Aggregate Space Gallery Faces Displacement, Despite Doubling Budget

Conrad and Willis Meyers opened Aggregate Space Gallery in 2011. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

On Monday, Feb. 18, Conrad Meyers addressed roughly 40 supporters of Aggregate Space Gallery convened for dinner in the workshop adjacent to the nonprofit, artist-run space in Oakland. He wore paint-splattered jeans and a leather jacket, and apologized for the chill.

Conrad and his partner Willis Meyers built out the warehouse themselves and opened Aggregate in 2011, offering conceptual and video artists a sharp curatorial eye and malleable exhibition space. Now they're in the awkward position of doing better than ever, yet also facing an existential threat.

“So, our budget just ballooned by $100,000 from national funders who want us to stay in Oakland,” Meyers said, prompting applause. “But, the thing is, we’re still getting priced out.”

Aggregate Space Gallery's budget has doubled every year since 2015, but it's still being displaced.
Aggregate Space Gallery's budget has doubled every year since 2015, but it's still being displaced. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

The purpose of the invite-only supper, attended largely by artists and nonprofit professionals, was to turn an ending into a beginning. After two years of negotiations, Meyers said, the landlord is insisting on a $1,500 rent increase and for the tenants to absorb the cost of an estimated $50,000 in code-compliance work. So the Meyers anticipate leaving by the beginning of August, and they’re looking for somewhere to land.

Meyers wanted recommendations on temporary space for satellite programming—noting that, in the working timeline, one National Endowment for the Arts-supported Aggregate show doesn’t have a gallery—and to spread word of a wider search, perhaps with nonprofit partners, for property to buy. Meyers, a fabricator and project manager by trade, said his body can withstand one more from-scratch warehouse buildout.

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The Meyers want a similar mix of the studio and exhibition space, along with a small black-box theater, that's currently housed at Aggregate, and to better accommodate event rentals and classes for a new revenue stream. “We know we don’t want to be in the all-windows bottom-floor of condos that’ll be a Gap by 2024,” added Meyers, perhaps referencing officials’ efforts to house displaced nonprofits in new developments.

Still from 'Between Beauty & Horror.'
Still from 'Between Beauty & Horror.' (Courtesy of the artist)

In the next room, Leila Weefur’s stirring video piece Between Beauty & Horror, which critic Sarah Hotchkiss recently lauded for provoking productive discomfort, lit up the gallery. Lately, Meyers said, Aggregate has received national recognition. “Oakland has few spaces that offer the kind of support and attention to detail provided by Aggregate,” remarked the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, one of the space’s new funders, in a recent grant announcement. Aggregate’s budget has doubled every year for the past four years—in 2018 reaching $142,000.

Meyers' presentation, interjected by toasts and some corrections from Willis, moved on to fundraising. Early on, Aggregate found it difficult to raise more than several thousand with an annual event; the Meyers don’t know enough wealthy people, and they tired of feeling like they were shaking down their peers. So they focused on grant-making. Weefur’s show, for example, is supported by $32,800 from the Creative Work Fund. The trouble with many grants, though, is they don’t cover operations.

Often, Meyers said, people encourage Aggregate to sell art. For one, he noted dryly, the Meyers don’t have relationships with people who buy art. And they tend to show artwork—not least the conceptual installations—that resist commodification. That’s part of the point, added Willis. From the other side of the room, she read an Andrew Simonet quote elevating art as the small portion of images made for reasons other than motivating the viewer to purchase something.

Dinner ceded to tea and miniature ice-cream cones. Time-lapse video, taken by a camera mounted on the gallery ceiling, illustrated the hidden labor behind every show. On the tables were copies of a chart, created for The Lab by Carrie Hott, showing the operating budgets of local arts organizations. In the East Bay, Meyers pointed out, there are few arts organizations with budgets between $200,000 and $4 million, and in a healthy cultural ecosystem the latter depend on the former to develop emerging artists.

The talk broke into room-wide discussion. There were tips on schmoozing (“If I was a VC or an angel or incubator…”) and a brief consideration of pop-ups, plus encouragement, styled as businesslike pragmatism, to focus less on regional and more on national funders—such is the dearth of local arts patronage.

At one point, several volunteer signup sheets for committees including real estate and fundraising circulated. “One’s to help us sell stuff on Craigslist,” Meyers said. “Another is to help us tear this place down.”

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