Art Murmur-First Fridays can be like an open-mic poetry reading. Sometimes beautiful things happen "... sometimes not, to paraphrase the words of a gallery owner. Despite the unpredictability — or perhaps because of it — the two intertwined events have helped capture national attention on Oakland.
But First Fridays can feel a bit like a citywide festival in which dancing, music and libations vie with art for attention and mere mortals struggle to take in all the events happening at once in scores of galleries and venues.
I have begun to wonder whether the carnival of First Fridays is getting in the way of taking the next step toward developing a serious art scene.
First Fridays began in 2006 with the creation of Art Murmur, a marketing scheme to promote galleries and the artists they show. The people and press followed. Members of the Art Murmur collective had hoped to inspire other neighborhoods to create their own art walks on different nights.
Instead, the city and any number of cafes, clubs, restaurants and lounges across the city jumped onto the bandwagon. They stretched the original concept and boundaries — a triangle with points in Northgate, Temescal and North Oakland — based on members' locations and a need to streamline logistics.
"No one ever expected the Art Murmur to get so popular," said Kerri Johnson, co-founder of Blankspace Gallery on San Pablo Avenue. She joined the Art Murmur collective six months after its start. Now there are 19 galleries in the group.
"But at the end of the day, "... people still understand art is at the crux," Johnson said.
Most people also recognize it's time to reassess the balance between night life and the art world. Fort Gallery, which opened less than a year ago in the space formerly occupied by Esteban Sabar Gallery, closed down after a knifing incident in mid-July.
The man responsible had nothing to do with the gallery or the street celebration that spontaneously spilled into Telegraph Avenue, which glowed with an impromptu bonfire. But the incident was a wake-up call.
Entertainment can be considered art, but the crowds have become so large that the situation needs a little more attention, said Kimberly Johansson, founder of Johansson Projects, which sits next-door to Fort on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street, the hub of Art Murmur.
"But you don't want to sacrifice the element of surprise," Johansson said. (In turn, the city could reassess its zoning laws that require cabaret permits of even the humblest live events.)
Art Murmur created a large audience hungry for art, said David Huff, exhibitions and programs coordinator for Pro Arts Gallery, which moved this summer to a smaller space from its Third Street location to downtown in the Frank H. Ogawa Plaza.
"The question is, What's next?" he said.
In Huff's vision, the answer includes turning to the crowds Art Murmur has spurred to become collectors. Huff said artists who are getting national attention serve as examples to the larger art world of what an artist-run, group-based, aggressively noncommercial scene can produce in terms of quality work — the bait that could eventually lure big-dollar collectors.
Galleries may find the recession a time to take chances and support distinctive shows that push limits, Huff added. Oakland already is a creative test-bed where art is not afraid to fail, he said. "If you go the safer route it doesn't mean you're going to survive anyway," he said.
Even though some galleries have disappeared and others have sprung up, the original, far-flung Art Murmur boundaries have remained, provoking complaints about the borders' relevancy. One artist compared the collective members to Soviet apparatchiks. They are not likely to change, according to several members.
Who are they going to kick out?
A less controversial measure would be to run a shuttle that has a well-defined schedule, unlike the city-operated one last year, and promote events on nights other than First Fridays. The "Third Thursdays Estuary Art Attack" is an example. An art corridor along San Pablo is coalescing, and West Oakland already developed its own artistic collective.
"That way you could have something every week," said Jais Booth, co-founder of the newly opened Red Door Gallery on 26th Street. "People can pick which Friday, and there would always be something going on instead of having to choose just one Friday."