With the support of the New California Arts Fund, the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) is using the power of culture to equip people to participate more fully in society.
When OMCA first opened its doors, it was considered a “people’s museum,” a place for the city of Oakland to celebrate the art, history, and natural sciences that shape California’s identity. They’ve maintained those deep ties to their community for half a century and have been guided by the belief that when museums are truly welcoming and inclusive, they make a real difference in the lives of people as well as in the health and vitality of a community.
In the early years of their New California Arts Fund support, the OMCA team began moving along a trajectory from thinking about engagement as the responsibility of specific individuals or related to a particular exhibit, to now infusing engagement throughout the entire organization. At OMCA, what is programmed (the subject of exhibitions, the art and artifacts in the collection, the stories told through public programming), how it’s programmed (co-creating programs with community members, supporting staff development towards community relationship-building, or utilizing visitor evaluation in decision-making), and who facilitates the programs (diversifying Board, staff and volunteers throughout the institution) all support their commitment to engagement and social impact. The museum has evolved into a cultural organization where community and civic engagement are the core enterprise and the commitment to creating public value is embedded throughout the institution.
Over the past several years, the Museum has invested substantially in developing staff cultural competency and leadership capacity, particularly through a partnership with LeaderSpring that supported executive and staff learning cohorts. Nearly 30 staff members across the institution have had extensive multi-month trainings with tools and resources to support a culture of equity, positive communication, and design-thinking across backgrounds and biases.
Alongside this internal capacity building effort is a concerted focus to reach adults and families who live in the five neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the museum (Chinatown, Fruitvale, San Antonio, Uptown and West Oakland). The Museum is now truly seeing the demographics of their audience reflect Oakland’s diversity of ages, ethnicities, and economics. The OMCA audience is now over 40% people of color across all exhibits, and for their signature Friday Nights @ OMCA, people of color are the majority of attendees and one-third of attendees are new to the museum. Friday Nights @ OMCA offers food trucks, free workshops and demonstrations, live music, and low-cost gallery access, fulfilling a need for diverse Oakland families who value affordable cultural and educational experiences. The program is highly successful in achieving the Museum’s goal of extending an invitation and welcome to the surrounding community and has also attracted a number of new local institutional funders.
The OMCA Board of Trustees also now reflects the diversity of the Bay Area with 40% people of color as members, and the organization has proven that having a diverse board is not at odds with having a strong philanthropic board. In 2018, OMCA launched a new internship program to contribute to building a diverse pipeline of museum professionals across all areas of the institution - from finance, to marketing, to curatorial - and for a wide range of experience-levels from community college students to postdoctoral fellows. This new program pays interns a fair living wage, helps them find affordable housing in the Bay Area, and matches them with long term mentors, helping to attract a diverse pool of candidates and develop a new generation of arts professionals.
Lori Fogarty, OMCA Director and CEO
In 2016, the Ghost Ship Fire tragedy shook the city of Oakland when 36 people perished in a warehouse where low-income artists were living and working. An artist who worked closely with OMCA for a prior exhibit, Oakland I Want You To Know, was killed in the fire and the museum responded quickly to support both staff and community affected by the tragedy. In collaboration with the community, the team created an altar in the museum in honor of those whose lives were cut short. It was in that moment of trauma that the institution shifted from being a place people go as simply a destination, to a place of community gathering, support and healing. Those “townsquare” moments continued with the surprising results of the 2016 election, the inspiring 2017 Women’s March, and in smaller ways each week, with Friday Nights @ OMCA.
As a city, Oakland is changing rapidly; the Museum is collaborating with city planners, community organizations, and local funders to ensure the neighborhood retains the people and character that have made it so popular. They are engaged in a broader civic dialogue about what it means to be a responsible neighbor, helping to meet the community’s needs beyond their own walls. The team has learned that when you’re creating relevant programming, involving your community, reflecting back to the community their own stories, and becoming vital to that community, it’s possible to create a real financial success as well.
In order to sustain its commitment to engagement, the Museum is implementing its recently refined business model. This model lays out a plan for increased capitalization, diversification of income sources, and the identification of new sources of philanthropic support toward the institution’s highest strategic priorities, including an $85 million dollar comprehensive campaign to provide operating and programmatic support. The campaign has become a real test for the Museum, and for the field at large, to make a strong case for the social impact an arts organization can have on its local community. As part of the new business model, OMCA has created a new director of businesses development position, and reorganized an earned revenue team to help shift the mindset of the entire organization toward a more entrepreneurial spirit.