Spreading public art throughout Oakland

Last Tuesday’s Life Enrichment Committee was a really good meeting. It was everything meetings should be, but rarely are. It was pretty short – around half an hour or so. All the Committee members had useful things to say during the discussion. Staff was pleasant, well-informed, and helpful, and also appeared genuinely interested in the Committee’s input. I can’t think of when I last got that impression at any meeting. Sometimes staff will obviously want the Council to go in one direction or another on an issue, other times they don’t seem to care what gets decided, they’re just waiting for instruction, but it’s definitely unusual (but so refreshing!) to hear statements like “This is important feedback, it redirects me.” But beyond the meeting just being extremely pleasant overall, I just found the discussion really interesting.

First, they got a report on the 2009 Public Art Projects plan (PDF), which was neat to read about just because I always like seeing the City find ways to make our public spaces more visually exciting.

So, whenever the City does any kind of capital improvement project, 1.5% of that project’s budget gets put aside to pay for public art. Which doesn’t sound like that much money, but it really does add up, and the 2009 public art projects all together are costing about $2.5 million. That’s the total cost for all the projects, not just the cost in 2009. Many of the projects will take a couple years to complete. They include stuff like sculptures around Lake Merritt and in Raimondi Park, integrated art in areas that are getting streetscape improvements and at Fremont Pool, the new East Oakland Community Library, the new East Oakland Sports Center, and so on. Basically, wherever there’s a capital improvement project, there’s some art to go along with it.

Which is great, right? Great for the places that get capital improvements, anyway. For the rest of the City, there’s generally no money available for public art. Which is kind of sad. How nice for us, then, that we’re getting a $100,000 grant (PDF) from the Open Circle Foundation to fund public art elsewhere. The grant will create an opportunity for community organizations throughout the City to partner with local artists on little public art projects in their neighborhoods, where the organizations come up with their own sites and concepts. It’s a really exciting opportunity.

So everyone seemed very pleased with this, but Desley Brooks was concerned about how the money would be distributed. Would community groups be able to apply for any amount of the money? How many projects would get funded? How would we be sure that the projects weren’t concentrated in one part of the City at the expense of others? She suggested the available funding be distributed equally among Council districts:

I think you can have parity, that doesn’t impact – in terms of the distribution of the funds, that doesn’t impact the ability to work with community groups. In fact, if you distributed the money equally across the city, then within the different districts, you may be able to fund more than one project or not. I would be concerned that – you just made the statement that there’s no limitation on what one could apply for. I’d be concerned if all the money went to one project to the exclusion of all others throughout the City. And so, I think we do need to look at those things. And I think probably the easiest way to ensure that there’s parity is by allocating seven ways since there’s seven districts. I think that it’s really important that we incorporate art into the neighborhoods, and that’s every neighborhood throughout this City. When people start to see art in their neighborhood, they get a different appreciation for it. And so I think that the more that we can educate children at a young age of the value of art, people see it more than just an aesthetic thing, but a quality of life issue, cause I really think it is that.

Jean Quan wasn’t so thrilled with that, agreeing that the projects should be distributed throughout the City, but suggesting that a totally equitable distribution by district would be too rigid, and wondered if that was what the grant provider had intended. So then it turned out that the money is coming from an artist who lives in Vermont who just decided she wants to support community art projects in Oakland, and just wanted the projects to be spread throughout the city, not just in downtown, but hadn’t specified anything beyond that.

So I found that really interesting. Like, what motivated this woman from Vermont who has never lived here to give her money to Oakland? Did she visit a friend here at some point and decide we need more public art? Did she read a newspaper article about how sad and broke we are and decide to help? Why Oakland and not Fresno or Newark or St. Louis? Did she have multiple cities in mind as potential places to donate to and drive around all of them to see which she thought needed it the most? I swear, I spent the better part of the night last Tuesday imagining different scenarios that could have led to her decision.

I also thought it was an interesting example of how the Council looks at things in a totally different way than most people. Like, this woman probably isn’t even aware how many Council districts there are, why would it ever even occur to someone who lives in Vermont to think about that? She gives us money and says to spread it around, it should be simple.

But then if you’re Desley Brooks and you’re looking at this money that community groups can apply for, you’re probably thinking about how many more well-organized little organizations there are in Jean Quan’s district and Jane Brunner’s district, and how they’ll probably be able to get it together to write really nice responses to the RFP and your constituents are totally going to get left out in the cold. I know I was totally making a little mental list of the different groups I’d expect to apply during the discussion, and it was heavily weighted in favor of wealthier areas. So she wants to make sure East Oakland gets stuff too, so giving each district their own pot of money to apply for totally makes sense, even if the donor never would have thought of it that way. I suppose I don’t have much in the way of a point here, I just found the whole discussion really interesting. Meeting video below.

The Committee settled on asking for an equitable distribution of projects by district. Staff is currently developing the RFP, and a call for artists will go out in March for projects that can be completed by the end of 2010.


If you find all this talk of public art as fascinating as I do, you may want to consider attending the Visual Arts Town Hall tomorrow, put together by the Present Group. The event runs from 3-5 on Saturday, February 21st and will take place at 465 9th St. in Old Oakland. It will feature two panel discussions about the visual arts in Oakland. The first panel will be me, ProArts’s David Huff, Invisible Venue’s Christian L. Frock, and Queens Nails Projects’s Mike Bianco. The second panel will feature the artists Amy Balkin, Steven Barich, Helena Keeffe, Chris Sollars, and David Stein.

4 thoughts on “Spreading public art throughout Oakland

  1. David Huff

    Interesting post. I like the idea about distributing the grant money across districts. It’s nice to hear that an artist in Vermont is stepping up to help make our city better. It’s a little difficult to wrap my mind around. It makes me wonder what, if anything, people on a grass roots level can do to encourage benefactors far removed from their community.

    I’m looking forward to the Town Hall meeting tomorrow.

  2. Dave C.

    Do we know who the Vermont artist is? Open Circle’s website it lists Dorothy Weicker as a board member, and says that she’s an artist who splits her time between California and Vermont. So even if she’s not the donor herself, she seems likely to be the connection. It might be interesting for someone (a local blogger, perhaps?) to track down our benefactress and ask her about why she chose to use her money this way.

    Splitting the money seven ways seems like the right call to me. It’s too bad that so much public art is so lame, and my hope is that if the allocation of the funds is less centralized, then we might be less likely to end up with art that looks like it was designed (or at least selected) by a politically-correct committee of city officials. Maybe that’s unrealistic to hope for, but at least with 7 discrete processes, you stand a higher chance that at least a couple of them are artistically interesting. (Don’t get me wrong — I prefer any public art to no public art at all, but I think we can do better than a lot of the murals and sculptures that we have around the city now.)

  3. V Smoothe Post author

    It was my understanding that Ms. Weicker is the donor, although I’m not 100% positive about that. I would love to know why she decided to focus her philanthropy here.