I wander through Temescal’s Studio One Arts Center on a Saturday in September 2015 to find it mostly empty. The space is impressive, however. There are several spacious, naturally-lit studios, a theater, a hall, a darkroom, a kiln for ceramics, and more rooms I didn’t poke into on my self-guided tour. Most of the classes, as it turns out, happen during the week. When I peruse the yelp reviews, it seems yelpers in the community feel mixed about the quality of the instruction and the general programming that happens here lately. The three most recent reviews (which date from October 2015 back to October 2014) gave the center a single star out of five. The seven reviews before that, however, which take us back to August 2010, proffer five. Either the Studio One community doesn’t have many yelpers, or there isn’t much of a community there today. If the latter, this hasn’t always been the case.
Temescal’s Studio One Arts Center, founded in 1947, was made possible by increased public interest in government-funded recreation following World War II. In 1945, over 1 million dollars was allocated to recreation in Oakland (Oakland Tribune, May 4, 1952). While public funding for recreation was pouring into rec departments all over the nation, the Oakland Recreation Department was unusual in how it saw its mission. Inspired by the settlement house movement in Chicago and other eastern cities, early Oakland organizers Ethel Moore and Jay B. Nash established a community service philosophy in the Recreation Department that would last for several decades. As opposed to other cities’ recreation departments whose aims remained primarily in the service of developing athletics programming in which participants could compete, the Oakland Recreation Department sought to “serv[e] people in the ways they needed,” describes then General Supervisor of the department, Carol Pulcifer (Norman 30). This meant serving the people’s actual needs over the neighborhood’s prospective glory. Build community, not celebrity. Pulcifer describes that the thinking of the department’s early leaders Superintendent of Recreation Bob Crawford and Supervisor of Programs Alta Bunker was “to protect kids from the evils of having too much emphasis placed on molding them to be the best pitcher on the team” (as qtd. in Norman 30). “Our philosophy was not: pare down until you’ve only got the champions; rather, it was: the more kids you could serve, the better,” she recalls.
When the neighborhood’s demographics changed suddenly and dramatically in the late 1940’s, “the first thing that Alta Bunker and Bob Crawford did,” according to Pulcifer, was to recruit African-American leaders with training in both community building and athletics to join the department. Bunker and Crawford recognized that in order to serve the community, which they intended to do, the department’s leadership needed to reflect its population. Pulcifer notes, “it took a lot to persuade taxpayers and the city council that all of this was worthwhile…There was little understanding about the deeper role of recreation in people’s lives” (31). Bunker, Crawford, Pulcifer and others running the department believed that “adults needed recreation as much as kids needed it,” and that “there needed to be a supportive, non-competitive environment in which people could develop these interests.
Today, the Oakland Visitor’s Bureau touts Oakland as “the arts mecca of the west.” “Art is part of Oakland’s soul,” the introduction to their “Arts and Culture” page reads. In November 2014, the Oakland City Council passed a law requiring private developers to set aside 1 percent of their project costs for public art. There are over fifteen art museums in Oakland and Alameda. Yet, Since 1995, Oakland public schools have had zero public money for arts education.