$1.7 Million Real Estate Grant Aims to Keep Artists in Oakland

Arts and civic leaders announce grants for arts groups in Oakland (l-r) East Side Cultural Alliance Director Elena Serrano, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Director, Arts Strategy & Ventures, for the Kenneth Rainin Foundation Shelley Trott Oakland Cultural Director Roberto Bedoya, and CAST Director Moy Eng.  (Cy Musiker/KQED)

City and arts leaders in Oakland are looking ahead to a more hopeful future, even as authorities work to identify victims of the fire that killed at least 36 people at an underground dance party on the night of Friday, Dec. 2.

On Tuesday, Oakland officials announced the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation are providing Oakland with a $1.7 million grant to help arts groups stay in Oakland in a viciously competitive real estate market.

At the heart of the initiative is the idea that the arts help make a city great. The most recent study, from 2010, found that Oakland arts groups generate an impact of $53 million a year.

But cultural activity doesn't just fuel the local economy. It's part of the very fabric of Oakland.

"We’re trying to get the cultural arts in there as a survival program just as essential as housing and health care and jobs," says Elena Serrano, who runs Oakland’s Eastside Arts Alliance in the San Antonio neighborhood. Serrano is hoping for funds to develop a Black Arts center in Deep East Oakland.

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The Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), an organization which helps broker real estate deals for cultural organizations, will administer the grants. "The assumption is not that artists or arts organizations are un-businesslike, but simply the making of art is a different core business than real estate development," CAST executive director Moy Eng says.

Eng ran an identical program in San Francisco, where she helped two groups, CounterPulse and the Luggage Store Gallery, obtain financing to buy permanent homes in 2015, despite San Francisco's soaring commercial rents.

The announcement is bittersweet, though, coming as Oakland mourns the victims of the warehouse dance party fire. There are no grants from this program for individual artists, who often work and live in spaces that aren’t up to code. Many worry the city will crack down on safety, with upgrades making their studios too expensive.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said the city has to balance public safety with the needs of artists. "The safety of the cultural community in Oakland has a more nuanced meaning," Schaaf says. "Oakland has to keep its residents safe. But we also have to keep safe this incredible creative energy that makes this the city that we love so much."

Oakland recently hired Roberto Bedoya as its new cultural affairs manager. Bedoya says the new grant program is a sign to artists that Oakland has their backs.

"What I find dynamic about the Oakland arts community is just how vibrant it is," Bedoya says. "It’s got what I would characterize as a poetic will. And it’s now also working with a political will to realize how we can advance the community."

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