Oakland’s Pro Arts Gallery has been fostering some of the most ambitious, wide-ranging arts programs in the region. So why is it struggling?
A tent-shaped tarp hung delicately from a corner of the gallery’s outer wall, sheltering its inhabitants in a makeshift lean-to from the drizzling rain. Inside, flanked by a colorful display of protest signs from the Women’s March, Pro Arts’ tireless staff discussed how to help their homeless neighbors. Their lease agreement with City Hall, just a stone’s throw away across the plaza, does not allow for public restrooms—but the City of Oakland itself lacks publicly accessible toilets. There would be another mess to clean up sooner or later.
The scene starkly illustrated Oakland’s widening wealth gap and cast its struggling arts community, trapped—in this case quite literally—in between the halls of power on which it depends for legitimate patronage, and an inescapable squalor, which but for the grace of God would be our own fate.
Pro Arts Gallery isn’t giving up without a fight. Stasis, a three-day music festival celebrating the Gallery’s experimental music and performance art curation, doubles as a fundraiser for the gallery’s operational costs, with prices any ordinary concertgoer can afford. Of the several dozen lining up the roster this weekend, luminaries include experimental guitarist Zachary Watkins, multimedia performer Wizard Apprentice, feminist reggaetón duo Las Sucias, and San Francisco metal legends Burmese. On Thursday, some of the artists scheduled for the festival will also be featured in Unearthed, a collaborative video/performance art installation.
“For previous years we had done art sales, but we wanted to do something that was a bit more expansive,” said staff curator Michael Daddona, who has run the renowned experimental music label Ratskin Records for the past decade. “Rather than just have it be another music venue, [Pro Arts] is essentially branding as more of a curated space to represent the local scene, and also to work with international artists.”
These are dark times for artists in the Bay Area: while the GOP’s regressive tax cuts imperiled arts funding and 501(c)(3) nonprofit fundraising in general, the United Nations recently declared the homeless crisis in Oakland and San Francisco to be a human rights violation, with misery on the scale of the world’s poorest regions. It’s in this context that the gallery turns toward a new source of support from its own community, the audiences and artists it seeks to uplift, rather than the system crushing them.
Paradoxically, while an outsider might conclude that Pro Arts is growing ambitiously as an institution, it is in fact running an ever-leaner operation. The gallery currently employs only one full-time staffer, Director and lead fundraiser Natalia Mount. Their curatorial staff remains part-time.
“Because we do really tight events, perhaps the perception is that we’re doing great. But it’s always a struggle,” Mount says. “These kinds of fundraising events are very important. Sometimes we survive just on donations [given] at the door.”
“All we really have is a PA system. That’s all you need, really. Lots of other galleries could be doing what we’re doing, but they’re not,” Daddona adds. “Spaces that are willing to widen the scope of what is considered fine art, or appropriate in an art gallery, are pretty rare.”
Pro Arts has increasingly relied on its $45 annual memberships, which Mount describes as “preposterously cheap”—and much less on the institutions that have supported brick-and-mortar art spaces in the past.
“The scale of crowdfunding has expanded so much because of the inability of government and foundations to support the arts these days,” Mount explains. “It’s become much more grassroots, and with many of our exhibitions, sometimes the artists are doing their own crowdfunding campaigns. We can’t rely on the system anymore; we have to ask the community for help. People always ask, ‘well what about the tech community?’ They don’t seem to care. We depend on people who come to the exhibition openings, who come to the gigs.”
Although the Trump Administration ultimately reversed its position on cutting arts funding, the boost in the standard deduction under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act means fewer households will itemize their tax returns, decimating individual contributions to tax-deductible charities and making those same arts grants much more competitive. Losing grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) forced some staff cuts, but a dearth of local grant funding has also hindered some of the gallery’s ambitions. Previously, a grant from Oakland’s Cultural Funding Program had enabled Pro Arts to run an arts education program in 22 public schools throughout Oakland, largely in lower-income neighborhoods—now, Mount says, they only teach in eight. Not incidentally, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) faces an exorbitant budget deficit amid various fiscal scandals, forcing millions in reduced spending. Nonprofits are well aware that the public sector they depend on is struggling in its own way.
“The way this institutional grant-making works, a lot of times we’re pitted against each other, which is really at odds with how the arts community actually works,” Dadonna explained. “It’s like the same 100 dollars being passed back and forth within the artists community.”
It made sense for Pro Arts to experiment with new fundraising strategies that more directly mirror how artist communities hack it on the ground. A higher volume of cheaper, more intimate gatherings rather than a few big-ticket events; reciprocal memberships with other museums across North America; and, potentially, a more federated, grassroots support structure—everything is on the table. As a potential model for the future, Mount pointed in particular to Brooklyn artist Joe Ahearn’s new crowdfunding platform, Friends, which enables artists and event promoters to pool resources to fund multiple community organizations together.
Then, as always in the urban United States, there is the question of rent.
“This year is the first year we’re paying rent, so we’re in a bit of a pickle,” Mount explains. “While the demand is growing, our operational support is dwindling… I think it’s important because we respond to a demand—we are not doing things that nobody comes to—we know there is an audience for these art mediums. But we can’t respond to this demand unless we have money to pay staff and pay rent.”
Pro Arts Gallery occupied its current space in Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza (colloquially now called Oscar Grant Plaza) after the Oakland Art Gallery ceased operations and invited Pro Arts to replace them. The Oakland Art Gallery had a longstanding agreement with City Hall to inhabit the plaza space rent-free, owing to the mid-90s redevelopment and displacement of a multi-story City-owned art space and a community known as the Pardee Artists. The group’s old building, at the intersection of 16th and San Pablo, was demolished in 1995 after failed efforts to preserve it as a historic landmark, in a slate of demolitions that followed the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In 2000, the displaced artists negotiated with the support of then-Mayor Jerry Brown to relocate to 150 Frank Ogawa Plaza.
But Pro Arts was never part of the deal. Consequently, the gallery’s new lease includes a rents that the nonprofit had never budgeted before—because they didn’t need to. “However you look at it, since we never had that expense, it’s a 100% increase,” Mount says. In return for a reduced annual rent scale that will gradually scale up nearly threefold, Pro Arts participates in public art gatherings in the plaza, adding much-needed vibrancy to a central public square that is often empty.
With the added obligations and operational costs comes an opportunity to grow as a cultural hub—but only if the community truly wants it. Consequently, Pro Arts curators feel increasingly motivated to foster an artistic environment that can’t be found anywhere else.
(The Beacon has previously profiled Pro Arts Gallery’s representational ambitions in one formally challenging exhibit.)
“The programming of the gallery in general tries to support more marginalized artists. I think we’re just trying to be as deliberate as possible in our curation,” Dadonna explains. “Now, especially because there are lots of black and brown, indigenous, queer and trans artists who aren’t getting as many shows here, we have to ask ourselves—are we going to book the same white male artists who have dominated electronic music? I don’t have an interest in perpetuating that.”
Daddona himself has been very much an activist curator long before he began working at Pro Arts. His aforementioned label, Ratskin Records, has been profiled extensively in many press outlets for using his gargantuan catalog to represent those lacking representation. With unique cassette packaging, multimedia presentations, and bargain subscription offers, Ratskin and Pro Arts have served in some ways as blueprints for each other in the tenuous media landscape they both inhabit.
But—“We haven’t gotten to the point we want it to, in terms of intention,” he adds as a caveat. “To be as deliberate as we want, we need more money and more institutional support.”
Realistically, with negotiable ticket prices as low as $9 per night, or $25 for a three-day pass, the Stasis festival may not be as immediately impactful as a traditional grant or endowment. But its inclusiveness will ideally bring more artists and audiences into the fold, each with a bit of pocket change to pool together—and therein lies their path ahead.
“At least we’re open! At least we keep going!” Mount exclaims. “We’re going to keep going.” It sounds not so much as a challenge as a promise. We owe it to each other, and it’s the only choice we have. There is some beauty in that.
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