By Azucena Rasilla for Oaklandside
In late October, when Oakland First Fridays announced a temporary hiatus beginning in January, Jean Marie Durant, the executive director of Oakland Art Murmur, started receiving emails asking if Art Murmur was also shutting down.
“We’re inextricably tied in many people’s minds to the street fair event, but we’re trying to get the word out that art is still happening in Oakland on First Friday, on Saturdays, and other Fridays,” Durant said. “We’re offering that as an alternative to the First Friday event.”
This Friday, like every First Friday of the month—rain or shine—galleries and art studios across the city host special events to showcase current exhibits, and visitors get the chance to meet artists as well. Unlike the early days of Art Murmur when the founding art spaces used to distribute a simple flyer, Art Murmur now has a comprehensive website with a digital map listing all of the participating art spaces.
Oakland Art Murmur started in 2006 as a local effort by eight art spaces in Northgate and Temescal to bring attention to these neighborhoods’ artists and visual spaces that were not necessarily considered upscale galleries.
Out of all the founders, only one is still in business, Rock Paper Scissors Collective. In 2011, Rock Paper Scissors left Art Murmur, telling the East Bay Express, “Art Murmur, as it currently exists, no longer serves the local art community the way one of its founding galleries hoped it would.”
In 2010, Oakland Art Murmur and First Fridays went their separate ways. First Fridays kept the name and took on the logistics of organizing the monthly street fair. Art Murmur shifted its focus to artists and art spaces and became a nonprofit.
In the early 2010s, Oakland boomed, partly due to gentrification and demographic shifts across the Bay Area. Art Murmur benefited, making national headlines and attracting tens of thousands of visitors. But as its popularity rose, some in the local art scene worried the event was straying from its initial mission. Visitors to the monthly event were more interested in the food, music, and vendors than the actual art. Due to rising housing costs, artists struggled to stay afloat and afford living in Oakland. Rock Paper Scissors and Vessel were among the many art spaces priced out of their spaces. After years of floating around temporary spaces, in the summer of 2021, Rock Paper Scissors moved into an affordable ground-floor retail space on Martin Luther King Jr.
In the years since its inception, Art Murmur expanded from highlighting the art scene within Uptown and Temescal to broadening its efforts to showcase artists, galleries, and other art spaces throughout Oakland.
According to Durant, Art Murmur promotes over 30 visual art venues. Additionally, the East Bay Open Studios program, a free, twice-annual, self-guided tour of artist studios and exhibition spaces throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties, provides exhibition promotion, support, and professional development opportunities for over 400 East Bay artists.
In addition to this twice-annual program, Art Murmur offers guided and self-guided mural tours with help from the Bay Area Mural Program, a nonprofit of local artists who create public art on large walls around Oakland.
Durant says the current art scene in Oakland is similar to the mid-2000s, a period when the city was making massive cuts to its budget. Today, the city is still recovering from the effects of the pandemic on retail businesses and restaurants.
“Oakland is boom-bust like many communities in the Bay Area. You see these high peaks, and then, something happens, and you get a downturn,” she said. “But, Oakland is going to snap back. These recoveries take time. I believe in Oakland.”
Durant said that the constant drip of crime stories and negative articles about Oakland hurts the people and businesses working together to combat this narrative. For the team behind Art Murmur, Durant said, it is about bringing people into all these art spaces and building momentum around Oakland’s art scene.
Durant has aspirations of launching, in conjunction with artists and city officials, an Oakland art week similar to Art Basel in Miami, where a whole program of exhibits and events fills the city’s galleries and similar spaces. It would serve to promote the artists in addition to bringing visitors and revenue to the city.
The Oakland visual arts community, she said, can be a driving force for tourism in the city.
“What’s beautiful about the art scene in Oakland is that it’s everything from street art murals to fine art in museums, to everything in between,” Durant said. “It’s a really special place.”
Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.
This article was originally published on Oaklandside.
- Bay Area Mural Program Art Tour; Courtesy of Oakland Art Murmur
- First Friday; Courtesy of Patanisha Williams
- Fernando Reyes; Courtesy of Sol Gate Studios