THE BLOG
02/27/2013 04:40 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2013

Oakland's First Fridays and Art Murmur: Let's Raise This Baby Outside the Box

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Oakland must continue to support its artistic community to ensure its future. "Out-of-the-box" creative thinking will be essential toward solving the city's problems and taking advantage of its opportunities.

Photo credit: Pamela Mays McDonald

Today, I call on all proud Oaklanders and art-lovers to save our cultural spirit and nurture the soul of creativity, born in our hills and flatlands. Take to the streets this Friday evening, March 1, to reclaim Art Murmur for art lovers. Visit the galleries and patronize local businesses. Then, at 9:00 pm, I call on you to observe a moment of silence, then to leave the area -- peacefully. Let's show the world the Oakland that shines in our ideals; everyone is watching. In spite of February's tragic, post-festival shooting death arising from a dispute between two young men, we as a community can join forces to ensure the future of our city's vibrant arts scene. We must take back our streets from violence and fear. And what better opportunity than when we have all gathered together to celebrate beauty? Come on, we can hella do this.

As a longtime Oakland resident and mother of two, an Art Murmur habitué for several years, and a decades-long art museum director and arts advocate, I have had many memorable and transcendent experiences on First Fridays. I published a number of reviews of the events, suggesting over a year ago that perhaps the event was growing too rapidly. But I still loved it; there is always some new artist to discover, something new to see or hear, always something new to taste or drink, always new and old music to dance to, old and new friends to greet. When I find myself in this state of consciousness, surrounded by diverse, happy faces enjoying our wonderful lives, I often hear myself thinking, "Oh my God, we are so blessed. I love Oakland." I had those same thoughts at the last Murmur on February 2: a familiar mixture of euphoric love--and pit-of-the-stomach fear. You see, I had a premonition that "something bad" would happen, because the way things were headed, with those huge, out-of-control crowds at the end of the night, somebody was bound to get shot.

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A 70s fashion show takes place directly on the asphalt of Telegraph Avenue at the February 2013 Oakland First Friday.

Photo credit: Pamela Mays McDonald

But everything went smoothly that night. After the event ended, I met friends at a nearby establishment for beer and tacos and I danced to a New Orleans second-line jazz band until almost closing time. Driving home, the streets were quiet. It had been a good night. But when I returned home, I learned from Facebook and Twitter that a young man had been shot to death, and three others wounded, just blocks away from the spot where I blithely and ignorantly ate, drank and danced, while enjoying the company of my friends. Then I learned that another young man I knew, a multi-talented dancer named Jesus Ebn El who works with at-risk youth, had been grazed by a bullet. The bullet put a hole through his black leather jacket.Something bad had indeed happened. Somebody did get shot.

I couldn't stop crying. I have a son close to Kiante's age who has also attended Art Murmur with family and friends. I asked myself, "When will the killing stop?"

While the arts and culture do not have the power to bring 18-year-old Kiante Campbell back to life, they do have the power to bring our streets back to life. We have seen this happen in our Uptown District, in Old Oakland, in Jack London Square and in the neighborhoods. The process of urban revitalization produced by the creative community is evident everywhere: in Brooklyn and Manhatttan, in Paris, in Sao Paolo and throughout the world. Art (not necessarily high-rent gentrification) has the power to heal our community, but only if the community--business, citizens, city departments and art lovers--work with artists. To create the world we envision, we must all learn to do what artists do: think outside the box.

It is now clear that Oakland's First Fridays evening street art festival, a spinoff of the Oakland Art Murmur, is a potential victim of its own success. Who, other than a creative mind, could have imagined such a gigantic, diverse, free-flowing and spontaneous throng of fun-loving people on the nighttime streets of downtown Oakland--interacting with works art? Currently drawing an estimated twenty thousand people to the Uptown/Downtown corridor on any given Friday, First Fridays is self-described as an "immersive art and community experience." But festival organizers, while dedicated and well-meaning, are clearly having difficulty managing the overwhelming runoff of visitors, especially after hours, when control reverts back to the city.

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Oakland Art Murmur began with 8 galleries and has now grown to include 30 art spaces open to the public on the first Friday evening of each month.

Courtesy of Oakland Art Murmur

Birth and growth: Oakland Art Murmur, the parent organization, has a mission "to increase awareness of and participation in the visual arts in Oakland through collective marketing and public programming." Founded in 2006 by eight art spaces, currently twenty-one member galleries and nine mixed-use venues are open to the public and hold artists receptions from 5:00 - 9:00 pm under the Art Murmur umbrella. But in recent years, the Murmur became so successful -- some would say "too successful" -- in attracting a new crowd of celebrants to the city's core, that the visual arts became just one part of a menu of street bands, artisanal food trucks, local craftspeople, flash mobs, street theater and people watching. As the sidewalks became too crowded and the throngs of festival-goers clogged streets and sidewalks in the former car repair district-turned arts district, the situation became untenable and unmanageable for the original consortium of art galleries. Over time, more new non-member galleries sprouted in the surrounding areas. The event -- and the cultural revolution it spawned -- had outgrown its footprint and its sponsor.

In response, two neighborhood business districts and the city's Mayor Jean Quan provided operational support for a new, grassroots group called the First Fridays Community Council. This culturally diverse group of volunteers set out to organize a festival to handle the tremendous overflow from the Art Murmur events, "featuring Oakland made (goods), artisans, galleries, interactive art, pop-up venues, street vendors, food vendors, art cars, and entertainment." Its mission, from Facebook: " Our goal is to continuously strive to improve our community by building awareness around the individuals, cultures, lifestyles, and ideas that encompass our neighborhoods, through creative engagement, encouraging active participation and grassroots outreach." Art for sale is not the central organizing principle for First Fridays, outreach to groups not represented in the Art Murmur gallery scene is.

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First Fridays, a spin-off of Oakland Art Murmur, has now grown to attract 20,000 visitors per month to Oakland's Uptown District. It is staffed by a volunteer council of artists and representatives from the adjacent business districts. A city official handles permits.

Courtesy of Oakland First Fridays

Once established, First Fridays changed the basic character of the Art Murmur event. But once again, the new street fair was such a popular success that the Mayor called for the closure of twenty blocks on Telegraph Avenue and the adjacent cross streets to accommodate the new crowds. The City provided support from the police and city-funded private security, public works and other city departments. But very quickly, those streets were strained to capacity with art, music and food lovers, who brought commercial success to downtown restaurants, bars and entertainment venues after they had enjoyed themselves at Art Murmur.

The event drew the attention of the media, including The New York Times, attracting even more visitors and cultural tourists from across the country and internationally. Art Murmur/First Fridays was on the map, a blockbuster, a runaway success. And just as the organizers of Art Murmur had envisioned, all eyes were on Oakland's burgeoning arts scene. We will see how all that attention can be a double-edged sword.

However, another element of popular success emerged, attracting another type of visitor who would not be patrons of the art galleries and would not add to city coffers by patronizing the bars, restaurants and live music venues. You see, after the Art Murmur and First Fridays closing time of 9:00 or 10:00, the streets became thronged with an extra contingent of young people, many still in high school, who congregated after the art galleries had closed, after the food vendors had shut down, after the adults had gone home or out on the 'Town. On both sides of Broadway, large groups of teens could be seen erupting from the underground escalators of BART like a flow of hot lava, pouring out to join the excitement of the downtown streets. Busses emptied on the corners as hundreds of youth arrived on the scene. After hours, the scene quickly changed from a street art festival to a street party for unsupervised young people. The under-21 set "hung out" on the streets, flirting and talking, listening to music, some drinking open containers of alcohol, some getting into arguments. It was this after-hours environment that precipitated the death of Kiante Campbell.

The shooting happened at 11:00 pm, two hours after the galleries had closed and one hour after the street fair had closed for the next month.

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An impromptu street shrine on the spot where 18-year-old Kiante Campbell was murdered after the February events.

Photo credit: Lucio Queiroz

In the days that followed, both the grassroots, street-centered First Fridays and the more formal, gallery-focused Art Murmur organizations released statements of condolence on their websites, lamenting the death of Campbell, yet recognizing the shooting as an isolated incident, not specific to Oakland or to any particular neighborhood, but part of a recent, tragic trend toward gun violence across the US. The entire community was shocked and saddened because the event was well-respected and highly visible in the media. A small memorial shrine (above) was erected at the murder site.

However, aside from causing the death of Kiante Campbell, this single incident had the potential to kill the event for everyone, possibly even force its cancellation, as had happened with other popular Oakland street fairs in the past such as Festival at the Lake and Carijama (The Art & Soul Festival, Chinatown StreetFest, Eat Real Festival and other festivals coordinated by the city remain highly successful). Locals, constantly chafing at Oakland's image in the media, took pause. This was not just another of a string of youth-on-youth violent acts, but one witnessed by many, at the most visible event on Oakland's public calendar. But what could be done? Everyone had ideas, from forcing the closure of liquor stores in the area, to eliminating all food vendors, to canceling First Fridays for good.

Mayor Quan's Stakeholders' Working Group: Mayor Jean Quan convened the first of several meetings which was to become a working group of community stakeholders and key city staff. The meetings were facilitated by District 3 Councilmember Lynette McElhaney (in whose district Art Murmur and First Fridays occur). Under this much-need leadership, discussions began. Feelings were aired and ideas were put forth. Public safety was the paramount concern of all present. But artistic and entrepreneurial freedom had to be preserved.

The three-pronged solution seems simple, yet it did not come naturally: (1) communication; (2) collaboration; (3) sacrifice on all sides. To ensure a safe and family-friendly event, First Fridays organizers agreed to work together with Art Murmur organizers, vendors, marquee entertainment venues, businesses, the City of Oakland and other community stakeholders to coordinate communications and event planning. After all, as the Mayor declared, there is no separation; the Art Murmur/First Friday event is one single, branded event in the minds of the public. So, how to ensure a safe event in March? Shut it down or continue? The mayor was adamant that First Fridays should continue. "We love and deserve this event," she said, "but it will take work to keep it going." Everyone agreed that "business as usual" could not continue. This March First Friday would have to be different--in scope, in duration, in programming and in safety preparation. The group concluded that for March, the operating principle would be: "Keep it simple. Back to the roots."

The plan for March: Working with law enforcement, the stakeholders group decided that on March 1st, the first First Friday A.K. (After Kiante), the event will calm the situation by remaining short and small. With shorter hours (ending at 9:00 pm instead of 10:00), there will be no alcohol consumption allowed on the streets. This policy involves not only shutting the popular beer garden on Telegraph Avenue, but denying all alcohol licenses for the many art galleries in the area. Significantly, the event will take a smaller footprint, with only five blocks of Telegraph Avenue between West Grand Avenue and 27th Street barricaded as a festival zone. Oakland Police Department, private security and other law enforcement agencies will maintain a presence onsite, during and after, to keep the festival and peripheral areas safe. Coming to agreement on these temporary changes was not easy for members of the working group, with their diverse needs and interests. But in the end, there was consensus; everyone saw the need to come together--for the good of the city, for the protection of visitors and for the preservation of the event. The Working Group will meet again for a post-mortem/planning session in the week following the March 1st event.

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Oakland First Fridays would like for everyone to observe a moment of silence on March 1st at 7:30 and again at 9:00 p.m.

Artists Response: The group of local artists, writers and musicians who organize the monthly First Fridays organization responded with themed March programming, to bring the element of intentionality to the festival in the name of non-violence. Amber McZeal and Needa Bee, two of the organizers, outlined curated programs, including one on Telegraph Avenue between 23rd Street and West Grand, called EPICENTER featuring a moment of silence at 7:30 in honor of Kiante Campbell and concluding at 9:00 with another moment of silence in honor of all victims of gun violence in Oakland and elsewhere around the nation. Music and speakers on the sound stage will highlight the theme "Heal the Hood," to "address the root causes of all forms of violence in our community: poverty, domestic violence, racism, police terror, the street economy, gun violence, sexual expolitation and abuse." Anti-violence groups will be present to share their stories and collect donations. A block-long wall will allow visitors to write or draw their thoughts on violence. It has been planned that only licensed vendors will be allowed in the limited spaces and that vendors will also respect the moment of silence. A DJ, special lighting and programming by and for youth under 12 will round out the special anti-violence programming.

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"Respect Our City" is the theme of a new anti-violence initiative launched after the February tragedy.

Photo credit: Pamela Mays McDonald

Respect Our City: Two days after the shooting, a group calling itself "Respect Our City" was launched, to find an artistic solution to the problem of violence. " Led by Jordan Warren, the Respect Our City campaign is "the attempt of a dedicated group of Oakland citizens to reclaim pride and positive investment in all of Oakland." It developed a "Peace Pledge" with a commemorative t-shirt for those who signed the pledge:

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"As proud Oaklanders, we value a culture that promotes respect, creativity, safety, equity, and community. We pledge to be peaceful and positive to help Oakland become a safe community we can all take pride in."

Available for $10 at the philanthropic retailer Oaklandish store and online, the shirt's "RESPECT OUR CITY" white lettering will glow in the dark after sundown. People who want peace are encouraged to purchase a shirt and wear it to the March 1st First Fridays/Art Murmur, sending a message that we Oaklanders will not tolerate violence in our midst, day or night. For each t-shirt sold, one shirt will be donated to a young person to wear that night as well. Close to one hundred "peace pledges" have been signed online over the first weekend.

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The New Parkway will host a forum for youth and adults to allow youth to express their ideas for solutions to issues of violence. Immediately before Art Murmur from 4:00- - 6:00 pm

Youth response: The nationally syndicated, award-winning Oakland-based organization Youth Radio responded with an excellent if brief journalistic effort, a short video discussing the history and future of First Fridays in the aftermath of the Kiante Campbell shooting. Watching this video really gives a feel for the true First Fridays experience. The interviews demonstrate how much the young people of Oakland love Art Murmur and regret the negative vibe that has emerged. It is called Reality Hits First Fridays:

The future: Everyone wants to see Art Murmur and First Fridays remain on the cultural calendar, thrive and grow, from the Mayor to the citizens, businesses and youth. People make plans to attend every month, to meet friends, enjoy a meal, dance and experience a new aesthetic. Oakland is hella tight and we know it. We love our city and our festivals. But how to sustain what has become a monumental monthly management challenge?

Councilmember McElhaney aptly described Art Murmur/First Fridays as the Oakland arts scene's cultural "baby," requiring vigilant nurturing from the entire "village" as it transforms from infancy and childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood. And if First Fridays is the baby, then Art Murmur is the big sister who must play nicely and help mind the younger one.

"Outside the box" creative thinking will be necessary to find ways to raise this baby. It is clear that the First Fridays event must develop a dedicated revenue stream and stable funding to strengthen First Fridays management and programming. There needs to be a strategic master plan to guide the event through each stage of its evolution. A central organizational hub must be established around which the elements of festival programming, communications, operations, neighborhood and business outreach, public services and security are coordinated.

So many questions remain and we must be creative in finding solutions. Should the festival space be diminished to shrink the event down to a manageable size or rather, increased to accommodate potential growth? How do we keep arts and culture as the central organizing force behind what could otherwise disintegrate into just another generic street fair? What types of non-food or non-local vendors should be allowed, if any? Should dedicated arts and recreational activities be established for the under-21 set before and after 9:00 pm? What will youth do and where will they go after closing time? And how long should the city and the business districts continue to foot the entire bill for an event of this magnitude? How can the event remain family-friendly, yet keep its artistic edge? How to be inclusive of art forms that express the true cultural diversity of the city? What would it take to make First Fridays and Art Murmur emerge as one seamless event for the public? And today's primary issue: How can we ensure public safety while keeping the event free-flowing, open and spontaneous? Is it really all about police presence? I say it's not. We're got to be creative.

Art allows us to "think outside the box." To rescue and sustain the beauty, warmth and neighborly feel of First Fridays and to restore and ensure peace throughout the city, I urge Oaklanders to "think outside the cop." Volunteer to help things run smoothly. Get out of your box; don't remain trapped at home in fear of the streets. This is not just a matter of law enforcement, it's a matter of life affirmation. First Fridays give Oaklanders and visitors a monthly opportunity to celebrate life; it's up to each one of us to value life and to keep the celebration alive wherever we go.

Artists created First Fridays for the community; only the community can save First Fridays. Oakland can have nice things. Join me and your neighbors in the galleries and the streets this Friday -- and bring a peace sign with you. Let's open our hearts, our minds and our imaginations to create the world we want to see.