Swarm: A Good Reason to Go to Oakland

Svea Lin Vezzone, Director and founder of Swarm Studios + Gallery, will make you feel like the trek was worth the effort. This tall brunette beauty’s smile is welcoming and infectious and hints at her non-profit background. Swarm is just the tip of the iceberg of reasons to go to Oakland to see art these days but if you need just one reason, this is it.

Of course, the Oakland Museum has been there forever, quietly and articulately chronicling the history of California art. Cal and Mills graduate fine artists every year. But a recent groundswell of art-making and art-selling has been fueled by several serendipitous factors: the late-nineties dot-com exodus of San Francisco artists in search of more affordable rents, former mayor Jerry Brown's revitalization of the downtown area, and the relocation of Pro-Arts, the non-profit that sponsors Oakland's open studios events, to Jack London Square.

In 2005, Svea developed a business idea to take advantage of all of these trends. The concept is ingenious: gallery space in the front of the building and 11 individual income-generating studios sharing common resources in the rear. The 24/7 accessible space is affordable ($250-$580 per month based on size) and even includes insurance and wifi. Swarm Studios attracts a gregarious tenant because this communal, visitor-friendly workspace is a lot different from the normally solitary lifestyle of studio work.

Despite that beehive (pun courtesy of Svea) of activity in back, the front of the house is the draw. The west-facing glass-fronted gallery is exposed to dazzling natural light, an effect most museums try in vain to replicate. A former ironworks building servicing waterfront industry, the structure underwent major surgery for its second life. The hum and chug (and bleat) of trains just a few blocks away is a comforting and charming reminder of the neighborhood's industrial roots.

But that's not all. Swarm Project Space is a small gallery off the main gallery and features installations, video pieces and conceptual works focusing on the constant shaping and reshaping of the city of Oakland.

Svea has been an insider of the brewing East Bay art scene for many years. She was an intern in the Oakland Museum's Department of Photography in 2000. Then after receiving her Masters in Museum Studies from John F. Kennedy University in 2001, she moved to Pro-Arts. Her tenture there as the Director of Exhibitions and Programming concluded in 2004, just before that outfit moved from downtown to the waterfront. From 2003-2005 she was the Arts Editor of Tea Party, a non-profit arts & culture magazine. Swarm opened in early 2006 and then she was appointed to the Alameda County Arts Commission.

Swarm shows mostly emerging artists and Svea spends a lot of time tracking down new talent. In fact she's so busy that she's hiring a co-director whose identity is a secret for now but will be revealed soon. She keeps track of the annual deluge of MFA grads, finds new talent on the web and asks artists whose work she admires for their recommendations.

Svea’s arts management expertise and friendly rapport caught business partner Merritt Sher’s attention when she was still working at Pro-Arts. In addition to having the ultimate made-in-Oakland name, Sher is a leading real estate developer with a staggering resume (Terranomics, Metrovation) who is known in his industry for his innovative approach. (Sher may have been hanging around the gallery and neighborhood because he played a key role in the transformation of Jack London Square.) Together they picked some buildings that had the potential to be Swarm and the winning location happened to be next door to the new Pro-Arts.

Svea keeps current on the San Francisco museum scene through friends Tim Burgard, Curator of American Art at SFFAM and Apsara DiQuinzio, recently promoted Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA. Svea is also a member of a gallery owners' collective called Quorum. In San Francisco, the list of galleries she admires includes Catharine Clark (see Stark Guide 6/5/07), Steven Wolf, Triple Base and Electric Works (see Stark Guide 6/12/07).

The current show is called "ZONAL CONFLUENCE: Merging Perspectives on Land and Environment from four California College of the Arts MFA Graduates." For this show, Svea picked artists who are wreaking havoc with the traditional genre of landscape art.

Walk in the door of the gallery and you are almost blown over by Renee Gertler's towering Funnel Cloud- a 10'+ sculpture tornado traveling through the gallery. While the work looks like it was made for this space, it was part of Gertler's contribution to the CCA MFA show in May. Gertler had quite a graduation present this Spring- her work was featured in the San Francisco Arts Commission Window Installation Site (155 Grove) in May and June. The work presented there was another natural disaster; over the course of one month Gertler turned a slow leak into a flood. The artist uses model-making materials and techniques to create fantastical versions of natural phenomena such as waterfalls, tornadoes and meteors.

The other artists included in this Swarm show, David Gurman, Jessalyn Haggenjos, and Elizabeth Mooney, are also showing their best work from the CCA MFA show.

This show $450-$7000

June 23 - August 5, 2007, Swarm Studios + Gallery, 560 Second Street, Oakland, CA 94607, Tel/Fax 510/839-2787 (ARTS), info@swarmstudios.net, Tuesday - Sunday, 12 - 6 PM and by appointment