Oakland's hip, happening visual art scene, which has received regional as well as national press coverage, has become synonymous to casual artsters with Oakland first Friday Art Murmur. Those monthly street parties on 23rd Street and Telegraph Avenue are colorful tribal gatherings that occasionally attain anthill densities — Art Myrmecology, maybe, but in a good way. One visiting friend likened Murmur's onstreaming audiences to New York's, though friendlier — probably exactly what Murmur's artist founders had in mind when they first coordinated schedules and printed maps on postcards five years ago.
The unexpected popularity of Art Murmur, however, has forced it to evolve; street-closure and insurance issues have led its new executive director, Tina Dillman, to seek and obtain nonprofit status — which has tradeoff pluses (ease in soliciting donations) and minuses (bureaucratic regulations). How Murmur survives these growing pains, preserving the anarchic, celebratory youthcult vibe while attracting more serious collectors and thus ensuring growth and survival, remains to be seen, but Murmur has undeniably brought buzz and joy to Oaktown. Core-area venues (Johansson Projects, Hatch Gallery, Chandra Cerrito Contemporary, Krowswork Gallery, Kuhl Frames, Vessel Gallery, and Mercury Twenty Gallery) and outliers to the north (Slate Art & Design and Rowan Morrison Gallery) and south (Joyce Gordon Gallery, Pro Arts, and Swarm Gallery) are now established destinations, and the gradual expansion of Murmur beyond its previous geographic limits promises future growth — despite concern about its straying too far from its fine-art roots.
Art Murmur is not the only game in town, however. Other worthy spaces in Oakland, both inside and outside the core area, abound, ranging from commercial galleries (some of them experimenting with that model these days) to more casual artist-run shoestring-budget storefronts with restricted schedules, some partially funded by grants, some subsidized by day jobs. All merit support from local art mavens. The listing that follows is partial and incomplete: The scene changes quickly, especially in this economy.
An upstairs gallery overlooking Broadway, Branch Gallery (455 17th St., 510-508-1764) shows work by Oakland artists represented by the Bay Area Visual Arts Network, BAYVAN. It's a partnership of local art-wars vets: consultant Brook Baird, curator/artist Kerri Johnson (former owner of Blankspace Gallery), and administrator Nicole Neditch (former owner/curator of Mama Buzz cafe/gallery). Johnson and Neditch are among the founders of Art Murmur, and the work shown here reflects their strong local philosophy.
Matt and Lena Reynoso's rehabbed The Compound Gallery (1167 65th St., 510-817-4042, TheCompoundGallery.com), an 8,000-square-foot space that blends Minimalism and old-school industrial tech nicely, with clerestory windows illuminating the communal work areas and private studios in the rear. Work by emerging local artists is shown in the gallery; in Professor Squirrel, the onsite store; through Art in a Box, an affordable-art subscription program; and online. It's a professionally run gallery that skillfully uses social media, including streaming video from receptions, that is still low-key and fun to visit for casual viewer and serious collector alike.
The Temescal alternative space 4707 Telegraph (4707 Telegraph Ave., 760-815-7792, 4707Telegraph.Wordpress.com), founded by Travis Wyche and Kara Joslyn, combines a gallery, a storefront window, and artist studio spaces; both the gallery and window shows change monthly. Director Joslyn seeks experimental works from artists ("psycho-cosmonauts") who are "often under the radar ... [with] sight, ethics, insanity and who take risks. The Bay area art scene is a pastoral mish-mash of pluralistic fun. WE love it."
Located near the MacArthur BART Station, the noncommercial MacArthur B Arthur (4030 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, 510-219-0774, MacArthurBArthur.com), features a 24/7 storefront window and a 4/1 gallery space. It was founded by Kevin P. Clarke, who founded San Francisco's Million Fishes Collective and invented the Small Gallery, a satirical art-delivery module. Curators Clarke, Aaron Harbor, Jacqueline Im, and Alison O.K. Frost schedule two solo shows per year. In general, they exhibit artist collaborations — readings, performances, etc. — and thematic visual-art group shows.
The small Temescal gallery Royal NoneSuch Gallery (4231 Telegraph Ave., 415-690-3041, RoyalNoneSuchGallery.com) derives its name from a comical episode in The Adventures of Hucklebery Finn, so co-directors Elizabeth Bernstein and Carrie Hott clearly have a quirky sense of humor and confidence that their audiences aren't vindictive "Arkansaw lunkheads." Since 2009, they have been presenting participatory shows and performances that aim to balance community-building and conceptual rigor, their efforts rewarded with various art grants.
Director Michelle Blade started Sight School (5651 San Pablo Ave., 323-304-2722, SightSchool.com) in 2009 to explore how an expanded view of artmaking — toward process and inquiry rather than making objects — might function in these changing times. She sees it as an "experimental platform" for exhibitions, lectures, panel discussions, performances, critiques, film screenings, dinners, and even "celebratory bonfires."
The alternative Studio Quercus (385 26th St., 510-452-4670, StudioQuercus.com), with its dramatic red curtains, antique furniture pieces, and its ever-changing paint schemes has become a natural venue for installation shows benefiting from a certain historical patina. Director Susan Sharman and colleagues, Susan Casentini, Kyle Milligan, Tim Sharman, and Emile Barber make eclecticism work.
Art Murmur Executive Director Tina Dillman also co-helms WE Artspace (768 40th St., Oakland, 415-297-8869, WEArtspace.com) with Naaman Rosen. The two exhibit young and experimental work in their storefront living quarters, so the viewing experience there is cozy. Sometimes they "open up" shows by moving elements onto the sidewalk.