Column: UnderCurrents: Mayor Jerry Brown’s Arts Promises Failed Oakland By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday February 17, 2006

At what point should the citizens of Oakland begin declaring the two-term administration of Mayor Jerry Brown to be a failure? Massive. Total. Complete. 

This is a question I’ve been posing for quite some time now, but it was prompted (again) by the recent announcement of the demise of the Oakland Ballet, which is closing its doors after 40 years because of financial difficulties. 

So much for the Oakland Arts Renaissance Mayor. 

While a politician ought to be judged not only on what they promise to do while in office, at the very least they ought to be able to deliver on those promises, or explain why they couldn’t. 

Instead, Mr. Brown appears to be altering history in his last months in office as mayor of Oakland, pretending that he didn’t promise something at all. 

In the “About Jerry” link to Mr. Brown’s California attorney general campaign website (, Mr. Brown’s campaign writes that “Upon taking office [as Oakland mayor in 1999], Brown emphasized three goals: reducing crime, revitalizing the downtown and encouraging charter schools.” 

That’s not what I remember. Actually, upon taking office in 1999, Mr. Brown emphasized four goals. The fourth one, not listed on his “About Jerry” website link, was support for the arts in Oakland. It’s listed as one of Mr. Brown’s four policy goals in the fiscal year 2001-03 proposed policy budget, the document around which the city budget was fashioned. That fourth mayoral goal reads: “Arts: To encourage artistic expression and craft through public grants and civic festivals and establish a school for the performing arts.” Mr. Brown’s now-missing arts goal was also listed as one of Mr. Brown’s four policy goals in his January 1999 inaugural address (“The fourth element of my pledge is to support the arts and encourage festival and celebration in Oakland,” he told us), and as late as his 2000 State of the City speech, he was still listing “celebration of the arts” as one of his priorities. 

When, then, did support for the arts in Oakland get dropped as one of Mr. Brown’s goals and promises? 

Can’t exactly say for sure, but if we’d been paying attention, there were some signs along the way. 

One of them was Mr. Brown’s appointment of his longtime friend, aide, and used-to-be housemate, Jacques Barzaghi, as director of Oakland’s Craft and Cultural Affairs Department. (No romantic attachment between Mr. Brown and Mr. Barzaghi is implied, by the way; they just shared a big loft together with Mr. Barzaghi’s wife, and before Mr. Brown got married.) Anyways, while he may have served invaluably as a political advisor to Mr. Brown during his years as California secretary of state and governor and in his run for the United States presidency, Mr. Barzaghi never demonstrated the type of arts background needed to serve a city as sophisticated, ethnically varied, and artistically diverse as Oakland, and his appointment always seemed a way to get a buddy a nice city paycheck rather than as a way to actually help the city. 

Another indication of Mr. Brown’s flagging interest in arts in Oakland, was Mr. Brown’s failure to lift a public hand to try to save the Carijama Festival. 

Carijama, you may remember, was one of Oakland’s most successful festivals, a celebration of Caribbean and African-American dance, song, art, food, and artifacts that attracted hundreds of folks every Memorial Day to Mosswood Park in North-West Oakland since 1984. In 2002, the privately run festival ran into trouble with fights breaking out between youths who had not participated in the festivities, and only showed up when the entertainment was just about over and people were beginning to go home. After similar end-of-the-festivities violence broke out the next year, the city forced Carijama to move from grassy Mosswood to the sterile Frank Ogawa Plaza. Eventually, when the youth trouble continued, Carijama was sadly discontinued. 

Perhaps Carijama couldn’t have been saved. But while other Oakland officeholders put in efforts to keep the festival going—West Oakland Councilmember Nancy Nadel being one I especially remember—there’s no public indication that Mr. Brown even tried. So much for his 2001-03 city budget pledge to “encourage festival and celebration in Oakland.” 

Mr. Brown actually did worse with the Malonga Casquelord Center over on Alice Street, coming close to destroying one of Oakland’s most successful public art programs. The Casquelord Center—formerly the Alice Arts Center—is undoubtedly one of the most best public/private arts collaborations in the country, where several performing arts companies—mostly based in African dance—get free or reduced-price headquarters space in exchange for operating public dance classes through the City of Oakland. Thousands of Oakland citizens attend the dance classes every year. When Mr. Brown first formed his charter Oakland School For The Arts, he housed the school in a portion of the Casquelord facility, at one point putting in something like a million dollars in city subsidies to convert the basement and storefront space into classroom facilities. But instead of working out a partnership between the existing Casquelord programs and the Arts School, Mr. Brown eventually tried to take over the entire facility and muscle out the performing arts companies and the dance classes, suggesting at one point they house themselves in the storefronts surrounding the vacant Fox Oakland Theater. The companies—and a group of residential tenants on the center’s top floor—fought back, and eventually got City Council to make Mr. Brown back off his attempt to take over the whole Casquelord. If Mr. Brown had succeeded, he would have destroyed one of Oakland’s performing and participating arts treasures. That should have been another clue as to how he was viewing his goal to support the arts in Oakland. 

Now—under Mr. Brown’s watch—comes the demise of the Oakland Ballet. 

In 2004, citing financial problems, the Ballet had to take a year off to raise money. Until then it had been performing in the Paramount Theater, but moved to the Calvin Simmons Theater in the Kaiser Convention Center complex in 2005 as a cost-cutting measure. When City Council voted to close the Convention Center at the end of 2005 in order to balance the city budget, the Ballet had no performance home, and with bills mounting and low ticket sales for the 2005 season, the company had to call it quits. 

Could Mr. Brown have saved the Oakland Ballet, and, for that matter, the Kaiser Auditorium and the Calvin Simmons Theater? Again, I don’t know. There is every evidence that a city as diverse and culturally sophisticated as Oakland could have figured out a way to keep the ballet, given a massive, coordinated effort headed by the mayor’s office. But there is also no evidence that Mr. Brown—distracted, perhaps, by his run for California attorney general—even tried. Where were the press conferences? The City Hall meetings? The mobilization of city resources like we saw when he was fighting to get his military and arts charter schools approved by the Oakland Unified School District? The appeals to wealthy donors, both in Oakland, around the state, and around the country? Where were those fabulous contacts Mr. Brown promised us during the 1998 mayoral campaign that would “put Oakland on the map?” 

Instead, we got a prepared statement from the mayor’s office, which read: “The Oakland Ballet brought pleasure to generations of Oaklanders. It’s truly unfortunate that the financial challenges proved overwhelming.” 


Meanwhile, Mr. Brown has spent most of his “arts” time in Oakland developing his charter Oakland School For The Arts. One of the curriculum paths at that school allow a student to build the foundation to become a professional ballet dancer. For the last 40 years, an Oakland kid could use those classical European-based dancing talents to become a professional dancer in her or his hometown. Now, under Mr. Brown, that opportunity is lost. 

At what point, then, should the citizens of Oakland begin declaring the two-term administration of Mayor Jerry Brown to be a failure?