Artists Aghast at Anti-Public Art Lawsuit Against Oakland

Dan Corson, 'Shifting Topographies,' a project by Oakland's Public Art Program at entrance to 19th Street BART. (Photo: Dan Corson, City of Oakland)

Dan Corson, 'Shifting Topographies,' a project by Oakland's Public Art Program at entrance to 19th Street BART. (Photo: Dan Corson, City of Oakland)

Artists across the Bay Area are expressing shock and dismay after the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area (BIA) filed a lawsuit against the city of Oakland last week over the issue of public art in privately-funded developments.

The BIA Bay Area, a nonprofit association of contractors, developers and building industry business owners, is fighting the city’s percent for art ordinance, which they claim violates their first and fifth amendment rights.

“I consider this the ‘slip and fall’ of development lawsuits,” says Oakland artist Randy Colosky.

The ordinance, which already applied to Oakland municipal projects, expanded in early February to require that commercial projects costing more than $200,000 devote one percent of their budgets to public art. Residential projects must devote one-half percent of their budgets to public art. Alternatively, any building project can pay a corresponding amount into a pooled fund for public art programs.

“Developers owe it to the city and residents to enrich the landscape and culture of the urban space,” Emma Spertus, artist and founder of the Oakland studio building and residency program Real Time and Space, says.

“Public art is about the architecture of a space, the architecture of a community, the architecture of a building,” says Colosky, who recently completed a public art commission in San Francisco at the site of the future Central Subway.

Randy Colosky, 'Ellipses in the Key of Blue,' installation at the Moscone Central Subway construction site. (Photo: Ethan Kaplan/San Francisco Arts Commission)
Randy Colosky, ‘Ellipses in the Key of Blue,’ installation at the Moscone Central Subway construction site. (Photo: Ethan Kaplan/San Francisco Arts Commission)

Introduced by then-councilmember Libby Schaaf, the amendment was approved in Nov. 2014 and went into effect in Feb. 2015. The ordinance stresses public art is “important for the vitality of the artist community as well as the quality of life for all Oakland residents.”

This sentiment flies in direct contrast to the suit filed last week.

BIA Bay Area is represented by Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a conservative public interest law firm. The firm says the city is “forcing builders of homes and commercial projects to fund art works that have no reasonable connection to any public needs created by their building projects.”

Percent-for-art ordinances already exist in most Bay Area cities, including San Francisco, Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Emeryville, El Cerrito and Santa Rosa. Oakland, with its large and ever-growing artist community, follows a well-established trend of integrating public art into private developments.

Kristen Zaremba, senior public art project manager for the city says, “Support for the arts and the arts community is fierce and committed, from the mayor on down.”

So why sue Oakland, and why now?

Claiming the percent for art ordinance levies needless fees on developers, BIA positions itself as pro-housing in the midst of the Bay Area’s housing crisis. Since the ordinance is new and hasn’t yet accumulated any funds, perhaps the BIA seeks to cut off such expenditures before they become commonplace.

Emma Spertus, 'Space blinds,' installation at Interface Gallery. (Photo: Emma Spertus, Interface Gallery)
Emma Spertus, ‘Space blinds,’ installation at Interface Gallery. (Photo: Emma Spertus, Interface Gallery)

Colosky believes the economic argument is groundless. “As someone who has vetted projects for the city of Oakland, I know how little of the budget includes public art,” Colosky says. “It’s miniscule. If a developer can’t make money and include that, he’s not a good developer.”

As local artists and members of the community voice their anger towards BIA on social media and rally email-writing campaigns, the conversation also turns towards the possibilities of even more support for the arts.

Spertus has hopes for the city’s future arts spending, barring any setbacks from the lawsuit. “I hope the percent for art can translate into more artists grants. I think to be the caliber of city it should be, Oakland should be funneling even more funds to local artists, not just those who are doing public art,” she says.

Artists Aghast at Anti-Public Art Lawsuit Against Oakland 2 December,2015Sarah Hotchkiss
  • Ann Treboux

    The SFAC should be sued. The public art selection panel is flawed. It is not an open selection process. Rather it is run by one person-Jill Manton. She has sole pick of the
    few chosen and presents them to the VAC.
    The VAC has no idea what they are voting on
    and the presentations can’t me with her personal recommendations.
    Dorka Keehn, takes Manton’s proposals out of order and Sunshine violations are filed as a result. 20 this year. Just look at the civil case
    filed against the SFAC by the Bayview Hunters
    Point Art Forum.

  • Ann Treboux

    Barbara Sklar is a 77 year old comissioner who can not remember yesterday much less a month
    ago. She thinks everyone is stalking her because they wait for her in the hall to ask a question.
    She was taken out in tears at a street artist meeting last year. She yelled at Mike Addario.
    She should be removed from the commission.
    Barbara Sklar. What a joke!

  • Mike Addario

    Barbara Sklar should be removed from the street
    artist committee. She tried to throw me out of the room when I was speaking. I often thought of filing a complaint on her. She is just too old to
    serve. Sklar has no idea what it is like to work in
    the street and could careless.

  • Mike Addario

    Take Manuel Lolli. He has been pending a hearing since May. Three people can not get together to revoke his permit. Not only is he selling junk he never made; he sells dope.
    What is a 77 year old going to do? She is scared of her own shadow. Lame.

  • microlith

    Funny how this article attracted commentary, most are silent. Lotsa ad-hom, too, almost as if they have nothing else to go on.

  • Jim Reilley

    This is the sort of thing that when the builder/developers come to the city to ask for favors and perks in the future, you remind them that they wouldn’t play ball on public so now you get the payback. For BIA-Bay Area, the question is whether this mandate is so much that you want this to be the fight you decide to pick with the city?

  • LeeAnn Gee

    Bringing up the woman’s age is just dicky of you. I don’t actually know her, but I’ll tell you this. I live in Oakland. I’m happy that part of my money goes to support art projects. The developers can just suck it up. They already make some ungodly amount of money anyway.

  • sebra leaves

    Something should be done to mitigate the bad taste in designs we are suddenly surrounded by. I feel like I am living in a Modrian nightmare. Have modern architects no imagination? Or are developers too cheap to hire anyone with taste?


Sarah Hotchkiss

Sarah Hotchkiss is KQED Arts’ Visual Arts Editor, an artist and half of Stairwell’s. Follow her at @sahotchkiss.

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