Oakland officials introduced a restructured and expanded art grants program at a press conference Monday, delivering on changes envisioned in the city’s new Cultural Plan. The announcement came as city council prepares to approve 80 projects selected for the first round of 2018 funding, totaling $1,136,253.
Initiatives in the expanded program include a residency program for artists to embed as creative problem-solvers within city agencies such as transportation or planning, as well as funds for nonprofits to partner with local cultural organizations on projects fostering neighborhood identity. The former will support 3-5 artists, with the duration and award figure to be determined.
The categories reflect proposals in the city’s Cultural Plan, "Belonging in Oakland," a roadmap for the Cultural Funding Program under the leadership of poet and longtime arts administrator Roberto Bedoya, who started as the Oakland’s first-ever cultural affairs manager in September of 2016.
The plan, Oakland’s first since 1988, describes focusing Bedoya’s agency on the roots, and not merely the symptoms, of cultural erasure at a time of widespread displacement. “What’s paramount to this process and putting the plan together is to have a vision of cultural equity at the heart of what we do,” Bedoya said at the press conference.
The budget and infrastructure of the Cultural Affairs Unit, which funds projects by organizations as well as individual artists, dramatically downsized during the Great Recession. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf described today's news as part of an agency rebound.
“As we rebuilt our cultural arts program following the devastating cuts of the recession, we knew that we needed a leader who not only understood government arts programs, but was uniquely position to address the cultural needs of the city,” Schaaf said of Bedoya.
Groups such as the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition have in recent years pleaded for more robust cultural funding, calling attention to dwindling space and resources for local artists. According to a 2017 staff report, the number of applications to the individual artist project category has increased 50-60 percent since 2012, but the cultural plan notes Oakland’s inflation-adjusted grant-making budget is nearly half of what it was in 2001.
The first annual grants round overseen entirely by Bedoya, which Oakland's city council is set to approve Monday, distributes $1.1 million to 70 artists and organizations. An additional $100,000 is earmarked for the residency and neighborhood-based programs, which have an application deadline of Dec. 15. The combined figure for both rounds—$1,236,253—is a nudge more than in recent years, reflecting onetime funds set aside by city council last summer.
Awardees in the most recent round include Spencer Wilkinson, who’s finishing a documentary centered on the downtown Universal Language mural; Eric Arnold, who’s researching a book and exhibition about Oakland’s boogaloo dance subculture; Josephine Lee, who oversees the Jazz on Sunday program at Golden Gate Library; and youth programs from organizations such as Hip-Hop for Change and Women’s Audio Mission. The staff report notes 16 percent of the 138 proposals came from first-time applicants. (See the full list of awardees here.)
Other initiatives in the Cultural Plan include overhauling “context-impervious” grant requirements such as insurance and full-time paid staff, which Bedoya said would be incorporated into the process next year, and securing permanent funding for the mayor’s policy director for art spaces, a position currently held by Kelley Kahn and backed by a two-year grant from the Oakland-based Kenneth Rainin Foundation.
Last June, Oakland's city council also allocated $150,000 for Bedoya to hire a staffer to oversee recreating the defunct arts commission, which would add another peer-based layer to the grant-making process. Bedoya said he’s interviewing candidates for the role. The plan suggests that the process, which currently involves five steps, warrants “streamlining.”
The 119-page Cultural Plan, a draft of which appeared in March, incorporates feedback received at 14 community meetings, 450 responses to an online survey, and recommendations from the Artist Housing and Workspace task force convened in 2016.
“Let us be clear,” Schaaf said on Monday. “The plan is over the finish line, but implementation is at the starting line.”