Category Archives: Museums & Institutions

Oakland Museum of California

Did you check out the weekend long celebration at the newly reopened Oakland Museum of Art last weekend? Open for 31 hours straight, honoring California’s place as the 31st state in our union, activities were planned round the clock from Saturday morning till Sunday night, and while I can’t say we made it to the 4am rooftop tour, we did put in a pretty good showing on Saturday night…

new oakland museum logo, interactive art at oakland museum

The first thing you noticed as you approached the museum was the bold new logo, configured out of multi-dimensional retro-cool orange letters…. so much better than the stodgy old uniform brown lettering that used to announce your arrival. This sign alone is indicative of the larger changes incorporated within… more modern gallery spaces, more comfortable seating areas, and more interactive displays.

One example is pictured above right… a box constructed out of glass and a mirror-like surface that appeared and disappeared as one walked around the box, at times you could see through it to the person standing on the other side, at times you could see your own reflection, and if you both stood just right, you could see both, and even multiple images of each.

Another fun interactive station was incorporated below into the People of California exhibit. A wall of portraits of various periods, mediums, and styles included two framed digital screens that displayed visitor generated self-portraits, created on a slick touch screen (think Ipad!) with a wonderful little drawing/painting program allowing the use of various brush sizes and colors. Patrons could save their creations to be later displayed, both on the wall as framed art, and on a secondary screen that allowed other visitors to scroll through all the recorded portraits, viewing the sequence of brush strokes that created each one. This exhibit had a line of people waiting for as long as I was there. Nice job OMCA!

oakland museum reopening, oakland museum of art

The weekend activities highlighted the the completion of Phase 1 of the renovation plan with the re-opening of two main galleries: Art and History. (Phase 2 is slated for completion in 2012 and will comprise a new Natural Science wing.)

Art Gallery at Oakland Museum, oakland museum of art

The galleries are certainly more spacious and inviting, but the real changes are more conceptual than structural. While galleries used to be organized chronologically, now objects will be organized thematically, mixing various mediums and periods in order to tell complete “stories.”

art gallery at oakland museum, museum of art oakland

Another primary change is to make the galleries more easily transformable. The museum’s collection dates back to the early 1900’s, cobbled together from three older existing museums. “With nearly 2 million objects in its permanent collection, the museum is considered a leading resource for the research and understanding of California’s social, cultural and environmental heritage.” (The reinventing of the Oakland Museum of California by Angela Hill)

With a collection this large, only a small percentage is viewable at any point in time. “One of the key ideas of this whole renovation is to create a situation where we can change things out in a much easier way,” said René de Guzman, the museum’s senior curator of art. (The Oakland Museum Remixes Its Gallery Space by Rachel Swan)

Lori Fogarty, the museum’s executive director, further emphasized the shift… “We’d heard people coming through, saying things like, ‘Oh, I came here in fourth grade, and it’s just the same,'” Fogarty said. “We needed to do something about that, making the gallery spaces more flexible for changing exhibits, bring more programming like lectures and poetry readings directly into the galleries.”

art gallery at oakland museum, opening night oakland museum

From the scene this past weekend, it looks like their efforts have paid off hugely. The museum was packed!

opening night oakland museum

If you haven’t seen the new museum yet, it’s definitely worth checking out…  see their site for hours, directions, current exhibits, and more.  Oakland Museum of California

Random Ramblings…

I’ve been thinking about this awhile now… I’m looking for some guest bloggers. Anyone out there got a passion for Oakland, a camera, and some ideas to share?

I’m not exactly sure how it will work, but I’m open to suggestions… Could be once a week, once a month, or maybe a whole week at some point to give me a little break. The blog is simply a personal project right now and doesn’t have any advertising on it to generate revenue, which sadly means I can’t pay you. It would strictly be a volunteer effort… a labor of love.

Anyone? Please send in comments if interested…

In other news, and I’ll admit this is completely un-art-related, it’s Pickle & Pepper’s birthday! Here’s a shot of them resting up now, so they can party like crazy later. Just thought I’d share…

And last, but certainly not least, here are some mostly-art-related events coming up that you’ll definitely want to check out…

  • 4/23 FridayOakland Underground Film Festival kicks off (98 Broadway, Jack London Square)
    This festival will be running through August so do check their site for schedule details.  This Friday features Local Talent Short Films and I’m particularly interested in A Day Late in Oakland by Zachary Stauffer about the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey and the history of the Black Muslim Bakery in Oakland.
  • 4/24 SaturdayOakland Organic Plant Sale at California Hotel (35th St. @ Chestnut, West Oakland)
    This event is sponsored by People’s Grocery and related organization Ferment Change. Plants from local West Oakland organic farms (People’s Grocery and City Slickers) will be sold to raise money to hire low-income residents from the hotel to work in the newly established garden and greenhouse at the hotel.  Live music too.
  • 5/1-2 Saturday/SundayOakland Museum Re-opening Weekend Celebration (Oak @ 10th St., downtown) Well it’s been a long wait, but next weekend proves to be an exciting celebration of the newly renovated Oakland Museum.  The museum will be open for 31 hours straight and admission is FREE for the entire weekend.  Check out their site for all the groovy events planned… it’s gonna be a great party!

The rise of a black middle class…

I took a city walking tour about a week ago in honor of Black History Month… titled “New Era / New Politics” and offered by the city of Oakland free of charge, it’s one of eight walking tours covering different topics in Oakland’s history.  The tours typically only run during summer months from May through October, but this one exclusively is offered three times during February to celebrate the contributions of influential African American leaders to Oakland’s development.  In fact, this tour was developed and first offered in conjunction with the opening of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO) in 2002.  We met on the steps of the AAMLO to begin our tour…

Our guide, Renate, began with a broad statement…  that Oakland, as a medium-sized American city, is unique in its diversity, and specifically its history of diversity. And she attributed this difference primarily to the success of the Pullman Porters.

For those not familiar with the Pullman Porters, a bit of history… In the late 1800’s, Oakland was designated as the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railway.  This railway system connected the eastern portion of the United States with the new western states, and more specifically the burgeoning city of Oakland directly with the more established metropolis of Chicago.  Around this same time, George Pullman, an inventor and entrepeneur based in Chicago, developed railway sleeping cars, designed to offer trans-continental transport in a manner of luxury previously unavailable.  His first cars – containing sleeping berths, curtains, carpeting, upholstered chairs, and washrooms at each end – were called Palace Cars, and were marketed with the motto “luxury for the middle classes.”

To complement this experience of luxury, Pullman exclusively hired African American men to staff his cars as porters and wait-staff, believing that they were well-suited for these positions as “people who had been trained to be the perfect servant[s].” Though the jobs were not particularly well-paying and advancement was limited, they afforded many steady employment and income, as well as the ability to travel… novel concepts for blacks in that day and age in America.  By the 1920’s and 30’s the Pullman Company was one of the largest employers of blacks in America, many of whom lived and worked in West Oakland around the now defunct 16th Street Central Station.

When California joined the ranks of the “united” states in 1850, it did so as a free state with a constitution that abolished slavery.  But despite this, our tour guide Renate informed us that prior to the 1920’s, there were very few blacks in California.  It wasn’t until the railway system was completed and the relative prosperity of the early 20th century offered greater mobility that the first migratory wave of African Americans settled in California, many coming to Oakland in search of greater opportunities.  Throughout our tour, Renate emphasized the differences between this first generation of blacks in the Bay Area, those who had roots in the east and south, and the second generation, their offspring born and raised in California.  The opportunities available to the first generation would be fewer than expected… those coming with hopes of obtaining university educations to establish careers as doctors and lawyers were frustrated to find themselves excluded in ways that had not been expected in the reputedly liberal state of California.

But the Pullman Porters jobs allowed many families to settle in West Oakland… employees were actually required to establish residency within running distance of the train station. These early entrants into the formal blue collar workforce of America took hold of a rung from which they propelled themselves into the mainstream middle class of American Society (Rising From The Rails by Larry Tye).  One of my favorite quotes from the tour was something along the lines of the following:

Once you have an educated middle class,”historical consciousness” comes into being.

With that consciousness, a slew of early black leaders were able to assess the quality and context of their current station in life, and envision a different future possible.  A handful of these visionaries formed the East Bay Negro Historical Society, the remnants of whose archives now form the foundation of AAMLO’s archives.

There is much more to tell, but I am finding it exceedingly difficult to write this from Mexico.  Lo siento.  You can imagine how the gently swaying palms and lapping turquoise waters do distract… Forgive me.

For those interested in delving into this on their own (or too impatient to wait for my vacation-scheduled recap – can you say mañana?), the New Era / New Politics tour will be offered one more time this month… on Saturday the 27th, meets at AAMLO, starts at 10 am.

African American Museum & Library

To commemorate the beginning of Black History Month, I made a visit to the African American Museum & Library on 14th Street, just a couple blocks behind City Center. I have to be honest, and I am ashamed to admit this, but this was my first ever visit to this museum which opened 8 years ago. I guess I’ll just say it was well worth the wait, because it really is a gem of an institution.

First of all, the building itself is absolutely gorgeous! Both an Oakland City Landmark, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s an architectural delight with lovely arched windows and doorways, detailed exterior stone work and incredible craftsmanship inside.

beautiful oakland building, oakland city landmark

The building was spear-headed by Charles S. Greene, Oakland’s City Librarian from 1889 to 1926, who realized the city was outgrowing its first public library (a wooden structure erected in 1878 where City Hall now stands). He initiated a campaign to build a new one and, along with others including a women’s organization called The Ebell Society, found funding assistance from Andrew Carnegie’s Foundation, which offered $50,000 for the construction of the building. It was designed by architects Bliss and Faville in the American Beaux Arts style, and served as Oakland’s main library from 1902 until 1951.

“The elegant exterior of tan brick and terra cotta is incised with names of authors and disciplines and “Oakland Public Library.” “Free to All” is inscribed above the main entrance. The interior exhibits elaborate oak paneling, classical columns, and ornamented plaster ceilings. The second floor with its coffered, barrel-vaulted ceiling supported by massive columns, is one of Oakland’s most imposing interior spaces.” [Historical Plaque co-sponsored by Oakland Heritage Alliance]

barrel-vaulted ceiling

Once the new main library (at 14th and Oak streets) was opened in 1951, this building served as a branch library, at which point it was renamed the Charles S. Greene Library. It later became city offices, and was eventually abandoned after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. “Following extensive restoration, it reopened in 2002 as the new home of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland.”

The mission of the Museum & Library is to discover, preserve, interpret and share the historical and cultural experiences of African Americans in California and the West for present and future generations.

The library is housed downstairs and consists of unique archives and reference materials on the history of African Americans in Northern California. The reference library houses approximately 12,000 volumes whose subjects include “religion, the military, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, Africa in relationship to the African-American experience, genealogy, and California history.” And the archives contain diaries of prominent African Americans, newspapers on microfilm, videos and oral histories, and much more.

The museum is upstairs and “regularly hosts traveling and original exhibitions that highlight the art, history and culture of African Americans.” Here are two of the murals that greet you as you take the stairs to the second floor…

oakland murals, african american history, african american mural art

The current temporary exhibit is titled Access to Life: Faces from a Quiet Revolution and will be up through February 27th. It’s a powerful photographic exhibit by 8 Magnum photographers who focus their lenses on AIDS patients both before and for months following their antiretroviral treatments. “The project documents individuals in Haiti, Mali, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, South Africa, Swaziland, and Vietnam; countries chosen because of the diverse contexts and circumstances driving the epidemic in each one.” To learn more, visit accesstolife.theglobalfund.org. Here are a couple shots…

Access to Life, African American Museum

Access to Life, African American Museum, AIDS photo essays

There is also a permanent multi-media installation titled Visions Toward Tomorrow: The African American Community in Oakland, 1890-1990.Visions documents the historical accomplishments of generations of African Americans in Oakland from the era of pioneering and settlement to those eras of community formation, development of the press, establishment of local churches, and creation of a lasting legacy of music and the arts.”

If you’ve never visited this wonderful institution, might I suggest that there is no time like the present. In honor of Black History Month, I plan to focus on more African American cultural events and institutions as February continues…