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Free Oakland Up brings free art to the Bay Area

Mills alum Jocelyn Meggait runs a free artist gallery and store.
Mills alum Jocelyn Meggait runs a free artist gallery and store.

Free Oakland UP is tucked away behind an unassuming storefront in a little strip mall, near a liquor store and a real estate office on MacArthur Boulevard in the Dimond District.  It’s hard to explain to newcomers exactly what the space is because there aren’t others like it.  It’s an art gallery, thrift store and maker space where everything is free and where art and objects are experienced rather than consumed.

The differences between Free Oakland UP and a traditional art gallery go beyond the price tag, or lack thereof.  The entire philosophical agenda of the enterprise is different here, and artist and owner Jocelyn Meggait and her collaborators care just as much about the experience we have with objects as the materiality of them.

This art gallery is one manifestation of Meggait’s Utopian Project, which she has been working on for four years. The Utopian Project involves audiences in art by incorporating giving away objects for free as a part of the art installation.  At the Oakland store, Meggait has artists in residence creating art to be on display for a certain amount of time.  That art is later given to members of the public for free.  The gallery practices a sticker system, similar to that of traditional art galleries, where an interested buyer can reserve a work of art that will be continued to be displayed until the end of the exhibit.  Unlike traditional retail stores or art galleries, the expenses of Free Oakland UP are covered by cash donations from the community, as well as financed directly from the savings of the founder.

Everyone coming to the gallery is also welcome to take an item from the free thrift store.  Unlike many thrift stores, the layout within is uncluttered and artistically arranged, with items as varied as a candelabra, a rubber ducky, a tile mosaic and a bar of so-called “Virginity Soap” that looks like it was manufactured in India in the 1960’s.  There’s also a maker space, where members of the community are welcomed to come in and make art out of alternative materials, and many of the artworks that they produce are then given away for free.

Many objects that people treasure are important to them because of the stories around them, not the objects themselves, and Meggait is attempting to create a space where that sense of connection is part of the setup.  Her gallery is not a non-profit, though she joked that it still doesn’t have profit, and cash donations have paid for two months of the rent since it opened its doors in May.  Unlike the store Free Oakland UP, which has been open for less than a year, the Utopian Project is an art project that Meggait has been working on for four years.

Meggait asks everyone coming through the shop to pose with the free item they found for the store’s Facebook page and makes sure that everyone finds an item to bring home with them.  The store gets quite busy on days when Meggait allows people to bring home as many items as they can carry, as long as they contribute a cash donation.

As Meggait points out, free shops are nothing new — there have been free stores in Berkeley going back to the 60s.   The trend of moving away from consumer culture towards a culture of swap meets, bartering, recycling and giving away unneeded items for free has become mainstream in Oakland in recent years, as concerns about climate change and income inequality have entered the public eye.

Meggait and her collaborators have authored a new chapter in this backlash against consumer culture by incorporating an art gallery into it.

“The art market is not designed well for art or artists,” Meggait said. “Art is so inaccessible to so many, and I think that art should be cheaper than it is, so I just went all the way to free.”

Meggait makes sure to have many alternative art supplies available to members of the community.

“I want to teach the community about alternative art materials because I’ve always felt guilty opening a brand new jar of paint,” Meggait said.

Jay DeFaber, a tall, lanky, hipster-looking artist, whose abstract paintings and sculptures of found items are currently on display, said that he didn’t usually work with people in a conventional art space.  He spoke about the psychological effect for both artists and audiences to remove money from the experience of art.

“People feel safe here,” DeFaber said, watching a group of community members working on a miniature hot-air balloon with a berry basket as its base.  “When I first agreed to have my art displayed here, I told Jocelyn, ‘Your business plan is scaring me.’  I didn’t think that there would be a gallery in a few months, for me to display my art in.  But this is existing now, and we’re taking part in it now.”

As he said this, a middle-aged woman walked up and stood in front of him, smiling.  She asked DeFaber to discuss one of his pieces on display.

“You want that?  You can have that!” he said and wrote her name.

Meggait is planning more projects, including a chain-art project in which artists will bring in unfinished artwork that people will then be welcome to finish.

Free Oakland UP is located at 2809 MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland and is open Thursday through Sunday from 1-4 PM.