OAKLAND: Crafting a New California Art Scene

Mark Hiss explores the other City by the Bay as it comes out from behind San Francisco’s shadow and enjoys its day in the sun.

Tony Labat art

Tony Labat’s Peace IV. Image courtesy of OMCA

“Let her sing! Let her sing,” insisted a young woman as she pushed her friend to the front of a crowd watching a pair of buskers at Oakland’s monthly Art Murmur street festival. The musicians, playing electric guitar and drums, were bashing out instrumental versions of rock ‘n’ roll songs, and the singer, well, she most likely didn’t have too much Hendrix in her music collection. When the newly minted front woman asked her band to “just play something,” a palpable sense of train wreck hung in the air. Improvising lyrics and melody over a snarling blues riff, though, she uncorked an unexpected dose of soul-drenched R&B, leaving the audience begging for more.

It was just another transcendent moment in a city that is all about smashing preconceived notions.

Oakland often languishes in the shadow of its sister city across the bay, San Francisco, and is perhaps best known in the national consciousness for its penny-pinching-but-metrics-savvy Major League Baseball team, the Athletics (celebrated in the book and Academy Award-nominated film Moneyball), ubiquitous Oakland Raiders football apparel, and an alarming crime rate. But California’s eighth largest city (population 390,724) is becoming known for something else: a thriving art scene. And though there may be some fuzzy math involved with the city’s claim there are more artists per capita in Oakland than just about anywhere else in the country, there is no denying a renaissance is taking place here. The San Francisco Bay Guardian, one of the region’s alt weeklies, plastered the rhetorical question across a front page last year: “Is Oakland Cooler Than San Francisco?” Even The New York Times picked up on the sea change, listing Oakland as one of “The 45 Places to Go in 2012” (only three other U.S. destinations were included).

Oakland’s art-scene emergence actually owes a great deal to San Francisco, which is currently experiencing a tech industry boom. An influx of well-paid workers to the city has led to sky-high rents and the exodus of artists, musicians and DIY creatives of all stripes seeking affordable space to live and work. San Francisco’s loss has been Oakland’s gain, though, and the results of this artistic diaspora can be fully experienced at Art Murmur, which takes place on the first Friday of every month. The heart of this community party stretches some five blocks along Telegraph Avenue in Uptown Oakland — traffic is diverted, food trucks roll in, musicians and DJs perform in the street, and all told more than two-dozen galleries and venues host receptions from 6 to 9pm.

Art Murmur car art  Art Murmur DJ

Another Art Murmur highlight is The Great Wall of Oakland, the windowless side of a large building that serves as a massive blank canvas (measuring 100 feet wide and 100 feet tall) for video projections. You might see anything from cutting-edge color and light installations to a performance by the vertical dance troupe Bandaloop, which utilizes climbing gear for its awe-inspiring routines. Local car clubs make a showing at Art Murmur as well, taking over the parking lot of a classic 1950s drive-in burger joint. With their gleaming engines and air-brushed paint jobs, these low riders, hot rods and muscle cars are automotive works of art as compelling as anything in the galleries.

If you prefer your art scene with more art and less scene, or just can’t make a first Friday event, go for a Saturday Stroll. These self-guided art walks are scheduled every Saturday afternoon and feature many of the same galleries as Art Murmur, but minus the crowds. Special events and receptions with artists are often held, as well. Not far from the cluster of Uptown galleries is the multidisciplinary Oakland Museum of California, which offers an engaging overview of the state’s art, history and natural sciences. The collection resides in a powerful mid-century modernist building designed by Pritzker Award–winning architect Kevin Roche, with highlights including artwork by Bay Area legends such as Richard Diebenkorn and Manuel Neri, as well as the personal archives of photographer Dorothea Lange. OMCA’s fabulous, terraced sculpture garden, offering views of nearby Lake Merritt, is not to be missed.

Oakland Museum of California

Oakland Museum of California. Image courtesy OMCA

And if all this art gazing has got you fired up to create some of your own, you’re in luck, even if you have just a few hours to spare. Sprawling throughout an enormous, 56,000-square-foot warehouse is The Crucible, an industrial arts playground that has spawned many a Burning Man creation. Armed with more than 100 faculty members and just about any tool you can think of, The Crucible is a community art-making space that offers classes — for all skill levels — in everything from creating kinetic sculptures to the art of fire dancing (Oakland is also a hotbed of fire performance).

Uptown Oakland street art

Uptown street art. Image: Mark Hiss

Every weekend The Crucible offers a slate of “Tasters,” three-hour introductory classes that allow you to explore such pursuits as glass blowing, leatherworking, ceramics, welding and blacksmithing. Discounts (and pizza!) are offered if you make a day of it with back-to-back classes.

Gertrude Stein once famously wrote about Oakland that “there is no there there.” She would undoubtedly be relieved to learn that is no longer true of the city where she spent her adolescence. If Gertrude were around today, as a noted art collector she would surely appreciate Oakland’s artistic vibrancy … and maybe even take a few welding classes. Or jam with some buskers.

For more information, check out Visit Oakland.

Latest posts by Mark Hiss


  1. Brook vanderford on January 12, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    Nice article. But one correction: that quote from Gertrude Stein has been taken out of context over and over throughout the years. It was not an insult to Oakland. Since Gertrude grew up here and moved away she experienced some sadness when she came back for a visit years later. Oakland had changed greatly, just like the saying “you can never go home” (because it will change while you are gone). So the “there” she remembered was no longer “there,” but there was a new there in Oakland. If you google it, you will see this is the correct meaning when you see the whole quote. I hate the way it’s constantly misappropriated to be used as a slight to our city. And if we ourselves can’t get it straight, how will the rest of the country?

  2. E.G on January 13, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Nice article but I have to agree that the infamous Gertrude Stein quote of “There’s not there, there” was a reference that her childhood home had been torn down on her return from a sabatical in France. It was not meant to disparage Oakland but it has served San Francisco well for decades. After all, if you tell someone visiting the region and staying in SF, to not even bother going across the Bay Bridge because, “There is not there,there” except of course for the crime which they love to magnify while sweeping their greater over all crime numbers under the rug, then they spend more of their time and money in San Francisco.

    The fact is that Oakland has always had the great weather, rugged canyons, magnificent views, Lake Merritt, the Oakland Estuary, Jack London Square, interesting neighborhoods with vibrant commercial streets such as Piedmont Avenue, Rockridge, Lakeshore/Grand, Montclair Village, etc. Institutions like the Oakland Museum, Children’s Fairyland, Oakland Zoo have been in Oakland for decades. Granted, they’ve all been improved recently but Oakland wasn’t established in 2010.

    What has really improved in Oakland over the last decade is the incredible dining scene, the restoration of the amazing Fox Theater along with the emergence of neighborhoods like Uptown, Old Oakland, Jack London Warehouse District, Temescal along with the increased vibrancy of neighborhoods like Adam’s Point, Grand Avenue, Dimond and Laurel.

  3. Michelle B. on March 5, 2014 at 10:47 am

    The giant brugmansia flower sculpture above is by Oakland artist Karen Cusolito and was built in West Oakland at American Steel Studios using recycled fence materials.

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