Aggregate Space Gallery, Displaced Last Year, to Reopen Blocks Away in West Oakland

The new West Oakland location of Aggregate Space Gallery, an artist-run space founded by Conrad and Willis Meyers, more than doubles it exhibition space. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Aggregate Space Gallery, the artist-run gallery displaced from its Oakland warehouse location of seven years last July, will reopen blocks away in a two-story unit previously occupied by a circus company in a move that promises stability and more than doubles its exhibition space.

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Aggregate founders Conrad and Willis Meyers, whose video and installation curating and museum-quality exhibitions made ASG a standout Oakland gallery, called the 3,500 square-foot commercial space at 1255 26th Street a lifeline in a forbidding rental market. “We can do everything we used to, plus the things we’ve dreamed of—and not be so cold,” Conrad said.

During a tour, the Meyers described the possibilities of an anticipated $150,000 buildout: A screening room upstairs in what was originally a performance venue with 20-foot high ceilings, and workspace for a residency program in one of the rooms along the mezzanine. Conrad, who’s also a contractor, was relieved to point out fire sprinklers and a wheelchair-accessible elevator.

Aggregate Space Gallery was displaced from its West Oakland location of nine years in 2018.
Aggregate Space Gallery was displaced from its West Oakland location of nine years in 2018. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Downstairs is a large storefront with additional rooms for office or studio space. There the Meyers see an opportunity for both earned income and community engagement: Before opening, they plan to host neighbors to learn what kind of subtenant could fill the needs of the immediate area. “We want to involve neighbors in this process from the beginning,” Willis said.

New works by Nasim Moghadam, a Bay Area photographer and multimedia artist, will mark Aggregate’s first solo show in the new space, and 68th exhibition overall, come Friday, Apr. 3.

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The downstairs portion opens Friday, Feb. 7 to show Invulnerable Routes, a month-long exhibition derived from the gallery’s annual open call for video. The selections, curated by Conrad and Shaghayegh Cyrous, address relationships to society outside patriarchal structures.

The landlords, Jacqueline Jackson and her daughter Shannon, a scholar of art and social change at UC Berkeley, will provide the Meyers a decreasing rent subsidy over five years. The deal allows Aggregate, a nonprofit organization, to recover the fundraising momentum lost with its former home. The Jacksons “get Aggregate,” Willis said. “They’re officially our biggest donors.”

The mezzanine-lined upstairs portion of Aggregate Space Gallery's new 1255 26th Street location was originally build as a performance venue.
The mezzanine-lined upstairs portion of Aggregate Space Gallery's new 1255 26th Street location was originally build as a performance venue. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

A Storied Location

Still, the Meyers hesitated. As KQED previously reported, the Jacksons displaced Skyhigh Odditorium, a circus arts studio in the space since 2012, after buying the property in 2017, a move seen as hypocritical given their mission to buoy the arts. “We’ve also struggled with a landlord, so we related,” Conrad said. “Whatever happens in our old place, I’ll probably be pissed.”

Shannon Jackson, a prominent figure in the local arts funding establishment, earlier declined to address displacing Skyhigh Odditorium in 2017. In a recent interview, she said she declined to renew the lease for Skyhigh and another tenant, an unpermitted cannabis cultivator, due to “all kinds of health and safety violations,” and that she restored the units to code compliance at “significant expense.”

Skyhigh Odditorium founder Madamn Burnz, a circus performer and teacher, said that she’s pleased to learn another arts organization is taking over the space. But she bristled at Jackson’s assertion of safety shortcomings. “That’s bullshit—the place was a dump and we remodeled it,” she said. “If that was her concern why didn’t she say so? … I never even met her before she evicted us.” (Jackson disputes this.)

Madamn Burnz founded dance studio and events space Skyhigh Odditorium in 2012.
Madamn Burnz founded dance studio and events space Skyhigh Odditorium in 2012. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Although she has a sideline in Oakland real estate investment, Jackson said she acquired the $3.7 million property, which has 11 live-work units in addition to the commercial space, to create the conditions for an “adventurous aesthetic experiment while also adhering to codes for health and safety.” She continued, “We needed a partner who would be transparent and work with us.”

Keeping up Momentum

Aggregate was displaced from its Grand Avenue location last year after the owner insisted on a $1,500 monthly rent hike and for the Meyers to absorb the cost of an estimated $50,000 in code compliance work. The gallery had doubled its annual operating budget every year for the four years prior, in 2018 reaching $142,000, and was beginning to win grants from national funders such as the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The closure, like Flight Deck theater’s displacement, showed the difficulties for Oakland’s growing and creatively rich but not yet institutional arts organizations. In the interim, Aggregate relocated Flash Point, a video exhibition by Chicago artist Jefferson Pinder, to the San Francisco Art Institute. Oakland artist Leila Weefur sold an edition of Between Beauty & Horror, which debuted at one of ASG’s final shows in the old gallery, to Kadist gallery in San Francisco.

Conrad and Willis Meyers sit in the workshop at Aggregate Space Gallerys original location on Grand Avenue.
Conrad and Willis Meyers sit in the workshop at Aggregate Space Gallery's original location on Grand Avenue. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Before settling on the 26th St. location, the Meyers toured the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, which Orton Development is marketing partly to nonprofits, and met with other real estate developers seeking commercial tenants below new housing. At the previous location in early 2019, Conrad said Aggregate wouldn't move into “the all-windows bottom-floor of condos that'll be a Gap by 2024.” As it turned out, Aggregate couldn't afford the opportunity.

“Our pitch was a five-year partnership where we meet fundraising benchmarks and then accept rent increases,” Conrad said. “No one was receptive until the Jacksons.”

Aggregate struck Shannon Jackson as an organization with proven fundraising and curatorial abilities that needed a runway to fiscal stability, and developed the unique lease terms as an experiment. The rent subsidy is also intended to nudge other property owners “to figure out what we can do to sustain the Bay Area cultural life that we all say we adore,” Jackson said.

'Reimagining' the Space

The property is the site of earlier experiments: In the 2000s, the Northern California Land Trust spent millions creating the solar-powered live-work units and performance space on what was previously an underground venue called the “Noodle Factory,” keeping the name. The plan excited the local performing arts community, but the land trust’s project floundered amid the 2008 financial crisis, and an investment firm bought the property out of foreclosure in 2011.

When Burnz leased the space in 2012, it’d been neglected for years. She redid the floors and walls, and treated the place for bedbugs. The landlord at the time, Urban Green Investments, installed a since-removed kitchen and shower. Skyhigh offered classes in pole and aerial dancing, and subleased workspace to other artists. “We brought it back to life,” Burnz said. Since being displaced, Skyhigh has operated out of a nearby studio and a Richmond fitness facility.

The Northern California Land Trust spent millions creating 11 live-work units and the performance and rehearsal space at what was known as the Noodle Factory.
The Northern California Land Trust spent millions creating 11 live-work units and the performance and rehearsal space at what was known as the Noodle Factory. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

The land trust planned affordable live-work condominiums occupied by working artists who could also use the performance and rehearsal space. Jackson revived the Noodle Factory moniker in a nod to the vision, and said she’s interested in integrating the various tenants. In November, 2018 Jackson and the San Francisco nonprofit Community Arts Stabilization Trust hosted an event attended by local artists and gallerists billed “Reimagining the Noodle Factory.”

Jackson, who last fall joined Oakland city officials in an “empowering artists” delegation to France, said that when the Noodle Factory came on the market, she sensed an opportunity. “My mother and I wanted to use our connection to the field of real estate to support a space that could be the embodiment of our values,” she said. Other bidders, she said, wanted to redevelop the whole site. “So we saw it was about to become another story in the gentrification chronicle.”

When the Meyers poured their personal resources into the Grand Avenue warehouse in 2011 without a long-term plan for sustainability they were “overconfident and naive,” Conrad said. Now, though, he feels the gallery is fortunate to have a financial partner in the Jacksons who also appreciate Aggregate’s mission. “I want people to have the feeling here that nothing like this will ever happen again,” Conrad said. “And come back in four weeks to feel like that again.”

 

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Update: This article has been updated to clarify that Skyhigh Odditorium was not legally evicted, but that its lease was not renewed.

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