Five Bay Area performing arts organizations, all of which primarily serve people of color, get grants to acquire their own real estate with one-time funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
The Performing Arts Acquisition Fund grants, announced January 3, total $3 million and will:
- Black Cultural Zone Community Development Corporation for pre-development expenditures for the construction of a neighborhood arts center at Liberation Park in East Oakland;
- East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative and House/Full of Blackwomen to purchase Esther’s Orbit Room in West Oakland;
- Gamelan Sekar Jaya for purchasing the space it currently leases in Berkeley;
- Oakstop LLC and Black Music Entrepreneurship Incubator for the purchase of the former Zoo Labs building in West Oakland;
- Pajaro Valley Arts for the purchase of an arts center project in Watsonville.
“We’re building a really vibrant network of arts and culture hubs,” said Carolyn “CJ” Johnson, CEO of the Black Cultural Zone Community Development Corporation, referring in particular to the three projects in Oakland.
Her vision: “People will come to Liberation Park for this kind of event, then go to Esther’s Orbit Room for something else, then to Oakstop for something else.”
Community Vision, a community development financial institution that administers the grant, prioritized applicants in neighborhoods that have experienced historic divestment due to policies such as redlining or projects such as freeway construction.
“Everything we do is focused on community ownership of community assets led by Black and Brown people,” said Risa Blumlein Keeper, management consultant at Community Vision.
The Hewlett Foundation made the investment in part because of the unique challenges local arts organizations face when it comes to real estate, said program manager Adam Fong. But it’s not just that the Bay Area is the most expensive region in the country.
“Most arts organizations are not adept at taking on debt or managing medium to long-term investments. The vast majority of them focus on adapting to local circumstances and end up in the black every year,” he explained. “What that means is that in our economic environment, they are not able to harness all the wealth and goodwill that exists through their labor.”
Owning real estate can be transformative for arts organizations, he added.
“They don’t need to chase after stability. They can make mid to long term investments that are really grounded in their mission,” he said. “It allows them to present themselves in very different ways.”
Many projects aim for a multiplier effect; for Hewlett and Community Vision, supporting each beneficiary means supporting a much wider range of neighborhood residents. Oakstop and Black Music Entrepreneurship Incubator, for example, have three state-of-the-art recording studios, but they also use their site to turn local musicians into entrepreneurs, giving them a bigger and more reliable revenue stream between concerts. , which will hopefully help keep more local artists in the neighborhood.
Bosko Kante, a Grammy-winning musician and producer who is now part of the BME incubator team, sees his own entrepreneurship as a model he hopes to help others emulate. He recalled the successful career he carefully built while going through a tough time during the 2008 financial crisis. “For a while, I didn’t have a recording studio,” he says. “I couldn’t make a sound.”
At the same time he said, “I had the idea for this device called the Dialog.” He had played the device (think Peter Frampton’s talking guitar) on a bunch of recordings, but had grown frustrated with its design, especially its bulky size. So he prototyped his own version, the ElectroSpit, small enough for musicians to wear around their necks. He has since patented it and started manufacturing it.
“It reinvigorated my music career,” he said, adding that he feels he’s “found a formula that allows artists to stay in the Bay Area, thrive, and create more art. “.
Now that BME Incubator and Oakstop are acquiring the space where Kante built and promoted the ElectroSpit, they can customize the floor plan for artists’ needs, said Trevor Parham, Founder and Director of Oakstop.
“When you have creative control, you can begin to incorporate structural changes to the building that will lead to the creative agenda. For example, you can knock down a whole wall if you want to build a bigger studio,” he said. “Most developers or landlords don’t see artists as a constant use case; they look more at the office and the residential and just try to keep things as simple as possible,” what he called “the antithesis of creativity.”
At Liberation Park, Black Cultural Zone plans a market hall with gathering, sales and performance spaces and 120 housing units, including 20 reserved for “creative spaces”, where artists will have studios adjacent to their homes. Johnson described the project as a way to address gentrification, displacement and homelessness.
Artists “change the vibe in the community,” she said. “When I take my art class or my dance class and see my same instructor at the grocery store, and he or she looks like me too, it changes who I believe I can be.