In late 2005, when a group of local galleries got together, printed up a stack of postcards, and formed the ragtag art collective now known as Art Murmur, no one could've predicted what it would become. Six years later, the group's signature event, a monthly art walk, has evolved into a full-on cultural phenomenon, drawing thousands of people and diverting traffic around the nucleus of 23rd Street and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. It's been written up in national magazines and newspapers, and has become a model for similar art walks in other cities.
But with this popularity came a set of new concerns that ultimately led one of the galleries that founded the Murmur, Rock Paper Scissors Collective, to leave the group and start its own event, Oakland Art Ride, which launches Saturday, May 7. Though the gallery will continue to stay open late on the first Friday of every month, it's a symbolic statement: Art Murmur, as it currently exists, no longer serves the local art community the way one of its founding galleries hoped it would.
Practically since it started, the Murmur has been accused — by those both within and outside the organization — of being less an art event than a street party, and of highlighting a small group of galleries with a narrow definition of art. Even gallery owners who are happy with their membership in the organization admit that the Murmur's success can, ironically, act as a barrier rather than an encouragement for serious art enthusiasts. "For the most part, there's just too many people to really be able to show people the art," said Kimberly Johansson, owner of Johansson Projects. "I think the people who are interested in anything substantial, they're not going to feel comfortable in that atmosphere. I have people that come at five o'clock because they want to see the art but they don't want to be there for the party." For her part, Jen Zoom of Rock Paper Scissors said she worries that some are turned off by the street party element and by the people who tend to frequent the Murmur. "I think some people feel like it's really white and hipsterish," she said.
Moreover, as the event has grown, so, naturally, has the burden of organizing it. Gallery owners — most of them artists by training, many of them volunteers, none of them experts in crowd control or event planning — have found themselves wrangling with the city on permitting issues, wading through paperwork, and working to manage the massive crowds that descend on the corner of 23rd and Telegraph once a month. It's a lot of work for an event and an organization whose payoffs can be diffuse: While Johansson maintains the Murmur provides an "indirect boost for business" in that it increases visibility and foot traffic, she also said that "no one's making money from this."
Late last year, the Murmur, now backed by funding from New York-based arts nonprofit Fractured Atlas, moved to incorporate itself, with WE Artspace co-owner Tina Dillman as executive director. As Dillman sees it, this was a necessary next step for an organization whose impact is now much too large to be dealt with by an informal group of people meeting once a month at a coffeeshop.
But for some, it exemplifies a larger shift in the Murmur's ethos. What began as a simple attempt to pool resources, share publicity, and get laypeople into galleries on a Friday night has evolved into something much bigger, and the increasing focus on organization — coupled with what some people saw to be exclusiveness and a decreasing focus on the art itself at the expense of the street party — was enough to make Rock Paper Scissors decide to leave.
The politics of art is a sticky issue in Oakland, and all parties are staying admirably diplomatic about the split. "It is sad for us to walk away from an organization that we helped found, organize, grow, and have invested so much time and love into," reads the collective's official statement. "But the Art Murmur's mission and practices are not currently representative of our own mission." And though Zoom is remarkably careful with her words, it doesn't take much in the way of interpretation and extrapolation to figure out what she's getting at. "I've seen it grow from just our friends and other galleries into this —" she cut herself off, "into something very different from the original intent."
So a couple months ago, she and Rock Paper Scissors decided to create a new community art movement — one that's more inclusive of different kinds of art; of galleries, studios, and artists that aren't within the narrow corridor carved out by the Art Murmur path; and of people who might be turned off by Art Murmur's reputation, setup, or atmosphere. Like the original first-Friday art walk, Art Ride is essentially a group open house for designated art venues. But unlike its progenitor, the ride will be open to essentially any organization that wants to participate — "gallery, garage, pop-up, studio, whatever." And because it's designed to be experienced by bike, it's open to galleries beyond Uptown. "It's a way for us to collaborate with people by coming to them — to spotlight people in their own neighborhoods, making creativity," Zoom said.