gem, the required $10 million retrofit, especially in the current economic climate, looks more like a costly lump of coal. When Mayor Brown first took office, Studio One's place in his vision for the arts wasn't immediately apparent. By way of fulfilling his promise to champion the arts, Brown formed a separate Crafts and Cultural Department with unprecedented funding for the arts. But the Arts Department decided its sole function would be to get money and give it to artists -- not to run programs such as Studio One. Boosters watched as responsibility for Studio One shifted from the new department to the financially strapped Oakland Parks and Recreation Department.

The promised fund-raising seed money -- $137,000 from the city and $500,000 procured by state Senator Don Perata -- has been tied up in red tape. City employees claim that the Studio Arts Association cannot have the money because it does not have nonprofit status. Association members counter that their group does have such status, but that the city has the paperwork, and that it all doesn't matter anyway because the city itself could just as easily commission the desired fund-raising study on its own. The matter was brought to a head when Parks and Recreation Director Harry Edwards called on various regulatory agencies to assess the hazards of the building, a move that some association members worried was calculated to close the building and disperse its programs.

When the reports came in, they did not call for the building to be shut down. But they did indicate that improvements are needed in the immediate future on asbestos abatement and better ventilation. While happy with the new developments, the Studio Arts Association is seeking a firm commitment to preserve Studio One and the building it lives in -- a pledge they have received from Vice Mayor Jane Brunner, but not from Edwards or Brown. Edwards said that in principle he supports keeping the art classes where they are, but his concern is for the programming -- not the building. "I couldn't care less if Studio One is in that building as long as that building is habitable," Edwards said. "If it's not, it should be moved someplace safe." According to spokesperson Erica Harrold, the mayor also is committed to the Studio One programming, but Harrold stops short of saying that the mayor is tied to the $10 million renovation. "Yes, the mayor wants to see programs continue," Harrold said. "But more at issue is the building and at what point maintaining that building comes at the expense of programming."

In spite of this expression of support for the institution's mission, several Studio One supporters cannot help but express frustration with the Brown administration. "I'm totally disgusted with Jerry Brown because if he was living up to his campaign and inaugural promises, we wouldn't be fighting this battle, and I have always supported Jerry Brown," said Cahill, the longtime arts center supporter. "I voted for him, but I never will again."

The Brown administration's willingness to consider moving the program ostensibly ignores a four-year-old City Council commitment to renovate Studio One. The council agreed to match funds raised by the Studio Arts Association, essentially splitting the $10 million price tag in half. Brunner, who served on the 1998 task force, said the costs of renovating versus those of building a brand-new facility were very close, and the community overwhelmingly favored keeping the program in its historic home.

Strehlou argues strongly in favor of keeping Studio One where it is. She points out that no one from the city has presented a viable alternative for housing the program. "Most likely they would move us to some other publicly owned facility, incurring a long-term lease, and Studio One would become subject to the ebbs and flows of the city economy," she said.

Of course, Studio One already is subject to the tides of the economy. The city is committed to the required immediate improvements, the most costly of which, asbestos abatement, is estimated at $75,000. With the city already facing a predicted deficit of as much as $28 million, it is unclear where even these modest sums will come from. Brunner is contemplating a bond measure for the long-term renovations, and the Studio Arts Association is looking at grant opportunities if the building gains historic landmark status.

But ultimately, backers say, slaying the $10 million dragon is going to require some serious cooperation from the city. "We need total support," says Brunner. "You can't go out and ask people to give money unless the program-people are saying we really like the people who are raising the money." While Brunner believes relations between the city and the Studio Arts Association are improving, getting to the same page may take both parties some time, seeing as how they can't even hold a bake sale together right now.

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