Tearing Down the Walls at the Oakland Museum 

Forget what you know about that history museum. With new management and a new energy, the institution is reinventing itself.

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Such "rebranding" efforts reflect a larger trend among Oakland cultural institutions. In the last two years, other facilities also have started aggressively courting younger audiences with newly-diversified programming. The Chabot Space and Science Center launched its Friday "Lunar Lounge" nights to bring in patrons who could stay up late. Yoshi's started booking more R&B and hip-hop-oriented acts to bring the twenty-something crowd into Jack London Square. The new owners of Oakland's Uptown Night Club are swapping the old "Blue Monday" blues nights for electrorap dance parties and grindcore.

Although these initiatives mostly stemmed from the specific priorities of these respective institutions, they were nonetheless timed to take advantage of the changes occurring in Oakland itself. In the wake of the dot-com boom, a wave of artistically minded young people moved there and elsewhere in the East Bay from San Francisco. "It's kind of like Brooklyn is to Manhattan as Oakland is to San Francisco," said de Guzman. "All the creative energy is moving over to Oakland, because San Francisco is too expensive for people to live." The city's changing demographics ushered in the storefront gallery boom that led to Oakland's monthly Art Murmur, synchronized gallery openings centering on the city's Uptown neighborhood on the first Friday of every month. In 2004, the Oakland Museum started its own "First Fridays After 5," a monthly event in which staffers organized as many concurrent activities as they could — yoga, film screenings, topical lectures, and live reggae music, for example — and hooked them around the current exhibition. The museum also collaborated with KQED and ITVS to present regular film screenings — including documentaries about graffiti and mushroom hunting.

Rozan said First Fridays have been hugely successful in attracting the Yoko crowd. He's ratcheting the idea up a notch with "Night School," a closing reception for the centennial exhibit of the California College of the Arts, being held on Thursday, March 13. Featuring local rock bands, Amoeba DJs, parkour demonstrations, electrorap, kegs from Lagunitas Brewery, and Live 105 radio personalities (and, full disclosure, sponsored by the East Bay Express), the event is a firm departure from the old conception of what a museum is supposed to be. It also is Rozan's most blatant appeal yet to a young, hip, beer-drinking, modern-rock-listening, non-museum-going crowd. Billing it as "that college experience you always wanted but you kinda didn't get," Rozan vows to transform Oakland Museum's galleries into "really hip lounges," in which museum curators and docents will serve as smart conversationalists, rather than pedagogues. "So this whole night, what's cool about it is the fact that this whole museum is engaged with this idea that we want to be pushing our space forward," he said.

Rozan's plans involve a dramatic recasting of the museum's architecture. The stairway that separates the second-floor admissions box office from a new exhibit called Trading Traditions will become a makeshift stage for the electrorap group Hottub and the four-piece rock band Make Me. Another stairway leading down to the ground floor will feature traceurs from SF Parkour, who will demonstrate ways of scrabbling up walls and climbing around sculptures. A giant, carved stump of redwood burl will become a DJ booth. Lagunitas will have a bar in one corner of the ground floor, and Live 105 will host pub quizzes. A tattoo parlor will sell temporary tattoos with the museum logo inscribed on an elegant scroll. "And the Top Dog Hot Dog is gonna be here," Rozan gushed. "I think that's soooo cool."

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Rozan zipped through the museum's Natural Sciences Gallery at a fast clip, describing everything in slangy, SoCal drawl — much to the amusement of museum communications manager Elizabeth Whipple. ("This is the full dog and pony show," he declared. "It's gonna be awesome. You can quote me on that: 'awesome.'") He drew attention to the model redwood grove; the bat cave with its mannequin spelunker; the ambient nature soundtrack he knows by heart ("the Canada geese sounds are coming on in a moment,"); the dark vestibule where a 25-pound gyroscope will monitor the earth's rotation. Traipsing through the art and history of the Early California Gallery, he pointed to Gold Rush artifacts, a daguerreotype that somehow survived the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, an old opium pipe with actual residue, and an olive oil press. "Finally we sum it up," said Rozan, marching over to Domenico Tojetti's "The Progress of America" an oil painting of white settlers trampling the Western Frontier while Native Americans and buffalo flee in their wake. Rozan pointed at the painting excitedly. "This is Manifest Destiny at its best."

On that particular Tuesday, the museum looked decidedly different from the kind of space that Rozan envisions — where young cosmopolitans come on their lunch breaks with laptops and café lattes in tow. Middle-aged boomers mingled in the new immigration exhibit Trading Traditions, gazing at photographs of the Mr. and Miss Gay Pacific Alliance Pageant, a Mayan Sunrise Ceremony, and an Iranian Norooz ceremony in Berkeley. The California College of the Arts exhibit Artists of Invention — which recently garnered press in the New York Times, Rozan boasted — was virtually empty. Three kids leaned over the box office counter asking for help with a school community service project. Whipple gingerly sidestepped a smooshed yellow pastry that someone had dropped on the stairwell.

Whipple and de Guzman are still cautious when discussing the renovations and reprogramming. They insist that they're not merely trying to Yyoung up the museum or dumb it down. After all, the museum's reinvention process doesn't just involve taking an earnest, sincere, somewhat musty institution and tarting it up it with beer and blood paintings. The 2002 passage of Oakland Measure G gave the museum $23.6 million in gallery renovation funds. Between now and 2011, the facility also will undergo extensive gallery renovations. These changes are partly designed to make the space more accessible, by adding a wheelchair ramp, Chinese captions, better places for kids to store their backpacks, and a steel canopy at the Oak Street entrance to protect patrons against the weather. The other goal is to reorganize the museum's collection, by gutting and rebuilding the galleries, so that it doesn't just feel like a textbook presentation of 18th-20th century California. Whipple sees the potential to appeal to a wave of new patrons — people who like the idea of museums, but don't generally visit them.

In describing the museum's desired transformation, de Guzman likes to use the museum's koi pond as a metaphor. His most salient memory from childhood of coming to the Oakland Museum was of the koi pond, which he characterizes as an apt symbol for the museum proper. It's a living, breathing, colorful, and "non-native" exhibit, which is appropriate for a place that's shifting to keep pace with California's ever-changing demographics.

Toward that end, Whipple notes that the Oakland Museum is different from the de Young. "We want to do shows like Trading Traditions and 100 Families," she said, referring to two exhibits that celebrate the mixed immigrant heritage of East Bay neighborhoods. "The de Young wouldn't do those," she said. "I mean, we're Oakland. We're probably one of the most multicultural cities in the country. We can't just stand back and do a blockbuster history that doesn't relate to anything."

Whipple is excited about the Oakland Museum's new orientation, but wants to make certain that no one thinks the new regime is dissing the old institution. "We're trying to make sure kids are comfortable here, and younger viewers," she said. "But we're not saying 'Old museum bad, new museum good.'" Still, she admitted there's definitely an impetus for courting the twenty-something crowd. Museum officials realize that they need to appeal to a younger crowd if they are to sustain a member base for the next several decades. "I think we're talking twenty, thirty," she said. "A lot of our members are thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy. We love them, but you've just got to look down the line."


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