The invasion of Oakland launches just before sunset the first Friday of every month. There's no command and control structure. No clear mission. It's more like a force of urban nature: Ragtag groups of white twentysomethings on bicycles swarm south, down the East Bay's three major arterials San Pablo Avenue, Telegraph Avenue, and Broadway to converge in downtown Oakland.
On a map this convergence looks like a big V, the crotch of which is the invasion's primary target. Auxiliary teams of art fans move in from the west San Francisco along with culture hunters from east of the hills. Everyone is seeking some new sensation, or a story to bring home from a neighborhood that gets fewer tourists than some war zones.
The darker the skies become, the more hipster kids coagulate at the beachhead of 23rd Street and Telegraph, flanked by a desolate parking-lot tundra and steel skeletons of half-built condos. At first they number one hundred, then two hundred, then three. The downtown high-rise lights come on and drums begin echoing off brick and concrete canyons. Forbidding walks down dirty sidewalks fronting shuttered businesses become less forbidding as additional regiments roll in. After 23rd Street closes to traffic, the area is secure and the street party begins. Bic lighters pop tops off bottles of Arrogant Bastard ale hidden in brown paper bags. Sometimes a jug band plays for change, other times it's drummers, but every first Friday since January, this downtown invasion the Oakland Art Murmur has grown bigger still.
What began with six grungy galleries and stacks of promotional postcards has turned into a cultural critical mass that has exploded beyond 25 galleries, attracted national news coverage and a thousand-plus art fans on Murmur nights, and led to sales of pricey artwork to wealthy patrons including Bay Area celebs like Steve Jobs.
This is success, right? Well that depends upon whom you ask. The downtown art scene's rapid growth already has led to bitchy infighting among its founders, and cries of "white invasion" and "gentrification" from the black residents who have lived in this hood for decades. And with thousands of half-million-dollar condos sprouting in its midst, it's apparent that all the attention could hasten the scruffy scene's demise.
In many ways, it's the classic story of urban renewal: Young artists move into a downtrodden place where they can afford the rents. They proceed to build up a buzz and a social scene, paving the way for hip bars, restaurants, boutiques, and upscale condo dwellers. Ultimately, and ironically, their efforts bring about a neighborhood where young artists not to mention the original residents can no longer afford to live. Sometimes the process takes decades, but when combined with the city of Oakland's own efforts to remake downtown into an upscale residential haven, this particular story has proceeded at an unprecedented pace. "We don't stand on the precipice of something like this very often," Ego Park gallery leader Kevin Slagel says. "I think it's going to get appropriated out of our hands."
The inside of Mama Buzz coffee shop and gallery resembles a dorm room, all dirty dishes and bizarre posters falling off the walls. In the adjoining gallery space, photos of corporate-suited goons shake hands above a table seating what could pass for a college study group. A young blonde woman in a brown librarian sweater taps at a Mac laptop, while other casually dressed art kids write in notebooks or doodle on sketchpads. Tonight's topic isn't academic. The six attendees form a chunk of the gallery cabal responsible for the Art Murmur. This is their headquarters, where they review each First Friday operation and plan new sorties.
A college communications professor who teaches about "goal-oriented groups" would give this one a C-minus for efficiency. Its meeting starts late, and reps from most participating Murmur galleries are AWOL. There's no roll call, no agenda, no minutes, little decision-making, and no clear chairperson. Nicole Neditch, second in command at Mama Buzz, works the laptop and tries to keep the group on task while Mama Buzz No. 1, Jen Loy, handles the coffee-shop operation.
At the table, Boontling Gallery co-owner Mike Simpson explains that the whole Murmur campaign began as a way for galleries to help one another. "Some e-mails went around," he says. "We had a few meetings."
At its heart, the Murmur was a $130 buy-in for area galleries that wanted to participate in a publicity campaign. That bought each gallery space on a simple Web site, a mention in an ad that ran in the Express for three months, and a callout on a downtown art scene map reproduced on five thousand postcards. Most important, the initial campaign alerted perhaps a quarter-million Bay Area residents that six galleries Mama Buzz, Rock Paper Scissors, Boontling, Ego Park, Auto 3321, and 21 Grand near the Telegraph crotch would hold simultaneous openings of new art on the first Friday of each month.
The idea wasn't original. San Francisco's First Thursdays are a Geary Street institution, and other East Bay galleries have split publicity costs before. What was different was the presence of a nucleus of galleries consistently coordinating new exhibits, all amid a huge municipal campaign to repopulate and revitalize Oakland. Word spread quickly. "It has become phenomenally successful at bringing more people to the neighborhood than I can remember," Loy says.
From the very start, however, Art Murmur's founders were divided on publicity and purpose. "It took three meetings to even settle on a name," Boontling's Simpson says. "Then some people had their own ideas about the Murmur and were angered by the advertising. They thought that it would make things worse."
The Murmur committee's initial anarchy had lessened a bit by its April meeting, whose rough minutes are as follows:
Item A: Should galleries be able to add content to the Murmur Web site?
Darren Johnston of 21 Grand notes that he is afraid someone might write "Shitfuckshitfuck, Fuck the Oakland Art Murmur" on the site. No decision made.