east bay open studios: doors wide open

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While Art Murmur has brought new attention and larger audiences to Oakland, there are many artists, galleries, nonprofit venues and arts organizations–not Murmur-affiliated, for geographical or other reasons–that have helped keep the East Bay art scene vital and growing over the years. Foremost among these is Pro Arts, located in downtown Oakland, in the former Oakland Art Gallery site on Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. Founded in 1974, this arts-advocacy nonprofit mounts art exhibitions, trains young artists (Youth Fellows), sponsors East Bay Open Studios, and serves as an information clearinghouse for a local art community numbering tens of thousands–an essential function in these days of budget crisis caused by a weak economy. According to Executive Director Margo Dunlap, East Bay Open Studios generates almost a half million dollars’ worth of sales every year, and East Bay non-profit arts organizations generate over $200 million annually in direct economic activity; disproportionate cuts in civic arts funding would therefore appear to be shortsighted, at best, sabotaging what progress has been made in developing the Bay Area as an art and culture hub.

Pro Arts is probably best known, however, as the sponsor, for the past thirty years, of East Bay Open Studios (EBOS) a fixture in the noncommercial sector of the local art economy. While EBOS is a bit younger than San Francisco’s Open Studios program, and smaller in scale, it has proved to be as influential as its trans-Bay peer: for example, Pro Arts’ salon-style hanging of participating artists’ work, the “live archive,” is thought to have set the national example for preview exhibitions.

This year’s East Bay Open Studios takes place on the weekends of June 5-6 and 12-13. Four hundred sixty Alameda and Contra Costa County artists in fourteen cities will engage in the annual rites (The Cleaning of the Studio, The Setting Out the Noshes) and welcome the art-curious to their lofts, houses, apartments and garages in hopes of attracting the art gods’, or merely art angels’, beneficence once again. And visitors (some 55,000 in 2009, even at the economy’s nadir) will be able to meet artists on their own turf, live, unplugged and unmediated, in a one-to-one exchange that’s rare in commercial galleries, whatever their other advantages may be. For experienced art buyers, it’s an opportunity to spot and support young talent (and snag some bargains), or to discover an unknown genius, perhaps; for novice buyers, it’s an opportunity to develop a critical “eye” while enjoying the social scene in unintimidating, user-friendly surroundings.

Dunlap points out that Art Murmur, despite its indisputable role in bringing mainstream buzz to Oakland, is “the new kid on the block,” with a high turnover rate, and she prefers to look at the scene in the long term, through a wide-angle lens: “There’s such a strong arts community here that’s been here, that’s diverse and representative of Oakland, that’s been thriving for decades.” Open Studios grants access to the de-facto noncommercial, non-glitzy, grassroots sector of the art community (that would, of course, be grateful for feedback, dialogue, and financial support). The recession, by the way, has had mixed results on artists. David Huff, Exhibitions and Programs Coordinator, notes that he’s seeing two new trends: more “gritty, industrialized painting,” somewhat evocative of work created in the Depression by WPA (Works Progress Administration) artists; and larger pieces, built in newly available and affordable storefronts, that might not have been created during the boom years because the galleries considered them hard-sells.

For more information, pick up one of the Directory of East Bay Arts in May at Pro Arts (http://www.proartsgallery.org/ebos/index.php), 150 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, entrance at 199 Kahn’s Alley. With profiles of participating artists and maps to their studios, the glossy, nicely printed magazine is indispensable for EBOS rounds. An online art gallery for 2010, with artists sorted by city and media, is already available (at http://db.proartsgallery.org/ebosGallery_10.php). This year’s “Preview Exhibition” will be shown at Berkeley Art Center and Richmond Art Center as well as at Pro Arts.
—dewitt cheng