Oakland Releases Draft of City's Cultural Plan, Its First in 30 Years

A section of the Oakland Super Heroes Project mural done in 2015 by students at West Oakland Middle School (Cy Musiker/KQED )

After spending almost a year in preparations, on Tuesday the City of Oakland released the first draft of its cultural plan -- its first in 30 years.

The 94-page plan, created by the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, sets an agenda for how the city plans to support its local arts scene. The tagline for the plan is “Equity is the Driving Force, Culture is the Frame, and Belonging is the Goal,” and much of what it focuses on is ensuring that local government "lifts up the role of culture in building a just and equitable city," according to Roberto Bedoya, Oakland's director of cultural affairs.

"[The plan] is a narrative that offers up a different lens and a different approach to understanding our city and how an alignment of culture and equity is required for Oaklanders to realize their potential," Bedoya writes in the plan's introduction.

The plan lays out the first two steps to resetting and developing the city's strategies for supporting its local artists. The city's last cultural affairs plan was adopted in 1988, and the author of the new plan, arts consultant Vanessa Whang, points out that the city is much different than it was 30 years ago.

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"On the face of it, that seems like reason enough to take a fresh look at what cultural life in Oakland looks like now — who makes it what it is and what relationship the city should have to it," Whang wrote in the report.

From the start, the goal of the plan was to find ways to support artists and help them from being displaced. In researching the city's population for the study, Whang found that it grew from 370,000 residents to over 400,000 residents over 30 years, and the current real estate market is "overcooked," causing many issues for working artists and other residents.

Roberto Bedoya is the incoming Cultural Affairs Manager for the City of Oakland
Roberto Bedoya is the incoming Cultural Affairs Manager for the City of Oakland. (Karen Boyd/City of Oakland)

"In the decade from 2005 to 2015, jobs and the population in Oakland grew by the tens of thousands, but fewer than 1,000 housing units and effectively no commercial space was built," Whang wrote. "Growing income insecurity and a host of other factors have driven people into tent camps across the flatlands of Oakland, with Blacks being significantly overrepresented on the streets based on their proportion of the population."

Better representing the city's diversity and ensuring equity are other major goals for the department. Despite census data showing Oakland's black population decreasing by 25 percent over 25 years, it still makes up a relatively large percentage of the city. And over that same period of time, ethnic groups in the city -- mainly Hispanic -- have grown in size. Yet that diversity is not touted or supported as much as it could be by the city, according to the report.

"There are disparities among people, neighborhoods, and institutions that keep Oakland from being a fully fair and just city — particularly those underlain by race," Whang wrote. "To achieve equity, not only must disparities in access to and allocation of resources be addressed, but also the barriers built into both the physical and policy landscapes of Oakland."

Oakland's cultural affairs department plans to attack these issues with its resources, which includes funding. Bedoya's department distributes $900,000 in grants to local organizations annually and has a $1 million annual budget for public art projects. With a new focus on equity, the department plans to disperse these funds to a more diverse population of artists in terms of both ethnicity and income.

Also, with this new outlook, the department hopes to use its clout to push the city to support and protect its diverse population. Thorough advocacy, the department hopes to ensure that things like performance spaces, both public and private, are preserved and used to project the city's mix of cultures.

"Because all aspects of civic life are infused with culture, having a shared understanding of it throughout the halls of the City is necessary for achieving equitable well-being," Whang wrote. "Cultural Affairs’ new role will be to promote that shared understanding and to help inform departmental strategies with principles of cultural equity."

The plan isn't set in stone yet, as the department is still taking input from the community. After holding 14 public meetings in preparation for the draft plan, there will be more, including one on March 27 at the Pro Arts Gallery and on April 7 at the Dimond Branch Library. For more information, visit the department's website.

To read the draft plan, click here.

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