Five Bay Area performing arts organizations, all of whom primarily serve people of color, are getting grants to acquire their own real estate thanks to one-time funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
The Performing Arts Acquisition Fund grants, announced Jan. 3, total $3 million and are going to:
- Black Cultural Zone Community Development Corporation for pre-development expenses toward building a neighborhood arts hub at Liberation Park in East Oakland;
- East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative and House/Full of Blackwomen for the purchase of Esther’s Orbit Room in West Oakland;
- Gamelan Sekar Jaya for the purchase of the space it is currently leasing 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 a planned arts center in Watsonville.
“We’re building a really vibrant network of arts and cultural hubs,” said Carolyn “CJ” Johnson, CEO of the Black Cultural Zone Community Development Corporation, particularly referring to the three projects in Oakland.
Her vision: “Folks will come to Liberation Park for this kind of event and then go to Esther’s Orbit Room for something else and then go to Oakstop for something else.”
Community Vision, a community development financial institution that is administering the grant,prioritized applicants in neighborhoods that have suffered historical disinvestment because of policies such as redlining or projects such as freeway-building.
“Everything we do is focused on Black- and brown-led community ownership of community assets,” said Risa Blumlein Keeper, a managing consultant at Community Vision.
The Hewlett Foundation made this investment in part because of the unique difficulties local arts organizations face with regard to real estate, said program officer Adam Fong. But it’s not just that the Bay Area is the most expensive region in the country.
“Most arts organizations are not well suited to take on debt or to manage investments over a medium and longer term. The vast majority of them are focusing on adapting to local circumstances and ending each year in the black,” he explained. “What that means is, in our economic environment, they’re not able to harness all of the wealth and the goodwill that exists because of their work.”
Owning real estate can be transformative for arts organizations, he added.
“They don’t need to go chasing after stability. They can make medium- and long-term investments that are really grounded in their mission,” he said. “It allows them to show up in very different ways.”
Many of the projects are aiming for a multiplier effect; for Hewlett and Community Vision, supporting each grantee means supporting a much wider array of neighborhood residents. Oakstop and Black Music Entrepreneurship Incubator, for instance, have three state-of-the-art recording studios, but they’re also using their site to turn local musicians into entrepreneurs, thereby giving them a larger and more reliable income stream in between gigs, which hopefully will help keep more local artists in the neighborhood.
Bosko Kante, a musician and Grammy-winning producer who is now on the BME Incubator team, sees his own entrepreneurship as a model he hopes to help others emulate. He recalled the successful career he had carefully built hitting a rough patch during the 2008 financial crisis. “For a while, I didn’t have a recording studio,” he said. “I couldn’t make noise.”
At the same time, he said, “I had the idea for this device called the talk box.” He’d played the device (think Peter Frampton’s talking guitar) on a bunch of recordings but had grown frustrated with its design, particularly its cumbersome size. So he prototyped his own version, the ElectroSpit, which is small enough for musicians to wear around the neck. He has since patented it and begun manufacturing it.
“It reinvigorated my music career,” he said, adding that he feels he “found a formula that allows artists to stay in the Bay Area and to thrive and to 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 start to build in structural changes to the building that will drive the creative agenda. For instance, you can take down a whole wall if you want to build out a bigger studio,” he said. “Most real estate developers or owners are not thinking about artists as the consistent use case; they’re more looking at office and residential and just trying to keep things as vanilla as possible,” which he called “the antithesis of creativity.”
At Liberation Park, Black Cultural Zone is planning a market hall with gathering, vending and performance spaces and 120 units of housing, with 20 set aside for “maker spaces,” where artists will have studios adjacent to their dwellings. Johnson described the project as a way to combat gentrification, displacement and homelessness.
Artists “change the vibration in the community,” she said. “When I am taking my art class or my dance class and I see my same instructor in the grocery store, and he or she also looks like me, it changes what I believe I can be.”