Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Manager Roberto Bedoya Wins 2021 Berresford Prize

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Roberto Bedoya, Oakland's cultural affairs manager since 2016, is being recognized for his contributions as a behind-the-scenes cultural practitioner. (Courtesy of Grantmakers in the Arts; photo by Bryan Mitchell)

Roberto Bedoya, the city of Oakland’s cultural affairs manager, is one of two recipients of the 2021 Berresford Prize, an annual award administered by the national arts funding organization United States Artists. Bedoya and Lulani Arquette, president and CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, based in Portland, Oregon, will each receive $25,000. The unrestricted prize, today’s announcement says, is given to cultural practitioners who have made significant contributions to the “advancement, wellbeing and care of artists in society.”

In a phone interview, Bedoya described himself as “humbled and thrilled,” saying that though he knew of the prize’s existence, receiving it was a complete surprise. Bedoya and Arquette were selected from a pool of about 50 nominees across the country; there is no application process for the award.

In the announcement, United States Artists noted that Bedoya and Arquette’s “visionary approaches engender cooperation, promote thoughtful civic engagement, and advocate for artists on a local and national level.”

The prize, named for United States Artists co-founder Susan V. Berresford, was created in 2019 to acknowledge those who labor mostly behind the scenes in the support of the arts such as administrators, curators and scholars: those creating the platforms and conditions that allow artists to successfully pursue their work.

Previous recipients include Kristy Edmunds, executive and artistic director of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, and Linda Good Bryant, a social activist, gallerist, filmmaker and founder of Active Citizen Project and Project EATS. This is the first time the prize has recognized two people in the same year, which United States Artists says comes from “an ethos of abundance and sharing”—a way of acknowledging the challenges and financial strains facing the arts sector over the past year.

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“It’s thoughtful for a foundation supporting artists to think about what kind of support system they have,” Bedoya says of the Berresford Prize. Using a theater analogy to describe his own role, Bedoya says, “There’s nothing glamorous about being the stage manager or the house manager, but they’re incredibly important to the production.”

United States Artists is perhaps best known for their fellowships, which award individual artists and collaboratives unrestricted grants of $50,000 each year. To date, the fellowship program has distributed over $33 million to more than 700 artists. Earlier this year, they helped administer the Rainin Foundation’s new fellowship program, which awarded unrestricted grants of $100,000 to four Bay Area artists and collaboratives.

As Oakland’s cultural affairs manager, Bedoya unveiled a cultural plan titled “Belonging in Oakland” in the spring of 2018—the city’s first cultural plan in 30 years. Prior to this role, Bedoya was the executive director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, where he developed an initiative called P.L.A.C.E (People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement), a project rooted in art-based civic engagement. From 1996 to 2001, he was executive director of the National Association of Artists' Organizations, which supported artist-run alternative art spaces and initiatives. He is also a poet; Chax Press published his chapbook The Ballad of Cholo Dandy in 2014.

Guiding all his work, he says, is the idea of empowering artists and communities. “The beauty of Oakland is that it’s alive—it really is. There’s so much going on,” he says. While the Bay Area’s largest and wealthiest arts institutions may be in San Francisco, Bedoya says, “Oakland has always been the home of social activists in the arts and individual artists.”

“In my policy work over the years, it’s how do we validate the importance of arts and culture to build social networks that animate our lives—that’s my homework assignment,” he says. “It’s nice that someone gave me a grade and they liked it.”