Pro Arts began in Oakland in May, 1974 under the name Alameda County Neighborhood Arts Program. An offshoot of the Arts Commission, the Alameda County Neighborhood Arts Program was funded through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program and soon after its founding, became a national model for utilizing CETA funds for artists and arts projects. CETA was a federal jobs program that, like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) before it, funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to visual and performing artists. But unlike the WPA, CETA was decentralized; from 1974 to 1981 it was administered by local city and county agencies all over the country.
The Alameda County Neighborhood Arts Program was an umbrella organization for other ethnic arts groups and alternative arts organizations in Alameda County, which it funded. The Program also provided training to thousands of people not only in art-making, but also in administration and technical support to the arts. One of the programs that The Alameda County Neighborhood Arts Program administered and funded was East Bay Open Studios, which was in itself, one of the first of such programs in the country. The mission of the Alameda County Neighborhood Arts Program was to “operate exclusively for the development, promotion, expansion and encouragement of artistic and cultural activities on diverse levels, by creating and administrating educational programs in the arts, thereby building regional audiences for artistic and cultural expression and understanding, deepening and strengthening the artistic and cultural life of the various neighborhoods throughout Alameda County, California.”
Directors of The Alameda County Neighborhood Arts Program and signees of the Articles of Incorporation in 1974, included: Malaquias Montoya, a Chicano artist, credited by historians as one of the founders of the social serigraphy movement in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1960s; Sheila Cogan, community art visionary; artist Arturo A. Hernandez; and Thomas Layton, active in a number of “philanthropic infrastructure” organizations such as Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, Bay Area Blacks in Philanthropy, the Council on Foundations Associates, Environmental Grantmakers Association, Grantmakers in the Arts. Rhonda White-Warner, was hired to be the program director for the Alameda County Neighborhood Arts Program coordinating and offering technical assistance to Alameda County cultural organizations.
On January 30th of 1981, The Alameda County Neighborhood Arts Program became Pro Arts, after it filed for a change of name. Located at 550 2nd Street in Oakland, the organization continued in its original mission, expanding it to include an exhibition space with a general emphasis on programs and services in support of the visual art field. With its roots in the “alternative arts organization” movement of the 1970s, Pro Arts is still going strong today, serving as the primary venue for experimental, independent visual artists and culture in Oakland.
Since the hire of Natalia Ivanova Mount as the Executive Director in late 2015, the programming at Pro Arts has expanded to include a wider range of genres and modes of presentation. Mount’s appointment has strengthened the organizational commitment to inclusiveness, diversity and equity in all of Pro Arts’ programs and efforts. She works closely and collaboratively with artist, curators, and cultural producers to develop and realize contemporary work in all media, ranging from installation and performance to interdisciplinary events and public art projects. Under her leadership, Pro Arts gallery’s location in downtown Oakland has become a vibrant meeting spot for artists and the local community, and a catalyst that sparks dialogue and opens up new perspectives.
In 2017, Executive Director Natalia Mount negotiated the first of its kind, long-term, below the market rate lease for Pro Arts’ City of Oakland’s owned space, located at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, thus securing a home for the organization, right in the heart of downtown Oakland.