On a recent evening, eight members of the female artist collective CTRL+SHFT gathered in their warehouse space in West Oakland around an edible potpourri of grapes, raspberries, candy corn, peach gummies, and chocolate cookies. Iced tea flowed and laughter echoed off the high ceilings of the 3,300 square-foot studio space and gallery, which the group had spent the last few months renovating themselves. One artist mentioned that people keep asking about the build-out in a tone expectant of failure, as if a democratic collective of twelve female artists would inevitably devolve into a cat fight. The circle resounded in agreement — every artist had been having the same experience. But each one had also been relishing the satisfaction of honestly replying, "It's going great."
All but two of the dozen artists in CTRL+SHFT graduated together this past May from the Masters in Fine Art program at California College of the Arts. They were nervous about finishing school — about losing a space to make art, losing their community, and attempting to navigate a world punctured by rent spikes. They found that they were all asking themselves the same questions. "How do we keep our practices going, how do we give ourselves a sense of accountability," said member Channing Morgan, "and then also how do we do something that benefits the community at large — that's not just about us but is about maintaining the arts in the Bay." The only answer seemed to be to secure a space of their own.
The search for affordable studio space seemed almost impossible at first. They found themselves stretching the truth to skeptical landlords in an attempt to sound like anything other than twelve women wanting to make art. Finally, though, they found an empty warehouse on Chester and 34th Streets in West Oakland, a former set-building site for the theater company Shotgun Players. With scrap materials from old CCA studios that had been torn down, they built twelve studios and a gallery — the latter of which still needs finishing touches.
A large part of wanting to make the space all-female was to rid themselves of the predetermined limitations of women's work that they feel pervade the art world. They wanted to nurture an environment unlike that of art school — which Morgan described as a "pressure cooker" with a "patriarchal" structure. "It just felt like kind of a boys' club thing," said Morgan, "so it didn't feel inappropriate to take issues that were being swept under the rug and make that the focus." And to relay that mission, "CTRL+SHFT" (a play on the computer key stroke) seemed appropriate to express their reclamation of power.
For the gallery, the focus will be a bit broader, encompassing other underserved groups in the art world as well, including artists of color and experimental artists. The gallery will open a new show every month, and curating will be done by rotating groups of two or three members. CTRL+SHFT also recently received a Southern Exposure Alternative Exposure grant that will go toward a year-long program of events that will include panel talks and film screenings in line with the group's mission. The collective's first show will be in mid January and will be an introduction to the work that its members make. After that, the shows will rarely include member artists in order to make room for others who might have a hard time finding wall space elsewhere.
Megan Reed, another member, said that throughout school, the Bay Area art scene seemed "precarious." She was disheartened during her second year when she saw many crucial galleries shutter. But as she got close to graduation, she was re-inspired by the many alternative art spaces that were thriving through non-commercial methods of funding. Such spaces are constantly popping up in the East Bay, remaining resilient despite the economic circumstances. There are fewer such art spaces in New York City and Los Angeles — where artists often feel pressured to move to in order to succeed. The possibility of contributing to one such alternative space is what convinced Reed and many of the CTRL+SHFT artists to stay in the Bay Area. "Because it is so expensive around here, it's just like in the air, people are taking less risks and they're more scared to do things that are not proven to succeed, and that's really not a happy space for artists," said member Yerin Kim. "But there is always room — we got together twelve people and made room."