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Where Are Oakland's Black Artists?

In the face of gentrification, local Black artists and curators are working to ensure that no one ever needs to ask where they are, or whether they've been here all along.

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So, rather than shifting his focus like Moorhead, he recently turned his gallery into a nonprofit in hopes of acquiring funding that will allow him to reach outside of his current art community, and to offer money to artists who want to do video work or large-scale sculpture and don't have the funds. However, Meyers said it can be a struggle to remain true to one's aesthetic while also reflecting Oakland's diversity. "With anything with race, how do you reach that without making it feel forced or inaccurate?" he said. "You do your best to open those conversations."


During the past year, Black writer and poet Carrie Kholi posted numerous selfies on Instagram with the hashtag "#BlackGirlGradSchool." It was her last year in graduate school at Rutgers University, and she finished writing her dissertation while living in Oakland. Her doctoral thesis looks at how works by Black authors such as Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, and Toni Cade Bambara, were received by critics and then examines those critiques for implicit bias. Kholi — much like Samella Lewis in her introduction to Black Artists on Art — explores the idea that, even if we don't realize it, works of art and other cultural products are often judged against a standard that privileges some groups over others.

The concept of implicit bias is also one that Moorhead felt she needed to make a conscious effort to work against at Krowswork. It also could explain the uneasiness that many Black artists feel when they walk into white-owned galleries. And, it could encompass what Lewis and Parham are aiming to combat with the inclusivity of their Black Artists on Art project. "Oakland seems like such an open place, but there's clearly that trace of implicit bias and I think that it comes from ideas of power and who gets to say that your art is necessary," Kholi said.

Another example of implicit bias in the art world is when curators judge an artist's capability by his or her résumé rather than the work. Despite the fact that Kholi had never had a showing in a gallery before, Anyka Barber, the director of Betti Ono Gallery in downtown Oakland, reached out to Kholi and another queer, female artist of color to create a show for the gallery's fourth anniversary last year. In an interview, Barber pointed out that most galleries decide who they want to show based on credentials — like past shows, appearances in publications, and academic degrees. But those accomplishments can be more easily achieved if one comes from a higher level of socioeconomic privilege. "My intention with Betti Ono is to really smash that idea and put power in places where it didn't exist in the same way," she said.  

Indeed, over the past five years, Barber has put her all into creating a space in which the perspectives of marginalized people are at the fore — mainly because she doesn't see enough venues that make that their focus. "People have a right to choose, it really depends on what value systems the people who are leading spaces are working from, and I'm saying we get to create our own model of value at Betti Ono, and it's very intentional to create something other than what has already been set up as the status quo because a lot of people are being overlooked with that system," she said.  

Betti Ono is located on Telegraph Avenue and 14th Street in a building that lines Frank Ogawa Plaza — or, as Barber calls it, "Oscar Grant Plaza." For Barber, it's crucial to have a space like Betti Ono where it is — at the center of the city. However, like most galleries in Oakland, there's no telling how long it will be able to remain. "Displacement via gentrification, displacement via city laws, ordinances, or policies, or whatever's happening economically in this city, is all a threat to arts and culture institutions that are particularly focused on serving an audience that's not held up by the status quo," said Barber.

Barber is currently negotiating her lease with the city, which owns the building. She hopes to acquire a long-term contract, but it's unclear whether she will be able to do so. Barber believes that policymakers need to step up and make sure that spaces like hers are able to remain in Oakland, especially in accessible places. If galleries are forced to compete in the marketplace against tech businesses with rent prices soaring out of control, they won't be able to stay open. "Should I be paying the same rate as a company like that when I'm a community-centered, small, micro-business that's arts focused, that's bringing value to the city in a particular way?" she asked. "Should those things be equal? Is that fair? Is that right? Is that equitable? Probably not."

Pamela Mays McDonald, a seasoned arts advocate who serves on the Alameda County Arts Commission and is the chair of external relations for Oakland Art Murmur, has been examining development plans in areas around clusters of galleries in Oakland. In a recent interview, she described Oakland's art galleries as the city's method of luring developers. "You're being put there as a temporary placeholder — to fix up a place so that developers will be interested," she said. She also pointed out that the city has offered nothing in terms of security for cultural centers amid rising rents, so the chances of being able to preserve that culture are low.

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