‘Civic trauma’ of pandemic brings East Bay arts community together

A new coalition of East Bay arts organizations is making joint funding requests of Alameda County and cooperating on a regional “return to the arts” campaign.

Early formational meetings of the East Bay Arts and Cultural Alliance took place in Berkeley rep managing director Susie Medak’s Berkeley backyard (top right). Lori Fogarty (bottom right, at right), executive director of the Oakland Museum of California; Graham Lustig (bottom left, center), executive director of the Oakland Ballet; Roberto Bedoya (top left, at left), the city of Oakland’s cultural affairs manager, have also been involved in the formation of the alliance. Courtesy of Daphne White, Clara Rice Photography, Roberto Bedoya and Graham Lustig

If “there is a crack, a crack in everything,” the pandemic has certainly exposed thousands of them, large and small. But, as Leonard Cohen wrote, “that’s how the light gets in.” And when it comes to the East Bay arts community, the pandemic did crack open possibilities for collaboration among arts institutions that had never existed before.

“Arts organizations that used to be so busy and proprietary about everything — they couldn’t possibly collaborate! — discovered, lo and behold, the great benefit and joy of working together,” said Susie Medak, the longtime managing director of Berkeley Rep. “Many of us have been collegial over the years, but not necessarily collaborative. Our interests and our decision-making calendars [had not been] the same.” But the existential shock of the pandemic changed all that.

While San Francisco arts organizations have a history of working together to promote the city’s cultural scene, Alameda County art organizations — spread out over disparate cities such as Berkeley, Oakland, El Cerrito, Hayward, Livermore, Fremont, San Leandro and others — have historically been isolated and “Balkanized,” Medak said.

The pandemic brought the gift (and the curse) of Zoom, which suddenly allowed arts executives from throughout Alameda to gather for lunchtime meetings from the comfort of their home or office, without the need for a long commute. This gave Medak — who manages Berkeley’s largest arts organization — and her colleague Lori Fogarty — executive director of the Oakland Museum of California, the largest arts institution in Oakland — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the arts landscape of the county.

Taking advantage of the enforced pause, Medak and Fogarty expanded what had been a personal and professional friendship into a wide coalition that calls itself the East Bay Arts and Cultural Alliance. It now includes more than 50 arts and cultural organizations as varied as Aurora Theatre, Children’s Fairyland, the Magnes Collection, Oakland First Fridays, Peralta Hacienda Historical Park, UC Botanical Garden and dozens of others.

The group eventually settled on two initial goals for collaborative action. The first was lobbying Alameda County to commit 2% of the federal stimulus package (the American Rescue Plan Act) to the arts. The second goal piggy-backed on a San Francisco-based effort called Bay Area Arts Together and aims to help Alameda County audiences feel comfortable returning to the region’s arts venues post-pandemic. Members hope that, down the road, the alliance can grow to encompass collaboration on arts programming.

Creating a funding stream

San Francisco has long invested in its arts community, realizing how important it is for the city’s economy, Medak said. “The city of Berkeley [also] does its absolute best to fund the arts,” Medak said. “The mayor and city council members were really strong supporters of a $2 million fund to help arts organizations during the pandemic. But Berkeley can’t support the arts like San Francisco can: It’s such a small city, with so many outsized arts organizations.”

Alameda County, meanwhile, has not historically supported the arts in a financially significant way, Fogarty said. In the early part of the pandemic, the Alameda County Arts Relief Grants Program only provided “modest” support to 220 of the county’s 500 arts and cultural organizations, the alliance noted in a formal letter sent to the supervisors this summer. The average grant amount was $5,732: The smallest organizations received $3,150 each and the largest organizations received $15,750 each.

One reason the arts community hasn’t gotten more money from the county is because it never did the work of countywide organizing, Fogarty said. “There are over 500 nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in Alameda County,” she said. “But we never went to the county with one voice and requested support.”

It was funding from the federal government that kept many of the larger arts and cultural institutions alive during the pandemic, Medak said. If not for support through Shuttered Venue Operators Grant and the Payroll Protection Program, Berkeley Rep might not have survived. “When all this first went down, there was no assumption of any government subsidy,” Medak said. “There was no precedent of federal funding for cultural institutions since the 1930s and the WPA. This is a reminder that there is a role for government to play in supporting activities that are not totally market driven.”

Seventy-five percent of Berkeley Rep’s pre-pandemic budget came from ticket sales. So the theater instantly lost 75% of its revenue during shelter-in-place. The Oakland Museum gets 60-65% of its revenue from philanthropy, Fogarty said, but the museum also sells tickets and gets city support, so it has a more diversified income base.

Survival tactics

When the pandemic hit, “we were scared, anxious and worried,” Fogarty said. “We were all desperate for community,” Medak adds. “There was mutual vulnerability, mutual need. It was an awful, horrible time.” A brutal time, Fogarty adds.

They each had to make “really unforgivable choices,” Medak said, in laying off some people they had known for 30 years. “We hated the things that we had to do in order to sustain our organizations’ long-term viability. A year and a half ago, we didn’t know if our organizations would survive. We had to make Solomon’s choices.”

Those were some of the topics discussed at the earlier meetings of the alliance. But as time went on, and more and more organizations joined the group, the discussions became more strategic. How could Alameda arts and cultural organizations work together to ensure that the entire sector survives?

That was when the group decided to make a unified ask of Alameda County, setting up group meetings with each of the five county supervisors and presenting them in July with a letter requesting funding. While 50 organizations have been participating in the informal alliance, 100 signed the letter.

“Public investment in arts workers and arts organizations is key to this region’s economic recovery,” the letter said. “Alameda County has a 35 percent higher rate of creative occupations per capita when compared to the rest of the nation.”

Now that the county is set to receive approximately $365 million as part of the multi-year American Rescue Plan Act funding from the federal government, the alliance decided to come up with a specific ask that would more closely meet arts groups’ needs.

The letter’s signatories requested that 2% of the $365 million be allocated to arts and cultural organizations, commensurate with the 2% level that the county provides for public art through capital projects.

County supervisors have yet to reach a decision on how to allocate the federal money, but Fogarty is grateful to have a seat at the table and hopeful that arts organizations will get significantly more support than the county has handed out in the past.

Readiness to return

The alliance is also working on a second initiative called Bay Area Arts Together, which will launch in early November. The goal is to help audiences feel comfortable returning to indoor and outdoor arts and culture venues.

This initiative was spearheaded by the San Francisco Opera and the American Conservatory Theater. The San Francisco groups reached out to the East Bay groups and offered to include them in a regional “return to the arts” campaign. Each venue will get the same marketing logo, videos and print materials, and personalize it for their organization.

“The idea is to tell people that we are ready to inspire, ready to perform,” Medak said.

“COVID is a civic trauma: The discourse around trauma has been about the individual,” said Roberto Bedoya, the cultural affairs manager for the city of Oakland, and a member of the alliance. “But COVID has weakened the networks that enliven our city, and has isolated us from one another. We need to rebuild these networks now, and to come together — in the museum, in the theater, in other cultural institutions.”

The alliance has been “a very good, positive thing at a rather desperately empty and depressing time,” said Graham Lustig, executive director of the Oakland Ballet. “It gave me a positive outlook on the future, and the fact that we are now connected allows us the possibility to grow our programs further.” If you are running an arts organization, Lustig said, you are running on hope.

Daphne White is a freelance journalist and playwright with eclectic interests. She has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2016, interviewing authors and covering a wide array of topics including theater, arts, politics and real estate.