On Tuesday June 18th, Pro Arts COMMONS in collaboration with non-profit organization Shareable hosted a community gathering featuring a series of sundry cultural producers and activists. These Oakland-based movers and shakers operate in different nodes of the contemporary art world but function under the same guiding principle; collaboration and radical sharing. The event was inspired by the book Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons; a veritable manual that lays out specific strategies and subsequent case studies for community resource reallocation and urban grassroots activism. The burgeoning global movement towards “sharing” focuses on real-world, people-powered solutions to society’s most pressing problems. Each of the presenters are working actively to create a sustainable and collaborative art economy model and offered a glimpse into how sharing economies operate in a real-world context. As opposed to the presiding art market economy that benefits the privileged, one operating on competition, scarcity and individualism, these groups use the democratic self-organization found in the community commons platform to reframe the value of art and art labor.
Co-editor of the book and keynote speaker Tom Llewellyn is the Strategic Partnerships Director at Shareable.net, and a lifelong sharer, commoner, and storyteller. He manages organizational, editorial, and events partnerships and has coordinated the global Sharing Cities Network, and other community sharing campaigns, in addition to speaking internationally about real, equitable sharing.
Since its inception in 1974, Pro Arts has served the Bay Area community by providing a space for artists and community members to collaborate, experiment, produce and engage in critical dialogue about pressing social issues. This year marks a change in the Pro Arts identity; it has ambitiously restructured itself to fit the commons model. Led by Executive Director Natalia Mount, Pro Arts COMMONS is actively working to break down traditional hierarchical art world relationships (gallerist/artist, curator/artist, inside/outside, etc.) in favor of communizing art resources, art spaces and intellectual property. Tuesday marked this transformation officially. You can read more about Natalia’s new model for the arts at the Journal for Aesthetics & Protest and Shareable.net.
On view at the gallery is the work of collaborative artist John Law, an urban prankster and prominent member of the Bay Area’s counter-culture. Against a backdrop of neon, radical photography and culture-jamming periodicals, Mount organized a group of people that don’t just talk about making a difference but in a rather Sartrean fashion, ARE making a difference.
Let’s begin with the Project Kalahati, a collection of young writers, philosophers and revolutionaries intent on publishing under-represented and marginalized artists. Their grassroots community-driven approach to publishing breathes new life into an industry monopolized by behemoths. Specializing in print material covering metaphysical traditions, radical political theory, and anarchist thought, this is a press where people are at the center or production. Just this month, Project Kalahati moved into the space of the Pro Arts COMMONS with the goal of sharing resources and collaborating and co-creating literary art events, vibrant publications, poetry slams and readings.
Also part of the Pro Arts COMMONS is Safer DIY Spaces, a nonprofit founded in 2016 to support at-risk live/work artists and community spaces in the Bay Area. Created in response to the tragic Oakland Ghostship fire, the organization assists with core safety improvements, full legalization, construction financing, and public policy initiatives for low-income working artists. Founder David Keenan works with property owners, lenders, investors, land trusts and foundations to put vulnerable, culturally-critical properties firmly on the path towards self-ownership. He is heavily involved in community sharing initiatives (see Omni Commons) advocates for artists in the DIY community who otherwise are without representation.
Ratskin Records is headed by artist, activist and self-proclaimed rabble-rouser Micheal Dadonna. The local progressive recording studio represents experimental musicians from a wide variety of genres including punk, electronica, hip/hop, post-industrial funk and dub. Dadonna is the Curator and Events Manager at Pro Arts and has been working for the better part of two years on a collaborative installation/performative project entitled the Hybrid Series. The series aims to push the boundaries of art and music to redefine societal norms, disrupt current power structures and provide a space for avant-garde musicians to create, flourish and collaborate without fear of exploitation.
While Pro Arts has always been at the forefront when it comes to the intersection of art and art world politics, other local galleries have adopted the commons model and are actively working towards dispelling outdated exploitative art world practices. Mercury Twenty was one of the presenters last Tuesday as well Dream Farm Commons, for which Pro Arts is the fiscal sponsor. Inspired by Oakland Art Murmur in 2006, Mercury 20 is an artist-run collective space with twenty-one members who share the cost, labor and responsibility of showing their work. This includes installation, generating publicity/sales, rent & operations and of course, the creation of artworks. As artist and Mercury 20 member Joanna Poethig puts it, “For the artists it’s not about paying to show just our own work but it is about creating a collective, creative project for ourselves and the public.” The gallery prides itself on the collective/sharing model and is thus able to provide high quality shows and art objects at a reasonable price.
In 2018, Dream Farm Commons opened the doors to its multi-use space in Downtown Oakland. Also an artist-run gallery, they operate with horizontal conversation and consensus and are part of the larger Oakland creative commons. Featuring bi-monthy exhibitions, pop-ups, workshops, performances, social practice projects, and residencies, Dream Farm is intent upon sharing a site where “radical imagination, art-making, social change and creative production” are not just possible but readily accessible.
International creative consultant, story engineer and Ted Fellow Benjamin Burke was also a speaker at the event Tuesday. His work usually manifests as poems, performances, or junk-automata but recently he has started to work with engineers, cultural conservationists and architects to create sustainable communities from the ground up. These massive building projects area testament to the power of collaboration, as witnessed by the decade-long project in the middle of the Indian desert entitled Dhun. Here, Burke and his team are working “to redesign outdated systems related to education, workplace, commerce, and recreation in order to build a living environment that provides people with the freedom, inspiration, and resources to discover and develop their own potential.” His first project of this nature was the hard-fought preservation of the Oakland creative space Shadetree, which has been home to working artists and musicians since 1979. Under threat of eviction and demolition, Burke and fellow residents started non-profit Shade, which raised 2.5 million dollars to purchase the space, thus preserving not only Oakland’s oldest live/work space but a key component of the city’s cultural history.
It was truly inspiring to witness such an outpouring of energy, enthusiasm, and action for post-capitalist modes of production in an art world context. Against the odds, the aforementioned groups are participating in sharing economies and thus reevaluating cultural production and art labor practices. A precedent has been set in Oakland and in other parts of the world; we can rely on each other for the things we need if we are willing to operate under the guise of collectivism and abundance rather than scarcity and individualism. The question remains, despite this positive push towards a sharing economy, self-governance and resource reallocation: are we isolated in the liberal enclaves of the world? How viable is the restructuring of cities by people for the people when we live in a society dictated by individualism? Can America shift the paradigm away from reliance on big government and a market economy in favor of smaller, community-driven approaches?
Written by Mallory Wilson
Pro Arts COMMONS