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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.

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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.

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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