What's Missing in Oakland's First Cultural Plan in 30 Years? 

There aren't too many plans in this plan.

click to enlarge Will Oakland’s arts community benefit from the new cultural plan? - FILE PHOTO/STEPHEN LOEWINSOHN
  • File photo/Stephen Loewinsohn
  • Will Oakland’s arts community benefit from the new cultural plan?


In June 1988, Oakland released its "Strategic Plan for Cultural Development." Its first goal was developing Lake Merritt's west end as a "plaza for the arts," with specific steps to be taken through the rest of 1988 and 1989. The other seven goals also came with directed actions to get there, and deadlines to be met. The entire document ran 24 pages, including the lengthy roll of credits. It did not mess around.

Of course, that was a different era for Oakland. The Oakland of 2018 sees the city's arts scene on the losing end of migration. Tech boom spillover, along with a limited housing supply, has skyrocketed rents enough to displace many of the city's poor. Meanwhile, fallout from Ghost Ship fire shuttered many of the remaining underground arts spaces, scattering the population to more affordable cities, meaning, just about anywhere else.

"You used to have the ability to not have a really good job to live here and support your craft," said Matt Hummel, chair of Oakland's Cannabis Regulatory Commission, who has seen first-hand how the growth of cannabis has led to the displacement of artists from the city's warehouses. "That environment is gone."

Into this environment comes the city's 2018 Cultural Development Plan. Called "Belonging in Oakland," with the summarizing subtitle "Equity is the Driving Force, Culture is the Frame, and Belonging is the Goal," the first noticeable aspect about this new plan — written by the city's Cultural Affairs staff, which is chaired by the poet, writer, and activist Roberto Bedoya — is that it's very long. Exactly 119 pages long.

The second thing is that the plan doesn't have much in the way of, well, plans.

Among its many pages are two initiatives that will be launched in 2019. The first is a grant program to support arts-based civic engagement, like, say, an expressive dance about the history of Lake Merritt performed in conjunction with a senior center. "What's key is that [prospective] artists and non-arts groups come together to figure out what they want to make," Bedoya said. "Artists in a non-arts world will look at a community, and propose a project to help build stronger networks or address problems."

The other initiative is an Artist-in-Residence program for Oakland. This person will "bring new approaches to civic challenges and service delivery" by working within city departments, a slippery-enough definition that Bedoya and company will winnow as they speak to said departments. (Hypothetically, it'd be something like the Department of Transportation getting an artist's view on how to design a new bike lane.) The residency itself will be relatively short, anywhere between six weeks and a few months, depending on too many variables to list here.

"I don't have deep pockets for this," Bedoya said.

Bedoya isn't hiding the project's lack of resources. As Sam Lefebvre wrote for Open Space about an earlier draft, "The subtext of the cultural plan is a plea for resources." While Lori Fogarty, director and CEO of Oakland Museum of California, believes the city's plans are compelling and forward-thinking, she noted that "the challenge is that many of them are dependent on additional staffing resources and funding both from the city and beyond."

This is all true, of course. Wrangling consistent funding for the arts is not a path for the squeamish, cynical, or realistic.

The 1988 planners realized that well-funded grants and short-term, singular residency programs were less important than improving the material conditions for all of the city's artist population. (And, by doing so, improve conditions for the entirety of the city's low-income population.) In other words, they realized that incubating a scene wasn't about picking singular people or projects, but rather, creating the ideal conditions for the population at large. Artists can't make good art if they can't afford rent, and a $5,000 grant for one person — or for a select group — won't fix that reality. The current plan also recognizes these realities, but it doesn't offer concrete ways to address them.

"I think the intention of the new Cultural Plan is admirable," said David Keenan, co-founder of the Omni Commons and Safer DIY Spaces, a coalition that provides those in live/work spaces a resource for how to remain in their space. "To the extent that I have any concerns about the new plan, it is from the pragmatic in-the-trenches perspective."

Keenan wonders if the new plan will improve actual laws to legalize and legitimize those involved in cultural production and hopes it doesn't rely too much on internal policies and informal relationships rather than directing the city to change its laws. "Although I agree with the aspirations writ large, from the perspective of changing current building and planning codes to continue to safely keep such communities in Oakland and not displaced, the new plan appears to be actually less empowering than the old plan," he said.

This seems like the general sentiment from the Oakland's artist community. It's beautifully written, and also very long, but well, what's next? If it's a plan, what is the plan?

"While I'm glad [the cultural plan] exists," said Hummel, who is also running for the city council's District 4 seat, "I want there to be more meat on the bone." 

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