West Oakland Industrial Arts Corridor

by Steven Young

I recently participated on a panel discussion at SPUR in San Francisco about the West Oakland Industrial Arts Corridor.  My fellow Panelists were; Leslie Pritchett, Public art consultant and Crucible Board member; Sean Orlando, Lead artist and co-founder of the Five Ton Crane Arts Group and Karen Cusolito, founder of American Steel Studios. We were invited to speak about the growing arts community in West Oakland and why it is important.

We presented a number of slides to illustrate the scope and scale of what is being done in and made in Oakland, specifically along the Mandella Parkway corridor. We highlighted a number of art spaces such as Bruce Beasley’s art park, Lost and Foundry, The Crucible, Kinetic Steam Works, St Louise Studios and American Steel Studios.  It was immediately apparent that West Oakland hosts an amazing variety of art spaces, a rich mix of artists and craftspeople and as a community, we create some of the most impressive collaborative and large scale work being made.

One of the goals of our presentation was to shine a spotlight on this creative and productive community and to reach some of the decision makers who actively work to shape our cities.  SPUR, or San Francisco Urban Planning + Research Association, is dedicated to good planning and good government in the San Francisco Bay Area and plans to open a SPUR office in Oakland.  Their lunchtime forum is regularly attended by Architects, Planners and people who are interested in making our cities better places to live.

My portion of the talk was dedicated to the idea that access to art and artful experiences is vital to our ability to have a healthy community and that Oakland should embrace what is happening now, here in Oakland as part of their planning process.

Why is access to the creative process transformative for the artists and for the greater community?

Artful experiences and making foster personal growth, create a sense of confidence and inspires creativity. Participating in the creative process also helps to create connections to others.

There is a great deal of interest in the national conversation about this notion. The James Irvine Foundation has re-tooled their art funding strategy.

Their new strategy focuses on expanding opportunities for the people of California to participate in a vibrant, successful and inclusive society. Part of that inclusiveness is access to artful experiences, especially, experiences that involve participation in the creative process. Their new goal is to promote engagement in the arts for all Californians, the kind that embraces and advances the diverse ways that we experience the arts, and that strengthens our ability to thrive together in a dynamic and complex social environment.

The Irvine Foundation seeks to increase arts engagement in three ways:

  • By concentrating on undeserved communities
  • By encouraging work at non traditional venues for arts experiences
  • And by supporting programs that offer interactivity or participation

They believe that in order to meet the needs of the future we have to prepare people now. Two reports on the role of Career and Technical Education cite the growth sector for middle-skill jobs will represent 49% of all California jobs by 2015. Researches have reported that students from under-resourced environments who are involved in the arts have better grades, stay in school, and are more likely to go on to college (Catterall, 2009). Additionally, as the “4 C’s,” critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity become more important in the workplace, early arts education in an environment that fosters these values is imperative.

The NEA is currently engaged in conversations at the national level about the effects of art on quality of life. They are interested in changing our national value system to include the arts as a critical part of every community’s core resources.

I believe that access to artful experiences is vital to our ability to understand the world around us. Learning to make things with our hands helps us redraw our personal mental maps. It makes us re-imagine what we are capable of and it gives us access to things we thought were unavailable.

The Crucible provides experiences through performances, classes, demonstrations and hands on making workshops to more than 10,000 people per year. The transformative effects of making and experiencing the industrial arts in a meaningful way manifest in ways that are truly powerful. Organizations like The Crucible are one part of the equation. We provide reverberant experiences and readily available access for thousands of people who otherwise might not have the opportunity to engage in the creative process. As Leslie pointed out in the introduction of the presentation, there is a groundswell of activity that already exists in the West Oakland Industrial Arts Corridor that provides infrastructure, skilled craftspeople, art filled events and opportunities for artists to share their work with others. And there are opportunities for the community to engage in a meaningful way.

So… Transformative. What does that mean?

  • It means a kid who has never made a thing in his or her life, riding out into the neighborhood to share the new bike he just built with his friends.
  • It means a programmer who learns to weld and decides that opening a small business making furniture is a viable decision.
  • It means that Sean Orlando can find 100 people who are interested in building a rocket together and it lands on the Embarcadero in San Francisco.
  • It means that Karen Cusolito can help to create a creative enterprise that supports 125 small owner operated studios and green businesses.

The Crucible moved to West Oakland 10 years ago and is now surrounded by like minded artists, community members and businesses who are actively engaged in inspiring creativity on many levels. I agree with Irvine, I believe that a vibrant, successful and inclusive society must include readily available access to artful experiences and participation in the creative process.

Both Sean and Karen are helping to make that a reality. They are creating communities and they are creating economies. And they are creating art that makes our communities richer.

We continued the conversation with some more detailed descriptions and stories about the meaningful ways in which artists and community members engage in artful experiences and hands on making and we talked about the need for these opportunities to be increased.

I hope to continue this conversation as an ongoing dialog. It is also my hope that the West Oakland Industrial Arts Corridor will become a topic that we can all engage with until it becomes a part of the urban fabric of Oakland.  It was a pleasure to be hosted by SPUR and I look forward to welcoming them to Oakland.

– Steven Young