Theo Aytchan Williams, the founding director of SambaFunk!, stands outside the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in downtown Oakland. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)
At 14th and Alice Streets in downtown Oakland, the “Universal Language” mural traces the city’s black performing arts heritage. The late dancer Ruth Beckford, an influential promoter of Afro-Haitian styles, looms above performers with her mentee Deborah Vaughan’s Dimensions Dance Theater, which operates nearby at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts. The center’s namesake, Congolese artist and teacher Malonga Casquelourd, beats a drum at the center of another wall.
The arts are but one theme of the 2,500 square foot mural, which also references organized labor and grassroots activism in Oakland’s black and Asian neighborhoods. Lead artists Desi Mundo and Pancho Peskador worked with the nonprofit Community Rejuvenation Project to conduct research and community outreach for six months before beginning to paint—an undertaking significantly buoyed a $40,000 grant from the City of Oakland’s Cultural Funding Program.
Fewer than five years after its completion in 2014, though, the mural is disappearing behind a housing development on what was previously a parking lot. At the same time, the city program that supported the mural, plus many individual artists and Malonga tenants, recently had its grant-making budget reduced by 17 percent. “It’s criminal,” said Theo Aytchan Williams, director of Malonga tenant SambaFunk. “How can that happen while the city is beginning to prosper?”
Oakland artists and activists have long agitated for boosting the Cultural Funding Program’s budget and infrastructure, holding it up as an important front in the fight against displacement. The grant-making operation rates applicants with an equity lens, supporting work that lifts up communities at risk of cultural erasure as the affordability crisis reshapes the city. “The roster of those top-ranked organizations is the backbone of the Oakland arts community,” said Mundo.
In 2018, the Cultural Funding Program supported individual artist projects such as murals, performance series and documentaries; art-in-schools programs run by nonprofits including Destiny Arts Center and Women’s Audio Mission; and general operating subsidies for Creative Growth Art Center, Eastside Arts Alliance and the Oakland Ballet, among other institutions.
In some ways, the program has lately grown: Roberto Bedoya became the first Cultural Affairs Director in 2016, announcing an agenda of redressing historical injustice in the Cultural Plan last year. He also secured funding for a staffer to help reestablish an Art Commission; Oakland City Council approved related legislation Tuesday. And soon Bedoya will announce the first “cultural strategists in government”—artists embedded as “thought partners” in city departments.
As KQED previously reported, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has described Bedoya’s initiatives as part of the Cultural Affairs Unit’s rebound from the “devastating cuts of the recession,” but the budget City Council approved last month leaves his agency with more plans and less money: The annual grants budget is approximately 1,030,000, comprised of $730,000 from the general purpose fund and an anticipated $300,000 from hotel tax revenue, compared to $1,243,120 earmarked in 2017.
“Organizational support and arts in schools are the cornerstones of the creation of a future for the arts in our beloved city, and given the rapid, dizzying gentrification we’re experiencing it’s fundamental that you remove not one dollar from our cultural funding program,” said Angela Wellman, director of the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music, at the June 24 meeting.
The councilmembers included a policy directive in their budget urging city staff to “identify ways to restore and make permanent additional funding for cultural affairs” by May of next year.
According to the Cultural Plan, Oakland’s inflation-adjusted grant-making budget is nearly half of what was in 2001, and in recent years the number of applications has dramatically increased. This year, according to Bedoya, there were 25 percent more grant applicants than in 2018. “People are asking for support,” he said. “We’re still hoping the budget will increase along with the need.”
Mundo, head of the Community Rejuvenation Project, believes declining grant dollars reflects the “privatization of public artwork.” In downtown Oakland, there are more murals than ever; housing developers tout them as amenities, and sports teams sponsor them for promotion in the guise of grassroots fandom. Instead of the deeply-researched “Universal Language” mural, Mundo said, public artwork is increasingly advertisements or corporate commissions.
Mundo noted the bureaucracy of the Cultural Funding Program is its own frustration: Artists shouldn’t have to also be lobbyists and nonprofit administrators. Still, he called it a reliable supporter of projects with a point of view and rich cultural texture. The CFP’s support of “Universal Language,” for example, offset the cost of a Cantonese translator to interview neighbors, and to study performances to capture dancers’ expressive gestures on the wall.
“Universal Language” also depicts artists at a City Council meeting in 2003 to protest then-Mayor Jerry Brown’s attempt to shutter the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts (then the Alice Arts Center)—content that isn’t likely to appear in public artwork sponsored by the city’s tourism bureau, Visit Oakland. “But now we’re moving towards a patronage system,” Mundo said. “Less cultural stories, less of the struggle, more of the commercial and abstract.”
The budget passed last month does include a $100,000 “community murals” fund, but it mostly continues a preexisting “graffiti abatement” fund by another name. Mundo’s organization tracked the abatement dollars, finding some councilmembers didn’t use them for public artwork at all. “It’s really a slush fund,” he said. “They’re almost appropriating money from cultural funding.”
Bedoya acknowledged the new fund is similarly aimed at deterring graffiti, but said his department will more closely oversee councilmembers’ projects. And Councilmember Dan Kalb said at the June 24 meeting that he welcomes the greater involvement from Bedoya’s department. “It’s better government to do this through cultural affairs,” Kalb said.
Also new in the city’s budget is $75,000 for signage and “capacity building” in the Black Arts Movement Business District, which Oakland established downtown in 2016. Ayodele Nzinga, founding director of Lower Bottom Playaz, said it’s the first time the city has funded the district at all. “The point is they created a district three years ago without so much as a plan or budget for a banner,” she said, adding that district stakeholders will use the money to seek private grants.
As much as the “Universal Language” mural shows what Oakland stands to lose by reducing its investment in the arts, it also illustrates the power of cultural groups united by a common grievance. In 2016, when the project set to block “Universal Language” was first approved, the mural’s creators joined with neighborhood activists and Malonga tenants to appeal the development, citing concerns that it would further destabilize the scrappy cultural center.
They won a community benefits agreement—and modeled a negotiating tactic recently used by critics of Orton Development’s plan to renovate the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center—that required the developer to donate money to the Malonga, and also to help pay for a replacement mural nearby. Eric Arnold, who helped negotiate the deal, said the replacement mural will deal with similar themes, and that it will be on the wall of the Greenlining Institute two blocks away.
To Arnold, the way the mural’s removal spurred a powerful coalition of arts and neighborhood groups is a heartening example of frustrated community members taking matters into their own hands. “Whatever you think is against you, developers, city hall—there’s a way to change the narrative,” he said. The new mural, he added, might incorporate the tale of the old one.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.