Let's Put On an Art Show
Oakland gets an art district the old-fashioned way -- no grants or city funding, just elbow grease and vision.

From the Week of Wednesday, January 1, 2003

Jen Loy and Nicole Neditch sit down at a rickety '50s-era chrome table in an empty storefront on Telegraph Avenue. It is early morning and the building lacks heat, but the two couldn't be happier to sit in the cold. They are on the verge of beginning a new chapter in their lives, that of cafe-owners. They hope that when Mama Buzz cafe opens this month, it will become a clubhouse to Oakland artists, the kind of place where ideas flow as fast as the coffee.

When it come to the arts, Oakland can't seem to shake the perception of playing second fiddle to San Francisco. But Loy and Neditch share pride in Oakland. "We live here," says Loy, 29, who sports a pseudo-Mohawk that's frosted bright pink at the tips. "This is where we create and explore our lives."

Perhaps the ultimate irony of the Bay Area arts scene is that a great number of artists call Oakland home, but few can make a living here because of the city's long-standing lack of venues. Luckily, in the past year, a handful of space-starved artists took matters into their own hands.

The stretch of Telegraph where Mama Buzz will open its doors is emerging as the closest thing to an arts district that Oakland has ever had. Boarded-up buildings dot the gritty neighborhood around 23rd Street and Telegraph, but the area is steadily undergoing revitalization -- thanks mostly to the Korean-American businesses that have taken root, but also to artists who moved in.

Four years ago, painter Tim Martinez found the defunct Mexican restaurant that he gutted and transformed into Papa Buzz cafe. Last year he sold the business to fellow artist Ivan Blackshear, who turned the adjacent storefront into Door 7 Gallery. Loy and Neditch were looking for a place to house meetings for their latest passion, Kitchen Sink magazine, an independent culture magazine whose second issue hits the stands next month, when they learned that Blackshear was selling.

Mama Buzz is just around the corner from 21 Grand's new, bigger digs, which opened in March following problems at the nonprofit art organization's eponymous location. The cafe also shares a back lot with Ego Park gallery, which is not so much a gallery with regular business hours as it is a studio for Aisha Burnes' graphic design business and Kevin Slagle's art.

"We know a lot of talented people who don't get shown," Burnes says. So the two started installing visual arts shows roughly once a month. Operating on a by-the-seat-of-your-pants manner, they have showcased an eclectic sampling of local talent, including photography, experimental music, and video, generating a fervent following. When Ego Park hosted the Kitchen Sink launch party on November 15, some three hundred people crowded into the space; others were turned away.

Crowds also converge on the Black Box Theater and Gallery, three blocks south from Mama Buzz on Telegraph. Just over a year old, the midsize theater had a banner year, showcasing everything from Tuvan throat singing to poetry slams.

None of the art spaces planned to open up so close to each other; it just happened that way. Slagle first obtained the studio space in 2000. Though it was the tail end of the boom, the rent was cheap because it had sat empty for roughly twenty-five years. (Slagle heard it used to be a brothel.) Gifted in the ways of woodworking and sheet-rock making, Slagle renovated the space himself, which took a year. Easy to miss from the outside, with a plain white door that lacks a handle and adequate signage (there's just a sticker), Ego Park's interior is tastefully minimalist and stylish.

Adam Rompel followed the same formula to open Lucky Tackle gallery, located on San Pablo Avenue, near the Goodwill store. He snatched the space up for about fifty cents a square foot in 1999 with two other artists to use as studios, overhauling the space themselves. When the other artists left, he opened it as a gallery. The name is all that remains of the former tenant.

"I think artists get frustrated with the lack of venues to show work and so they start their own," he says.

Lucky Tackle's inaugural exhibition was in July. Rompel is devoted to conceptual art, to ideas over material. Not exactly an easy commodity to sell, but because the rent is low, it allows him to take those risks and push the artistic envelope.

But while Lucky Tackle doesn't get much foot traffic, other new spaces try to cultivate a homegrown approach. Ching-In Chen of the Brown Fist Collective opens the first floor of her house, near the Oakland-Emeryville border, once a month for public events, inviting all her neighbors to participate. The part-time venue, dubbed the Speakeze, plays host to a variety of events, such as film screenings and spoken word.

Another community-oriented arts group, the Black Dot Artists Collective, found a new home this October after being evicted from its original cafe and performance space in 2000. In the two years in between, the organization helped start the East Side Arts Alliance, a collaborative that provides art classes for youth in the San Antonio neighborhood.

The Black Dot on 23rd Avenue provides a place for teenagers and adults alike to express themselves. A wooden rack on one wall offers CDs by independent musicians. Marcel Diallo of the collective recently installed a neon sign that reads "News" outside and says he plans to carry black publications from around the country.

The small, narrow rental space is just temporary though, Diallo says. Ideally, the collective would like to purchase a whole building along with East Side Arts Alliance and create a block-long cultural district with many different groups.

"This is like a way of keeping our vibrations out there," Diallo says of the current performance space. "When we were evicted, I had a shift in consciousness in terms of renting and owning."

Photo by Chris Duffey
Jen Loy (left) and Nicole Neditch of Mama Buzz.