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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.



The furnishings in René de Guzman's office at Oakland Museum mark him as — if not a hipster — at least someone keyed into the hipper fringes of contemporary pop culture. The forty-four-year-old, Philippine-born senior curator sits behind a glass desk with all the accoutrements of a young cosmopolitan office worker: BlackBerry, laptop computer, and a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine. In one corner sit two Wassily chairs by Hungarian designer Marcel Breuer. Tacked up on one of the walls are a Hello Kitty postcard and a flyer for Jack London Square's now-defunct Oaklandish gallery, with the iconic deco tree and tentacle roots that now tattoo the bodies of so many Gen Y-ers in the East Bay. The opposite wall features a record cover from Triple Threat DJ Apollo, a framed musical score from Filipino conceptual artist Mike Arcega, and a photograph of de Guzman in a suit lined with bubble wrap. De Guzman explained the inspiration for the photograph, which was taken by the artist Erwin Wurm: "It was satirizing the power that curators have."

These days, de Guzman is putting his curatorial powers to work trying to help the Oakland Museum connect with a younger and more cosmopolitan crowd. Formerly the visual arts director at San Francisco's hip Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, de Guzman attributes his September hiring by the Oakland Museum to a major "rebranding" effort at the museum.

Most people raised in the Bay Area since the 1960s probably remember the Oakland Museum as the place they went in the fourth grade to learn about the history of the Gold Rush and the westward expansion of the railroads. It was filled with rustic California antiquities: dug-out canoes, old daguerreotypes, Native American baskets, earnest historical placards. Over time, and despite the diversity of much of its other programming, the museum's image became constrained by the focus of its primary collection, like a history book that hadn't been reopened since 1968, the year of the museum's founding.

When de Guzman left Yerba Buena — where he had curated shows for fifteen years — he wanted to treat the museum more as a gallery and less as a collection. He already had a solid reputation for being part of the first wave of artist-run spaces in San Francisco — small galleries like Southern Exposure, New Langton, and Intersection for the Arts. "That's the big secret about Yerba Buena — it was really a big artist space," He said. "The big difference in terms of the model is that most institutions are about themselves, and preserving the value of the collections and objects," de Guzman said. "This place is never gonna be an artist space, but its relationship to artists can shift, and its relationship to contemporary thinking can shift."

Such changes wouldn't be happening without the new staff members who provide the juice to get these efforts going. The leader of the youth movement is Lori Fogarty, formerly of SFMOMA and the Bay Area Discovery Museum, who came on board as the museum's director two years ago. She recruited de Guzman as the museum's new chief curator.

De Guzman immigrated to the Bay Area from the Philippines in 1968, graduated from UC Berkeley's art department in the '80s, and started showing his paintings straight out of school. He is best known for curating exhibits about topics such as West Coast hip-hop and skateboard culture. But he also has a reputation for his own "messy minimalist" artwork — installations made out of found and degraded materials. The San Jose Museum houses his painting "Blood Color Theory," which looks like a monochrome piece, though it's actually made of his blood (with a lot of preservatives added). With his hiring in October, the museum got the edgy vibe and street cred it wanted to reinvent itself. Now, when staffers look into the crystal ball, they see fewer loin cloths, and more blood paintings.

"We're gonna be a little racier," said marketing manager Adam Rozan. "We're gonna do something edgier. You're gonna come in like, 'I met someone new. I might have met a date.'" More importantly, he said, "You're gonna get your learn on. You're gonna get a lot of education, whether you know it or not."

Twenty-nine-year-old Rozan, who came to Oakland Museum last fall as part of the wave of new hires that includes Fogarty and de Guzman, has likewise become a catalyst in the place's ongoing hipsterization. Clad in jeans and sneakers, with a mop of curly hair overshadowing his freckled, Greg Brady face, Rozan speaks in the "yeah dude, that's so freakin' awesome" cadence of a surfer who grew up in North Jersey. He's a product of the museum studies Masters program at Harvard, where his thesis, "Becoming Hip: Art Museums and Young Cosmopolitans," argued that cultural institutions will only stay relevant if they provide a "social space" in addition to entertainment. He proudly notes that he recently designed "rockin'" MySpace and Facebook pages for the museum. "If you look at our numbers on Facebook compared to the Brooklyn Museum, we're doing solid."

As a marketer, Rozan tailors most of his pitches to what he calls the "young cosmopolitan" crowd. "Yokos — young cosmopolitans — that's my term," Rozan explained, admitting that he didn't actually coin the phrase. "We're willing to spend money on things, we buy cell phones, jeans, we do these things because we see social value. The idea is, how do cultural institutions fit into that dialogue?"

The revamped museum will include new, sexier exhibits more along the lines of Beautiful Losers, the skateboard culture show that de Guzman co-curated at Yerba Buena in 2004. The Oakland Museum's forthcoming "midcentury modernism" exhibit Birth of Cool — which includes everything from Karl Benjamin paintings and Ray Eames lounge chairs to Chet Baker album covers and early Barbie Dolls — will run alongside a companion "street culture" show Cool Remixed, which will feature all the art that teenagers consider cool now: including graffiti, turntablism, eco-fashion, and paintings on skateboard decks.

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