Betti Ono

Source: Betti Ono art gallery.

After eight years, Oakland’s Betti Ono art gallery has secured a long-term lease. In March, the gallery and retail shop closed a deal to stay in its nearly 2,600-square-foot gallery space owned by the City of Oakland.

Betti Ono is an experimental community space for art and culture that is completely owned and operated by Black women. According to its website, the gallery is “dedicated to amplifying the work and voices of under-represented artists. We celebrate the culture of everyday people and focus our core work on participation, accessibility and inclusivity.” The website also cites Betti Mabry Davis, a funk and soul singer, and Yoko Ono as namesakes and the inspiration for the gallery’s vision and creative practice of boldness, curiosity and “unapologetic spirit.”

“To be here now means that this should create more opportunity,” Anyka Barber, director and founder of the Betti Ono gallery, told KQED. “We recognized that a precedent had to be set. This is a win for the whole town, for Oakland and for black women in leadership in the arts.”

Previously, Betti Ono was operating under a month-to-month lease, paying below-market rent to the City of Oakland. The new lease is for five years, with an option for a two-year extension. Betti Ono is the second gallery to secure this type of lease in a city-owned space for the arts. The first gallery is its next-door neighbor, Pro Arts. 

In 2017, Natalia Mount, Executive Director and Cultural Organizer at Pro Arts, secured the first long-term gallery lease in Oakland. It was a lengthy process, and although Pro Arts received its lease first, Betti Ono was working to secure its lease simultaneously.

“Our process was difficult, but it all worked out in the end,” Mount said. “It’s weird to have the city as both your landlord and the person you are negotiating with. In the end, the lease is a victory, and secures our relationship with the city.”

The month-to-month lease Pro Arts and Betti Ono both had created a lot of challenges and stress. There is no security with such a short lease, which makes it difficult to budget for the future and plan activities and programs. For Pro Arts, which is a nonprofit, not being able to show stability made it difficult to obtain grants. Betti Ono is currently for profit, but the gallery plans to apply for nonprofit status with fiscal sponsorship through Pro Arts.

In general, the Oakland art scene is struggling due to the impact of rent prices. The city is becoming more expensive, and in Mount’s opinion, arts funding is not at the level it should be.

“The arts are not supported the way they should be,” Mount said. “We have a lot of new ideas and vibrant artists, but it takes a lot of work for galleries to hold space.”

Kelley Kahn, Policy Director for Arts Spaces for the City of Oakland, says that the city has plans in place to support the arts, including making some zoning changes that would incentivize building owners to dedicate space to arts and culture organizations.

“As a city, we want to replicate the kind of rent agreement we have with Betti Ono and Pro Arts,” Kahn said. “We don’t currently have any more real estate that would be practical for it, but maybe in the future.”

Kahn acknowledged the difficulty arts spaces can have in a red hot real estate market like the Bay Area. She feels that the best way for artists to protect themselves in a high-cost area like the Bay is to own property, which is hard for artists to do.

Steps are being taken to assist the artistic community in Oakland stabilize. Recently, the Community Arts Stabilization Trust created a pilot program called Keeping Space Oakland. The program’s overall goal is to provide “safe, stable, permanent, and affordable real estate solutions for Oakland’s local arts organizations.” In 2017, twenty organizations that were vulnerable to displacement received grants from Keeping Space Oakland. Six of those organizations, including Pro Arts, were given grants for technical assistance, including professional real estate training and consultation services. The other fourteen were awarded financial assistance to secure long-term, affordable, and safe spaces in Oakland. 

The artists of Oakland are ready for a challenge and not giving any time soon, says Mount.

“Our arts scene is exciting and new ideas are circulating and new spaces are opening up,” Mount said. “People are still trying to make it in Oakland, they haven’t completely given up.”

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