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Lamenting The Loss Of The Artship

February 26, 2008

A friend of mine brought up the subject of the Oakland Artship over lunch on Saturday. Although I never saw a performance or art show on the Artship during the few short years that the ex 1939 luxury liner "Golden Bear" was used as an unusual, seaborne cultural venue, its disappearance from Oakland's dockyard in 2004 strikes me as being totally at odds with what the city is evolving into today.

Oakland artist Slobodan Dan Paich launched the Artship Foundation in the early 1990s to turn the vessel, which arrived at the port's Ninth Avenue Terminal in 1999, into a floating community space boasting theaters, an art gallery, an educational institution and housing for struggling artists. According to a 2004 article in the Oakland Tribune, then-Mayor Jerry Brown and other city leaders promised to give full support to the idea.

But a rift opened up between the Foundation and the City of Oakland. Apparently the ship needed $10 million dollars of improvement work in order to become properly usable and the Foundation hadn't raised the necessary funds despite strong vocal support from the community. The City took back the lease on the Ninth Avenue Terminal. In February 2004 the Artship was sold to a Texas- based scrap metal company and towed away.

Today, Oakland is undergoing a hearty renaissance. There's so much new building happening. Neighborhoods are becoming more diverse. Downtown Oakland is no longer a ghost town after 6pm and during weekends. There are fancy new restaurants and bars popping up all over the place. At a community policing meeting I attended last night, neighborhood safety leaders mostly reported a steady drop in crimes in their areas over the past few months.

More and more artists are choosing to live in Oakland because of the stratospheric cost of living across the Bay in San Francisco. There are some wonderful cultural happenings on this side of the Bay, from the Hot Pink Feathers' burlesque cabaret nights and The Crucible Fire Arts center, to the monthly Art Murmur art tours and the renovation of the old Fox Theatre into a cultural complex. And yet the Artship is no more.

According to both the Artship Foundation website and my friend (who, incidentally, produced a site specific theatre show on the boat during its brief lifespan) the Artship fell prey to the plans of realtors and the City's greed:

The pressures of real estate development and the neo-suburban models of gated communities left no room for the Artship initiative's deeply urban and people/community centered approach. The clear cutting mentality - versus ecological approach, or deregulated crops - versus fair trade, are the similar dynamics to Oakland’s waterfront development. The City of Oakland sued and evicted Artship on January 1st 2004. Its agency the Port of Oakland strong-armed ARTSHIP Foundation to renounce its title to the ship and sold it for scrap.

Strong words indeed.

Perhaps the City of Oakland had good reasons for nixing the Artship. But was it a worthy sacrifice? After all, the city is teeming with luxury condos. Supply is currently out-pacing demand. Now that Oakland finally seems to be pulling itself out of the post 1989 earthquake quagmire, culture should be at the center of its agenda. It's a shame that the City didn't support the Artship project. By now, the vessel would no doubt have matured into a destination spot with a much bigger artist community to feed it and a broader and more hungry local audience available to hop on board and revel in its work.


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