Cultural Affairs Commission's commisisoner and author of the city's Cultural Plan, Vanessa Whang (left), Cultural Affairs Manager, Roberto Bedoya (middle) and the commission's Chair, Diane Sanchez. Credit: Amir Aziz

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As the pandemic worsened and the economy faltered in 2020, members of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Commission worried that funding for their work would be cut. But the commission recently got a boost when the City Council voted to significantly increase its budget.

“We had long been asking city councilmembers to not cut the budget, and then this year, we were able to really go in and ask for significant funds and resources,” said commission Chair Diane Sanchez.

Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Commission advises the city on policy matters that affect the arts and culture, and they hold the city accountable for implementing its Cultural Plan, a roadmap to ensure that “every Oaklander in every neighborhood has access to cultural amenities.” 

First established in 1991, the commission and the Cultural Affairs Division was part of Oakland’s Cultural Arts and Marketing Division and included Oakland’s public information officer, and KTOP TV 10, the city’s television station. But the commission was shut down in 2011 during the Great Recession for lack of funding. In 2016, as the city’s budget recovered, Roberto Bedoya was hired as Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Manager, and in February 2020, the commission was revived, right before the pandemic hit. 

Today, the commission and Cultural Affairs Division are housed in the city’s Economic and Workforce Development Department, a place in city government that reflects the important role the arts play in Oakland’s economy.

“There was a time when arts and culture funding was under attack. Then there was a switch in narrative again, about saying, ‘Oh, well, the arts, it’s an economic driver,’” said Vanessa Whang, a member of the commission and author of the city’s Cultural Plan. “So they started putting all of the arts departments or divisions into economic and community development departments; many cities did that.” 

While arts are indeed a huge economic driver for the city, Whang said that doesn’t mean the commissioners believe its only value to the city is financial. She said the commission is focused on respecting and elevating different cultures, recognizing how diversity in Oakland is an asset to the city, and providing financial support to artists of various backgrounds, distributed equitably across districts.

Mural on 7th street in West Oakland, previously a Black cultural center for arts and music. Credit: Amir Aziz

At the urging of groups like Artists in Action, and after hearing from members of the Cultural Affairs Commission, the City Council voted in late June to give the commission a $5.1 million budget for the next two years, an increase over the commission’s previous $3.9 million budget. The funds will be used for grants to arts organizations, supporting arts and culture in underserved areas, and an additional full-time employee in the Cultural Affairs Division.

Currently, nine of the commission’s 11 seats are filled. The commissioners range from working artists to nonprofit professionals and policy experts. Nominated by the mayor and approved by the council, each commissioner serves a one-to three-year term.

Alongside the commission is the Funding Advisory Committee, another volunteer board that works with the Cultural Affairs Division to decide which artists and arts organizations will receive funding from the Cultural Funding Grant Program, which has $1 million to distribute. (Because of their power to advise the city, commissioners are ineligible to receive this funding while they’re serving on the panel.)

“We raise our hands, and we take an oath,” said the commission’s Chair, Diane Sanchez. “Being on the cultural commission, there are do’s and don’ts because I am now an arm of the city.”

In May, the City Council approved the Funding Advisory Committee’s recommendation to distribute $480,000 in grants to 37 individual artists and arts organizations.

Indigenous Red Market at Native American Health Center in Fruitvale. Credit: Amir Aziz

Another crucial aspect of the Cultural Affairs Commission’s mission, and what Bedoya calls their “guiding document,” is the city’s Cultural Plan, which was adopted by the City Council in the fall of 2018. This document, a first in over 30 years for Oakland, outlines strategies to ensure greater equity in the arts, alleviating the high cost of living for cultural workers, and creating a greater sense of belonging. 

“The plan established a North Star with belonging as a civic narrative. We are trying to figure out how you operationalize belonging? The commissioners have a million ideas and plenty of will,” said Bedoya.  

For Whang, starting as a commissioner shortly before the pandemic was an opportunity to rethink the role the commission could play in Oakland, using it to advance racial equity and justice. “Nothing was business as usual, which is a plus for us to be able to recalibrate what the work of a cultural commission is,” she said.

That vision has resonated with other members of the commission. “Culture is about a lot of what we do and who we are, and how we see things and value things,” Sanchez said. “We’re talking about the way families live in their cultures in the city and either feel that their culture and their family belong, or feel like they’re kind of on the outside.”

Bedoya said the commission’s role is about much more than murals, sculptures, and theaters: “How people walk through the city, that’s culture,” he said.

The commission’s to-do list for the upcoming fiscal year includes streamlining the contracting process by which the city pays artists and small companies for their work, how the commission can help local arts and culture-based businesses recover from the pandemic, and finding ways to make sure that the city’s permitting fees don’t create financial barriers to events like festivals, markets, and concerts.

The commission is also engaged in a conversation about how Oakland’s pricey real estate market is fueling the displacement of certain communities and what can be done to stop that.

Whang, Sanchez, and Bedoya want Oakland residents to know that the commission will listen to them and be a tireless advocate, ensuring the City Council and mayor make informed decisions and continue to budget for a robust arts and culture community in Oakland.

Current commission members

  1. Vanessa Whang, author of the city’s cultural plan
  2. Diane Sanchez, philanthropy consultant and current Chair of the commission
  3. Kev Choice (Vice-Chair)
  4. Roy Chan, Senior Program Manager at National CAPACD
  5. Jennifer Easton, public art director at San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit
  6. J.K Fowler, founder and executive director of Nomadic Press
  7. Michelle Mush Lee, founder of Whole Story Group
  8. Charmin Roundtree-Baaqee, founder of Art is Luv
  9. Theo “Aytchan” Williams, director of SambaFunk

How to participate

The remainder of the commission’s meetings will take place on the fourth Monday of the following months: July, September, and October at 4:00 PM.at 4 p.m. You can tune in over Zoom.

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.