Rock Paper Scissors Collective members Kristie Holohan (left), Lionel McNeely (middle), and Pamela Ybañez inside of the arts organization's new Uptown space. Credit: Amir Aziz

In 2015, Rock Paper Scissors Collective’s lease for its Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street storefront was up for renegotiation and after 10 years of stable, relatively low-cost rent, their landlord wanted to raise the price to market value. 

“He’s a really nice guy and never increased our rent,” said Kristi Holohan, the longest-serving member of the collective, which helped invigorate Uptown and kickstart the Art Murmur and First Fridays street festival. “The neighborhood had transformed. There was no way we could afford almost $4,000, so we moved out.” 

Formed in 2004 as a volunteer-run community hub of creativity, workshops, youth programs, exhibitions, and more, Rock Paper Scissors Collective was suddenly uprooted. At first, they moved into the performance space Flight Deck on Broadway for a year. Then in 2016, the collective rented a space at Warehouse 416 on 26th Street. 

“416 really helped us get grounded again because the rent was feasible and there were no extraneous bills,” said collective member Pamela Ybañez. 

Warehouse 416 allowed the collective to regularly meet and host workshops and events, sometimes in collaboration with the Oakland Public Library and venues like Classic Cars West and The New Parkway Theater. But Rock Paper Scissors Collective’s members continued to pound the pavement looking for a permanent space of their own. 

“All of us were doing our best looking out for some type of opportunity to expand and have a storefront presence,” said member Lionel McNeely. “We had several leads on different opportunities.”

“We put together a business plan. We also signed up with East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and the city’s mailing list,” said Holohan.

There were more than a few times when they came close to finding a new space. According to Holohan, they negotiated for six different potential leases, never quite finding a space that worked.

“We would come close to signing a contract, [but] it would fall through because of rent,” said Ybañez. “There was no limit in terms of the rent increase.”

Collective members said that because the group is a nonprofit, it has a very limited ability to pay high rents, and unlike some residential properties, there is no rent control on commercial spaces, so landlords can increase rents by whatever amount they choose when a lease agreement expires.

The art space is assisted by volunteers like Pamela Kohler (right) who help run the space.
Collective members like Kristi Holohan and Pamela Kohler (right) help run RPSC’s space. Credit: Amir Aziz

Toward the end of 2017, the collective applied for and was awarded a “Keeping Space” grant from the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, a nonprofit that helps arts organizations secure real estate through purchases or leases. One eligibility requirement of the grant was demonstrating a stable, active, and continued presence in Oakland for the past three years. “Those nomadic years were critical in showing that even though we don’t have a permanent location to call our own, we could still do a lot, which we did,” said Ybañez.

Through the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, collective members were introduced to the nonprofit developer, Resources for Community Development. In 2018, RCD broke ground on a new project, The Embark Apartments, at 2126 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The building, which was completed last year, includes 62 units of affordable housing for Veterans and ground-floor commercial space. 

“Once we got into partnership, they really believed in us being able to fundraise,” said Holohan about joining forces with RCD. “We ended up having to raise $80,000 to open our new space.”

The collective grew from just two-to-three members during their nomadic years to seven current members. “Things are done on consensus. Once it’s been voted for, yes or no, you find a way to support it,” said McNeely about how the collective works. “There’s still a level of commitment to what we’re building on to be successful.”

“It was a huge venture. We all fundraised; it’s kind of a miracle that it all came together,” said Ybañez. 

Rock Paper Scissors Collective board member Peter Pendergrass also played a major role in the fundraising effort. Pendergrass joined in 2010 as a summer intern and spent several years as part of the organization before becoming a board member in 2018. They connected the collective with Gensler Oakland’s Community Impact program, a program through which employees use their professional skills to support community-based initiatives. Local contractor Design Draw Build was brought on board to figure out how to configure the new space.

Inside of the new space at 2120 Martin Luther King Blvd, where all art is sourced by local artists and people in the community.
Gensler Architects and Design Draw Build helped RPSC design its new storefront space at 2120 Martin Luther King Blvd. Credit: Amir Aziz

“We got what’s called a cold, dark shell. The drywall was not here. It’s basically ducts and vents. We had to build it out,” said Holohan.

Gensler donated architectural rendering and provided interns to help with the design. Design Draw Build, who primarily work on home renovations, worked within the nonprofit’s budget to facilitate permits and hire contractors. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the collective’s plans, however. 

“Having the pandemic right when we were about to move into the new space was really difficult because we weren’t able to continue fundraising,” said Ybañez. “Instead of putting my effort into having events, I put efforts into doing grants.” As a result, the collective was able to secure several grants to keep them going.

The new location, next to the Starline Social Club, is off the beaten track from Uptown’s shopping district on Telegraph Avenue. But the collective’s storefront can accommodate workshops, retail, and a gallery, all ADA accessible, with stable, affordable rent for the years ahead.

“It gives us a lot of security for the next 10 years,” said Ybañez about the collective’s lease.

In January, McNeely revived the collective’s monthly Art Ride, a once-a-month bike ride touring murals, installations, and architecture around Oakland. It’s an event for bicycle riders, art lovers, and mural appreciators. They’ve had two exhibits in their new Ara Jo Memorial Gallery, named in honor of the former collective member who was one of the victims of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire. The space gives emerging and established artists a place to explore and experiment. Exhibits rotate monthly, with openings coinciding on the first Friday of every month.

Weekly craft workshops are on offer, and their massive zine collection is on display for perusal. The retail space features handmade gifts such as cards, jewelry, and clothing created by local artists. In addition, they hope to bring back the mixed media and collage workshops for deaf and deaf-blind people led by member and ASL interpreter Leslie Colón at the Oakland Public Library, as well as craft-a-thon, and the annual vegan cupcake bake off. 

“Our organization is about building community through art, skillshare, and performance. We work hard to have a space to foster cross-cultural compassion and understanding; to be a real radical inclusive space,” said Holohan. “If we can, as an organization, work and collaborate with other groups, ultimately it is going to build. We can’t do this by ourselves.”

Correction: we changed this story to include the correct spelling of Kristi Holohan’s name. We also misstated the number of years RPSC was without a lease; it was six, not seven.