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Sustaining Cultural and Creative Spaces

"So here I am! I get to be around all the kinds of people I like and enjoy, and who inspire me, motivate me, and make me happy. But I am also the poorest, the brokest, I’ve been in my whole life. In the beauty business, I made money because I was really good. This is a challenge, but I made the sacrifice and I’m probably the happiest that I’ve been in my life!” - Joyce Gordon

A Conversation with Joyce Gordon
Interview by Christine Joy Ferrer and Jarrel Phillips

You're listening to a conversation with Joyce Gordon on black identity, black-owned business, diversity, commitment to the arts, and owning a fine arts gallery in Oakland.

Joyce Gordon and Christine Joy Ferrer, Joyce Gordon Gallery © 2015 Jarrel PhillipsAbout Joyce Gordon
Before she opened the Joyce Gordon Gallery 12 years ago, Gordon owned three hair salons in the San Francisco Bay Area and published a book on hairstyling. When her work as a platform artist educator demonstrating new haircutting techniques took her around the country, Gordon took every opportunity to visit art galleries wherever she went. And when her children grew up and left home, she decided to open an art gallery of her own.

Growing up in Berkeley, California, Gordon liked to hang out with creative people—artists and poets who sat around spitting rhymes and spoken word, usually at a park across from Berkley High School but also at the zoo where they played congas and wrote poetry. The term "hippy" had not been invented yet but, Gordon says: "That’s where I fit. I had to create an environment where I would be around creative people—dancers, writers, poets, artists.”

When Gordon eventually started looking for a space to open a gallery and live the life she wanted, she had a hard time finding the right space. She considered Jack London Square, near Yoshi’s because she figured that people who like art would like jazz. “But they just wanted big businesses and chain restaurants there," says Gordon, who then spent about a year trying to find something locally, including a space on the top floor of Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, but without any success. So she started looking further afield and had found a place in Atlanta, Georgia and was all set to move when a friend told her about the “For Lease” sign at 406 14th Street in Downtown Oakland—the current location of the Joyce Gordon Gallery.

"So here I am!” says Gordon. “I get to be around all the kinds of people I like and enjoy, and who inspire me, motivate me, and make me happy. But I am also the poorest, the brokest, I’ve been in my whole life. In the beauty business, I made money because I was really good. This is a challenge, but I made the sacrifice and I’m probably the happiest that I’ve been in my life!”

Download Joyce Gordon Interview

Joyce Gordon Gallery is a commercial fine art gallery located in downtown Oakland, California. The gallery exhibits art that reflects the social and cultural diversity of the Bay Area and features the work of local and international artists. The aim of the gallery is to respect the creative pursuits of individuals while making the work accessible to a broad audience. Christine Joy Ferrer is the web/design, arts and culture editor for RP&E. Jarrel Phillips is the founder of AVE and the arts and culture correspondent for RP&E.

Christine Joy Ferrer: Did you ever think of a fine art gallery as elitist?

Joyce Gordon: I didn’t have a clue that it was “elitist” because I’m not elitist. A lot of people who’ve walked through these doors have never been in a gallery before. Some people stand at the door because they feel uncomfortable. I guess galleries can be snobbish. If you don’t look or dress a certain way, you don’t belong. My thinking is: It’s art! Everybody is included, which is why I thought it was a comfortable space for me.

Jarrel Phillips: Elitism can be about class but really, the average person that can afford half this stuff has to also be of a certain age, as well as having an interest and an appreciation.

Gordon: If they can buy expensive tennis shoes, designer bags and concert tickets, or spend all their money getting their hair and nails done, they can invest in quality art. It’s just not a priority. You can have whatever it is you want to have; you just have to really focus on it.

Phillips: The average young person buying Jordans feels it’s functional. There’s also a social value to it. Consciously or not, they are able to appreciate and give qualitative value to nice shoes because it makes them feel confident and accepted. That’s what they’re really paying for.

Gordon: I believe if it became popular to have a Nina Fabunmi piece in your place, even if it was $15,000, they’d figure out a way to get it because it’s the thing to do and everybody’s doing it, just like the Jordans.

Phillips: Art originally was for the rich who bought it. Artists were essentially performers who entertained the wealthy. Like schools and higher education, art was for the rich. Now we’re talking about more and more people being able to afford art or being willing to buy art as a commodity. I believe life is art. Everything we do is art. This building is art, even if no one wants to value the architecture or the process. Everything is art because everything starts with an idea and becomes materialized, so life is art. Indigenous cultures knew that.

Ferrer: Tell me about the kinds of artists and artwork that you feature in your gallery. How do you and your curator, Eric Murphy, decide what’s curated?

Gordan: Paintings, sculptures, mixed media, photography—we do it all. Someone’s always telling me to focus on just one thing. But why? I don’t feel the same way every day. The artists whose work I first featured, it was because I wanted to give them a chance to show their work. It had nothing to do with me liking their work or anything like that. They worked real hard. Art school is really expensive. Art is expensive. All of the supplies and tools you need—it’s expensive. I selected artists who were really dedicated and tried to help them get their work out where other people can see it. I’ve changed a little since then because I wasn’t selling anything. I now try to mix it up with artists who have been out there for a while and those just starting out. Artists that have been out there too long and show all over the same area, I try to stay away from.

I show everybody. When I first opened, people asked me, “Do you just show Black art?” That’s because they’re looking at me. At the time everything on the walls was by white artists! Then I had Black people say: “You just show white art!” So, my question was: “What is Black art?” And they said: “Well, you know!” And I said: “No! I don’t know. Are you saying that Black art is art with Black images?” Because there are artists who are not Black who paint Black images. I’ve had two artists’ work hanging side-by-side and people thought it was the same artist. One was Black and one was Iranian, so how do you explain that? You see abstract art with no images, no figures, or anything—just color and movement.

Phillips: What are some questions you ask artists?

Gordon: What are you doing to make things different for you? Are you coming together with other artists and seriously talking about doing things together? Are you committed? What do you want to put out there and why? Sometimes art can be a fad. Everybody’s an artist. I don’t know what the art movement looks like because I’m not a working artist. A lot of artists don’t come here anymore because they have all these other places uptown.

Phillips: How do you give the arts value in society when clearly, the arts in general are under-appreciated? They are being taken out of schools completely. It’s hard to make a living from art. Gallery owners and artists—you see them struggling to figure this out.

Gordon: I look to you young people for the answer because I honestly don’t know. Last September, I started hosting an open painting event at my art gallery called Brews and Brush, where you have a professional artist guide you. It’s a social thing. You bring your own brews and it’s a party. Most people who come tend to not have much experience with fine art galleries but this is a social thing, it’s fun and every Brews and Brush participant thus far will be in a show.

Phillips: The hardest part is actually having people come in and make art and you’re providing the space for it. It’s actually both fun and functional for people to create the art themselves versus buying art to hang on the wall.

Gordon: Often, people looking at a piece will say: “$2,000? I can do that!” And I think: “But you didn’t!” Now that you see it, you could probably do it, but you could not create it. Even the artist could not come back and do it. Brews and Brush is usually two or three hours but often, folks don’t want to leave. They feel a little more appreciation and respect for what’s on the wall, and understand the time, work and money that’s put into creating a painting.

Ferrer: Tell us about the different things you’ve done to help make this space accessible to all people.

Gordon: All people, all ages, and all forms of art. We’ve had dance, book readings, poetry recitals, music. This gallery has become more of a cultural space than any dedicated cultural space in the Bay Area that I know of. We’ve featured white, Black, Asian, Filipino, and Russian artists. When I realized that most of my featured artists were men, I put a call out for a women’s show, and it was very diverse. The women represented different cultures, so we had a potluck and everybody brought different food. I really believe art provokes dialogue. People begin to talk to each other and become more relaxed around each other.

Ferrer: How do you feel about the new developments in Downtown Oakland and how have they transformed the area?

Gordon: Everyone’s excited about, you know, all this diversity. Where is it? You got tall white people and short white people? Are you excited about all these new businesses? Most of them are bars, clubs and restaurants. You go to a restaurant that seats 80 people and four of them are Black. All of the waiters are white. Down Telegraph, all the new bars, restaurants, coffee shops, tea bars, are white-owned. Down Broadway, except for Pecans, Mua and a couple of others, all the rest are white-owned. Down Grand Avenue, they’re all white—even the pet shops! So what are they talking about? I would just love to see more Black businesses in this area.

I would really like to see some diversity. There are no artists or people interested in art willing to take the initiative or risk to open a business here because they can’t get the funding, or the lease is too high, or because they’re Black. Since I’ve opened, I’ve seen more Black and other artists of color really trying to come together and do things. I asked someone recently: “Are there any Asian or Latino galleries in Oakland?” Everything seems to be a Black/white thing. I know there are three Black-owned and about 40 white-owned galleries in Oakland. Maybe some Black artists feel left out because they can’t get into those galleries. And some artists of color may want to get into the white galleries because that’s where the art critics go and write about the shows.

Phillips: Are you concerned about having to leave?
Gordon: I remember two or three years ago, I was thinking about closing the gallery. It seemed like it just was not working. and I was looking for someone to take over the gallery. Then Erica came and we decided to work together. Now, I’m not really concerned. If they went up on my rent where it was just too much, I’d just move into the gallery because I can live here. That’s how serious I am about it. We’re not going anywhere. We were here before they came and we’ll be here when they leave. Everybody’s passing through.

Phillips: I agree. There are some people, like me, who want to stay in San Francisco. People talk about getting “pushed out,” which definitely happens, but should we just feel bitter?

Gordon: Well, I know a lot of Black businesses around here are gone because they made the rent so high. I believe if there was more support from the community, perhaps they could’ve stayed a little longer. But the rent was just totally ridiculous. So what do you do?

Phillips: Is it something that people should get mad about and fight for?

Gordon: Well, that’s a hard one, speaking as a property-owner. I don’t think all property owners are just about money, money, money! If I was, I wouldn’t be here because I’ve put more money out than I’ve brought in. When I opened the gallery I thought that this was something I could do with my retirement. When you’re retired you don’t need money anyway. I can’t travel. Let me just say I haven’t been able to travel like I would’ve liked to. Fortunately, I’ve travelled before. There are a lot of things that I can’t do now because I don’t have the money to do it. But I’m okay with it because I’m living the life that I love. I’m healthy, and as long as I’m in a creative environment, I will continue to be healthy.

Phillips: You said that if there had been more community support, some businesses may have survived a little longer. Do you think that the Joyce Gordon Gallery is a community place more than a cultural space?

Gordon: Well, it is, in that it’s open and I have made it possible for all kinds of people and a lot of groups to do their thing here at a loss for me. Some things are free and others, I’m not charging as much as I should be because I have bills to pay. But when people want to do an event here, I don’t think about all that. I think that they think I’m rich. I think I’m rich, too!

Ferrer: Can you tell us a story about something that really inspired you—as the owner of the gallery—or gave you that “ah-ha” moment because you say that this is the happiest time of your life?

Gordon: I’m always excited, like tonight, when we have the opening because if you just see the artists—it’s like when I was cutting hair. A woman comes into the salon and when you finish her hair—this is when people smoked—the first thing she does is light up a cigarette, so you know she has arrived! I feel good when I have had something to do with someone else feeling good. When the artists walk in and see people looking at their work and engaging in conversation, that feels good to me. It’s like going to a graduation and watching somebody get their diploma. I remember when the Oakland School of the Arts was in transition and they used this place for their art show. These high school kids were just high-fiving each other because they saw their work hanging. Another time, my friend’s fourth grade class had a show of their poetry and photography. That was just really exciting, too.

Ferrer: Do you consider yours a “Black arts” gallery, per se?

Gordon: I don’t know what that means. Mine is a fine art gallery that is open to artists that are committed to whatever they’re doing—if they’re open, interested, and have some concern for their community. Artists of all cultures, if they’re workers, are welcome here. This is the first year that every show has featured a Black artist. I don’t know if that’s because I’m beginning to meet more artists of color whose work I really like, or because I feel that there aren’t a lot of venues for artists of color. But as long as they keep coming and I like what they’re doing I will be showing them. If it ends up that I feature a Black artist every month, that’s just the way it is. I’m actually trying to narrow it down though, to select 10 or 15 artists and just work with them.

I am a designer. My gallery is my canvas. Yes, I am a Black woman, a Black gallerist, but I am not just focused on Black artists—yet I am, because that’s who I am. Someone asked me when I opened the gallery, “Joyce, did you go to see how the white galleries do it?” Why do I need to see what the white people do? If you’re confident enough in yourself and believe in yourself and love yourself, you set your own standard. White people don’t set an example or a blueprint for my way of thinking.

Phillips: I recently had a conversation with one of my co-teachers about a new student, a young Black boy whose Mom is very pro Black. I was concerned that she’d expect me to fit into this box of what it is to be a “positive” Black male. I don’t feel it’s necessary to even say “positive Black male.” But then, there are those who would disagree with me on that.

Gordon: My best friend in design school was German. I told her, “Don’t expect me to act like a white girl, and I won’t expect you to act like a Black woman. I appreciate you because of who you are and I don’t want you to change.” When you respect each other’s differences you realize that you have more in common than you realize.

Phillips: You don’t have to understand the differences, you just need to respect them.

Christine Joy Ferrer is an RP&E contributing editor and editor of Jarrel Phillips is an RP&E cultural correspondent and founder of AVE (Access Via Exposure).