Oakland's 21 Grand is certainly among the most resilient of Bay Area volunteer-run DIY arts spaces. It has survived 10 years and three locations, starting out at its namesake address 21 Grand Avenue (now part of Era Art Bar), moving two blocks up to 23rd Street near Broadway (demolished to make room for the new high-rise condo containing Picán and Ozumo restaurants), and finally to its current location at 416 25th St. near Broadway.
Over the past decade, 21 Grand, a nonprofit founded by Oakland artists Darren Jenkins and Sarah Lockhart, established a name for itself as a center for groundbreaking arts. Emerging local talent like Luther Thie, Tara Daly, Sarah Wagner, and John Colle Rogers have shown their work in the gallery. As a venue, it's hosted everything from fringe theater and performance art to experimental poetry readings, but it's most known for wildly diverse, cutting-edge live music. 21 Grand has become something of a home for the East Bay's improvisational new music scene, where internationally acclaimed composers like Fred Frith and Phillip Greenlief play regularly, and at the same time, it hosts a wide range of uber-hip shows featuring punk, noise, art rock, post no-wave, and knob-twiddling electronic music.
Whatever was going on at 21 Grand, you knew it was worth seeing. It might have been Gregg Gillis of Girl Talk dancing on donuts, Moe! Staiano tossing pipes down the stairs, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth playing a "secret show," Lil B of The Pack throwing down his kooky rhymes, or Jorge Boehringer as Core of the Coalman strumming an amplified viola like an electric guitar.
"From the beginning, I took a big tent approach, and said 'Let's just draw from the broad spectrum of all the weird, innovative, and non-mainstream music that's going on in the Bay Area,'" says Lockhart, 21 Grand's co-founder and long-term programming director who resigned in September. "We tried to have a place where it wasn't just a clubhouse for one particular aesthetic or one particular scene."
Now, 21 Grand faces a real threat. As reported in Oakland North, Jenkins, the space's director, received a "cease and desist cabaret activity" notice from the City of Oakland in September. For the venue to receive a cabaret permit, the landlord would have to agree to renovations costing upwards of $100,000 so the space meets building and fire codes. The live music performances were what paid the rent, with attendees usually paying $5-$10 admittance on a sliding scale.
Mayoral candidate and City Councilmember-At-Large Rebecca Kaplan has asserted her support for 21 Grand and reforming the cabaret laws so live music can thrive in Oakland. In fact, part of 21 Grand's success hinged on grants it received between 2005 and 2007 from both the City of Oakland and County of Alameda to fund creative music programming. This money allowed 21 Grand to commission scores from Staiano and Weasel Walter.
Lockhart says keeping the venue financially sustainable was always a struggle, given that it didn't sell alcohol and she and Jenkins didn't live in the space.
Of course, 21 Grand, a founding member of the flourishing first-Fridays art walk Oakland Art Murmur, is also a highly respected gallery that paved the way for Oakland to make its mark in the art world. Ironically the multiple new Uptown Arts District galleries following in its path -- Vessel, Johansson Projects, et. al -- will likely step into the gap. However, the experimental music scene will feel the blow, even as illegal Oakland warehouses and legit spaces like San Francisco's The Lab and The Luggage Store will pick up the slack.
"All these shows from all these different scenes will still happen -- just not all in the same place," says Jenkins, who is now 21 Grand's sole director.
Jenkins has now signed a lease termination agreement with 21 Grand's current landlord for the end of January, and programming will likely end by December 31. He says he plans on looking for a better space and continuing with the organization as long as possible.
"Whether 21 Grand is going to open in another space is still up in the air," he says. "The feedback I'm getting is that it's something that a lot of people still value. If there wasn't a need, or if this community had outgrown that need, then maybe it is time."
I spoke with Fred Frith, an internationally renowned composer, improviser and multi-instrumentalist, and professor of composition at Mills College about the impact 21 Grand's closing might have on the Bay Area experimental music scene.
Lisa Hix: Why is 21 Grand special to you?
Fred Frith: Wherever I have lived -- which at this point includes London, New York, Tokyo, and Stuttgart, for example -- I have thrived on being able to develop work in the intimate context of a small venue where there is no artificial separation of performer and audience, where there are minimal technical needs, and where you can achieve a kind of family feeling where local and "out of town" cultures can meet. 21 Grand came to represent that for me, and I enjoyed bringing performers there from Berlin, Oslo, New York, and Zurich as well as doing shows with local performers I hadn't played with before, or bringing my Mills Improvisation Ensemble there to try things out in front of a non-Mills audience.
Hix: Is 21 Grand vital to the scene?
Frith: The fact is that there's less media support of any kind around here than anywhere I've ever lived, so it's a permanent struggle to develop a scene that doesn't depend on the somewhat parochial local press viewpoint. We have extraordinary musicians and performers and artists here, most of whom are surviving by doing day jobs, and only get to do well-paid work when they leave the area, if not the country. So we have to struggle with what we have, and like the old days in Eastern Europe, I am ceaselessly impressed by the energy that these folks bring to somehow keeping the whole Bay Area cultural ship afloat. In this sense, 21 Grand has been a great resource, run by hard-working, sympathetic, and imaginative people who are on our side. So damn right it's important to me, and it should be important to everyone else too, if they want to see a living culture instead of a bunch of neat PR packages.
Hix: Where will the scene go?
Frith: It'll be the same as always. New places will no doubt spring up until they get closed down for whatever reason, all run by the artists themselves until they run out of energy, or money, or allies, or luck, just like always. And of course there are other local places that will continue to support music without necessarily specializing in "niche genres" -- The Lab, Meridian Gallery, East Nile, The Uptown, The Starry Plough. Otherwise they'll go to perform wherever they can get a decent gig, which usually means not around here! I can name at least a dozen top ranking musicians who've left the Bay Area within the last two years because of how bad the situation has become here, and there are probably a lot more than that. We need half a dozen 21 Grands, and a media that actually shows up and takes note, and let me applaud the honorable exceptions to that statement!
For more information visit 21grand.artpractice.org.