As the founders of Oakland’s Aggregate Space Gallery (ASG), Conrad and Willis Meyers (MFA, 2008) have cultivated a space for experimentation and community. Celebrating their fifth anniversary, the two reflect on the beginnings and future of ASG—always rooted in serving the Bay Area’s community of artists, writers, filmmakers, and art supporters.
Tell us a bit about yourselves as artists and community advocates.
Willis Meyers is currently an arts organizer, tech specialist, and advocate for the visual arts in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the Board President of Aggregate Space Gallery (ASG), where her primary roles are managing the board, marketing director, web designer, and volunteer manager. Willis is also an IT administrator who has worked with numerous clients, including the Children’s Creativity Museum, Snibbe Interactive, Bay Area Video Coalition, Ticketfly, Minted, and Root Division.
Conrad Meyers is an artist, educator, and arts organizer in Oakland. He currently serves as ASG’s Executive Director, directing gallery programming, hosting the artist talk series, and curating the film series. Currently Conrad teaches animation as a visiting faculty member at the University of California Davis, and is a contract fabricator for several Bay Area art institutions, including SFMOMA.
Together you run Aggregate Space Gallery, an alternative gallery/nonprofit based in Oakland. How did the gallery start?
We met in graduate school at SFAI. Our first exhibition we worked on together was in the Diego Rivera Gallery (see image above) in February 2008. The recession began and the economy tanked right as we were graduating. As teaching opportunities and hiring froze, and experimental spaces around us closed, we knew we wanted to eventually start a space that served the community and supported artists.
In 2010 we began renting over 4,000 square feet of empty space in Oakland before the real-estate climate changed. The warehouse gave us the flexibility to create sculptural work, and an opportunity to build out the raw space for a gallery, lofts, and artist studios. We founded ASG in late 2011 with the belief that art and exhibitions should uphold the artist, rather than focus on selling. Very quickly our individual art practices merged with the gallery to help other artists make incredible work. We risked the initial self-funded buildout of the space without any outside monetary support. It has been worth the hardship and investment to present work that excites us beyond belief. The gallery filled an immediate need in 2011, and continues to do so, supporting and nurturing a growing community of Bay Area visual artists.
Today ASG is a nonprofit that has affected the lives of nearly 400 artists and writers and 10,000 visitors over five years. The walls that exist in the once empty warehouse at 801 West Grand were built to make Aggregate Space—now including a gallery with 16-foot walls, a screening room with cinema quality projection equipment, a fabrication shop, a second level with office spaces—plus a darkroom/wet lab.
Beyond exhibitions, your gallery programming is also a platform for films, lectures, and performances—tell us more about this.
No matter the format—whether an exhibition, lecture, performance—our end goal is always to provide emerging and mid-career artists with opportunities to take great risks and, in so doing, engage viewers in new and dramatic ways. Few art spaces are so willing to prioritize the vision and imagination of an ambitious artist if doing so means the artwork produced isn’t easily “sell-able” and / or the projects require dramatic alterations of the exhibition space. ASG encourages bold projects of this kind, and then helps make them possible by enlisting our team’s technical knowledge in service of the artist’s vision.
Started in 2011, the Featherboard Writing Series was a platform for emerging writers—launched by writer Steffi Drewes. During the closing reception of each exhibition, Drewes curated two or three writers to read from their work. As the Featherboard tagline states: “We like art. We like language. And we like to mix the two.” The series has since ended, and now we are working to create and launch a similar series that focuses on innovative performance works.
Conrad has also curated the three ASG film series, which have each been months-long weekly double features connected by lectures on cinema history and its popular cultural significance. The films in each series are all linked by genre, from science fiction and westerns to film noir.
You just celebrated 5 years—congratulations! How has the space evolved over the years?
Aggregate Space has grown beyond its original vision. Every year, ASG has produced five to six solo exhibitions, two to three group exhibitions, and a number of special lectures, film screenings, literary events (including an acclaimed poetry series), and performances. For each exhibition, we have at least four public events/receptions. ASG runs at least 32 gallery-related events that are free and open to the public.
In recent years, we’ve carved out a strategic path for the future focused on organizational design, management models, funding, finance, and marketing. We successfully incorporated as a 501©3 organization in 2015, which enabled us to build an inaugural leadership team with our founding board of directors and Advisory Committee. In 2016 we launched a membership campaign, and also worked with Oakland performance venue, Flight Deck, in their Launchpad program, which supports small, community-based arts organizations in becoming job creators.
The benefits of us working within the community has brought focus and clarity of direction, resulting in this goal that will guide Aggregate Space Gallery in the future: Provide emerging artists access to critical resources and expertise, allowing them to create work that fuels critical dialogue and makes immersive conceptual art experiences a valuable and accessible part of everyday life.
With all of this amazing growth and change, ASG has still been in a state of displacement for over four and a half years. Right now we are looking to stabilize the institution’s brick and mortar with a longer-term lease, along with balancing a 60% rent increase and upgrading the safety and accessibility of the building. The organization is on a path to develop and support the new programming necessary to sustain the organization for the duration of the new lease by growing our earned income structures and securing foundational support.
What are some upcoming exhibitions?
Our current exhibition, SURVEY: Artist-run Space of Oakland, presents a sample of the less tangible work that percolates in Oakland. It shines a light on a small cross-section of organizers and curators of artist-run spaces past and present. The concept is a collaboration with Great Wall of Oakland, called “The Oakland Congress of Experience-based Art”, and stemmed from our mutual frustration about others offering suggestions for sustainability as “can’t you just sell more work?” The exhibition is supported in part by Commonfield—a network for visual arts organizers in contemporary, experimental, and noncommercial artist-run and -centered spaces and initiatives. There is also a living portion of the exhibition where we are collecting video stories and responses to questions such as: What role do you think artist-run spaces play in Oakland? How do we continue to support artists? Why is supporting the creation of art important? All Bay Area artists and art supporters can share their story at ASG Fridays and Saturdays from 1-5pm through March 18—and hear the story of others in the theater.
The next exhibition, Fata Morgana: A Site-Specific Experience, features Dimitra Skandali, Oliver Leach, and Amelia Konow. The exhibition will run April 7 through May 6, 2017. The vision for the exhibition can be described as: “Dark water twisting from the depths of the sea of her memory; shimmering, swirling fortean anomalies in a clear blue sky: sun dogs, daylight constellations, ball lightning, and kaleidoscopic visions.” Fata Morgana is a complicated form of mirage that is seen in a narrow band where sea and sky meet. It is here, when the sun is just right, elaborate visual distortions appear. Aggregate Space Gallery presents this immersive sculpture, video, and experimental visual event, where illusory structures manifest themselves in projected images and altered light.
Image credits: 1) KunstCapades, In Residence at ASG, 2016; 2) Jamil Hellu, 2016; 3) Ann Schnake, Mobile In Tent, 2014; 4) Minji Sohn, Again And Again, 2015; 5) Shisi Huang, 2016; 6) Brynda Glazier, The Other Side of the Lake, 2013; 7) Alex Oslance, Hypertrophic Distress, 2016; 8) Diego Rivera Gallery Exhibition, 2008; 9) Empty Space, June 2010; 10) ASG Gallery Wall, May 2011; 11) Darrin Martin, 2015; 12) Video courtesy of Aggregate Gallery Space. All media courtesy of Aggregate Gallery Space.