Oakland is Unaffordable—Meet the Hustlers Securing Spaces for Artists

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From doing hands-on repairs to negotiating with developers, Assan Jethmal and Rozz Nash (foreground, left to right) work hard to find affordable spaces for artists to throw events, healing circles and maker markets.  (Photos: Amaya Edwards; design: Kelly Heigert)

Editor’s note: Two years into the pandemic, artists are charting new paths forward. Across the Bay Area, they’re advocating for better pay, sharing resources and looking out for their communities’ wellbeing. Welcome to Our Creative Futures, a KQED Arts & Culture series that takes stock of the arts in this unpredictable climate. Share your story here.

When I pulled up to meet Assan Jethmal at Agency Oakland on an April afternoon, he was alone and covered in dust and grime. A pipe had just broken, and water was slowly flooding the ground of the Jingletown art space he co-founded inside a 19th-century former cotton mill called The Loom.

Surprisingly calm, Jethmal let me in and quickly disappeared into a back room. A few minutes later he re-emerged; the water leak was fixed. He began to tell me the story of when he immigrated from the Philippines to the Bay Area after finishing high school—then, a handful of artists and community workers appeared.

Once again, circumstances required him to pivot.

Together, everyone rolled up their sleeves and went to work. I watched in awe, eventually lending a helping hand while trying not to stifle their flow.

That hour with Jethmal was a whirlwind of rapid decisions, physical labor and communicative teamwork that turned the industrial warehouse into an intimate gathering space. Agency was now ready for artists Brittany Tanner and Ayesha Walker to facilitate The Song Remedy, a musical healing circle for people who’ve experienced the trauma of gun violence. The event is part of a monthly offering from their collective, BE-IMAGINATIVE, whom Jethmal and his business partner Rozz Nash have invited to use the space for free.

To an outsider, these efforts might seem like a well-coordinated and fully-funded campaign to support a neighborhood affected by myriad struggles. But in reality, Agency is fueled by a small group of committed individuals who hustle and sacrifice their time and personal funds to bring it to life—with Jethmal and Nash as the anchors.

“Artists need space,” says Nash, the founder of The People’s Conservatory, a nonprofit offering culturally competent arts education for young people. “We are usually just grasping for crumbs, and that’s why artists leave to other cities. It’s been awesome to dream this up and provide space for others to realize their dreams. We want to figure it out together.”

In Oakland, where real estate is at a premium, Nash and Jethmal are essential conduits who do the often-thankless work of securing venues and resources, making them available for artists and communities who need them most. Their dedication behind the scenes ensures that more Bay Area residents have access to the healing, life-affirming and transformative powers of the arts, even as the fallout of the pandemic continues.

“I just want to make sure people are aware of how much support the art and community around Oakland needs,” says Jethmal. “If we had that support, imagine what we can do.”

From left to right: Janay Masters of Hella Plants Market, Brittany Tanner of the Song Remedy, Assan Jethmal, Ayesha Walker of the Song Remedy and her son. (Alan Chazaro)

2020: Laying the Groundwork From Inside Oakland’s Tribune Tower

Jethmal’s involvement in the local scene began long before the pandemic with Good Mother Gallery, a downtown Oakland venue he helped launch with his brothers, Ian and Jared Jethmal, and friend Calvin Wong in 2015. The four of them felt like outsiders in traditional art institutions. But through word of mouth, they quickly built a following for their underground aesthetic and anything-goes vibe. Years later, Good Mother remains a fixture even after the pandemic forced numerous small business closures in the neighborhood.

When COVID shutdowns began, Jethmal took the opportunity to create a fresh blueprint with a squad of his homies and business partners. He and Marisol Luna started Endeavors Oakland, an initiative to support local Black and Brown artists and small businesses. With a few acclaimed projects and exhibits under their belt, they gave back as much as they could—and received due props from the Bay Area’s premier art makers.

In late 2020, when indoor gatherings were still off the table and artists found themselves in dire financial straits, Endeavors began throwing maker markets and hip-hop shows in the empty lot outside the Tribune Tower—just across the street from Good Mother. The COVID-safe events were a success. And, crucially, the owners of the Tribune Tower, Highbridge Equity Partners, saw that Jethmal was turning their forgotten parcel into a hub of concentrated artistry.

These low-key get-togethers at The Lot were the first in a steady chain of victories for Oakland artists. When Highbridge gave Jethmal the keys to the Tribune Tower’s empty fifth floor, he assembled an elite squad of six artists—including Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith and graffiti legend Vogue TDK—to paint the walls and turn the experience into an interactive art tour and, eventually, an NFT. The project brought together local organizations like the Bay Area Mural Program and Black Terminus, an augmented reality app that digitally documents Black stories in Oakland’s history.

From the beginning, Jethmal and his people insisted on being part of the decision-making process with Highbridge. “We demanded to be a part of the conversation and build with them, rather than them just letting us borrow it for one-time use,” he says.

“Now more than ever, we can make an impact that sticks,” he continues. “During the pandemic, it was a free-for-all, no one knew what to do. But that gave us an opportunity to literally create change. We defined new norms about community and how to support each other.”

Assan Jethmal gets the space ready for an elementary school science fair on May 13, 2022 at Agency Oakland. (Amaya Edwards)

In the Bay Area, social capital is currency. By building relationships with the right people, Jethmal and his team have proven that access is possible, even without endlessly deep pockets. Property owners like Highbridge—who also own The Loom, the 200,000-square-foot former factory that houses Agency Oakland—are exchanging their space for community trust. In turn, artists and communities are gaining access to resources to thrive in a competitively overpriced market.

But, in Jethmal’s eyes, there is still much work to be done.

2021: An Immersive Art Experience For and By the Community

In what was personally my favorite art experience during the pandemic, Homebody came to define what art and community could look like in a socially-distanced world through the use of QR codes, projection technology and dope ideation. But it wasn’t easy.

The immersive show centered on the otherworldly paintings of Allison Torneros, better known as Hueman. She’s a Filipina visual artist from the East Bay whose work has been featured on Steph Curry’s signature sneakers, Lyft Bikes and public walls in Sweden, Haiti and beyond.

It’s no surprise that Homebody became one of the most talked-out experiences in the Bay when it ran from January through February of this year. It featured paintings and sculptures animated by augmented reality and projection mapping, and guest performances from beloved Bay Area musicians like Goapele and Ruby Ibarra. From all accounts, the show was a banger, appearing in San Francisco Business Times’ coverage of best immersive art experiences alongside Van Gogh, Picasso and Banksy.

Yet unlike the well-resourced, touring Van Gogh and Picasso shows, Homebody was homegrown out the mud by the people, for the people.

“This was all of our first time figuring it out as we went along,” says Torneros, who began working with Jethmal and Endeavors Oakland in 2020. “Companies [have been] dedicating huge budgets to reviving the work of old dead white guys, and that didn’t sit well with me. Why don’t you invest in living artists who are making a statement and providing a space for the community to heal?”

Her frustration isn’t uncommon. Every Bay Area artist I’ve spoken to feels similarly—how do independent creators receive the support they need to be seen and heard?

In the case of Homebody, a fellow East Bay Filipina, Cecilia Caparas Apelin, rented out her venue—Ciel Creative Space—at a reduced cost for Torneros’ and Jethmal’s plans to manifest. The 40,000-square-foot creative sanctuary and production studio is typically booked up through the year.

“You want to make sure people are getting paid what they're worth, so operating costs were our biggest challenge,” Tornernos says. “But the vision was so strong and unique that people were willing to bring their costs down to be a part of it. Many people did. Our vendors graciously lowered their costs to be able to get involved with us.”

Allison Torneros (center), a.k.a. Hueman, welcomes visitors to her exhibition, 'Homebody.' (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Making Homebody happen required a lot of bartering, trading and freestyling. Local vendors like Elevate Productions, A3 Visuals, Pixl Prints and Mobius Acoustics provided equipment at largely discounted rates. Torneros paid out of her own pocket for other supplies and assembly costs. Jethmal—along with a dedicated group of volunteers, including Nash—gave months of their time to make everything happen, helping with planning and execution, and even welcoming visitors.

Despite charging $50 for admission (which included drinks and musical performances), Jethmal says the show’s organizers didn’t break even, and the funds were instead used to partially pay back Ciel Creative Spaces. Still, to the organizers and audiences alike, the ability to come together and experience something fresh during a time of pandemic grief and disconnect was priceless—and proved what can be done even without major resources.

Tremendous trade-offs took place for this wildly interconnected machinery to function—ones that traditional institutions would never have to consider. In one case, rising local rapper Mani Draper was given exclusive access to film his latest music video using Homebody as a backdrop without any rental fee or restrictions. In return, Draper performed a live set as part of the exhibit.

Because a cascade of volunteers and organizers turned the inside of that studio into an SFMOMA-worthy exhibition, major organizations stepped up to support the project. The Golden State Warriors sponsored private tours for high school students, and the Westfield San Francisco Centre offered free ad space. Currently, there are talks of bringing Homebody to Los Angeles in what Torneros envisions as a potential tour.

2022: Taking 'Agency' to Make Change

Now that Homebody is over for the time being, Jethmal and Nash are focused on making Agency flourish. For artists like Brittany Tanner of Song Remedy, the space is crucial for their vision of art in service of the people. “We just prayed that we would get a space, and two weeks later, we saw that [Agency] had an opening,” says Tanner, who once was an elementary school choir teacher and is now a member of the band SOL Development.

To advocates like her—who can’t always afford the thousands of dollars required to rent most venues—Agency has been a lifeline. She gets to use the space, and, in return, the community has an opportunity to support one another in a way that cultivates future artists, clients and partners.

According to Jethmal, Agency is about “culture preserving” and “being a resource [for those who] never get taken care of.”

Rozz Nash moves furniture around to prepare Agency Oakland for an elementary school science fair on May 13, 2022. (Amaya Edwards)

Agency is gradually expanding. On May 21, they hosted a record swap and maker market organized by local collectives Lower Grand Radio and spaz.radio. On May 22, they held a Warriors watch party that raised money for the family of Jun Anabo, the beloved restaurant owner who was recently killed in a shooting. This summer, Nash and Assan want to build small, affordable studios for visual artists, and branch out towards small festivals like Tupac Day. That’ll happen on June 18, just two days after Pac’s birthday, in collaboration with Money B from the Digital Underground, and Mystic—two musicians with whom Tupac worked closely.

“We want to support all disciplines of art,” says Nash. “We’ll be offering a daily membership workspace so that media artists, sculptors, painters and others can work and collaborate and build and present together. That’s what we’re about.”

Many of these efforts will be debuting under the name “ArtWork.” Nash and Jethmal want to build a recording studio within the next year if all goes according to plan, along with other “activations.”

“It’s all been so serendipitous [for us] during the pandemic,” Jethmal says. “If you put things out into the universe, it makes a ripple… [We’re] starting small, with community and culture at the forefront.”

Jethmal rejects any individual credit, and is quick to praise those he works with instead. But he and his squad have been putting together a praiseworthy movement that has grown over the past half-decade. It’s one that promises to put essential voices in the room despite the high costs of creating in the Bay Area. Just take a look around, and you’ll see what they’ve already painted and built all over The Town.

Read more stories from Our Creative Futures here. Have something to share? Tell us about how the pandemic has impacted your art practice or community.