In 2010, in the depths of the financial crisis, Oakland emerged as a center for innovative approaches to revitalizing local economies, not the least because of the work of Popuphood. Sarah Filley, along with Popuphood co-founder Alfonso Dominguez, created a new model for fostering independent retail and, in the process, helped revitalize Old Oakland.
“In a place like Oakland, where recessions come first and hit the hardest and stay the longest, I could see that the social enterprise model” was a good fit, Filley says.
Filley came to Oakland to study at the California College of the Arts 20 years ago and never left. Her work includes interactive installations such as Succulent Circus, which explored the social life of plants. “Those projects were really eye-opening,” she says. She saw how small art projects could have big impacts on the community.
In 2010, Filley was thinking beyond the traditional boundaries of the art gallery. “As an artist, could I create the city that would support me?” she wondered.
Four years later, the answer appears to be unequivocally yes. Several stores that began as pop-ups have taken on permanent leases. Recently, the developers of 352 17th Street reached out to Popuphood to curate a retail space. “It’s not about vacant storefronts; it’s about unique retailers,” Filley says. “When we get a developer or a partner in a larger building, then that clustering starts to be less about tenanting and filling vacant spaces and more about place-making.” The pop-up model, she notes, is “changing how developers look at what they can do” and helping create retail spaces that reflect the character of Oakland. “We’ve reached the tipping point,” she adds. “We’re not pushing the boulder up the hill any more.”
Popuphood’s reach extends beyond the borders of Oakland. It is currently working with the city of Marysville on plans to revitalize its downtown. Filley and Dominguez participated in the Venice Biennale and have shared the pop-up retail model in cities as far flung as New Orleans and Melbourne, Australia.
Filley is most excited about her current work with a group drafting a bill (AB 2719) that would create statewide guidelines for best practices governing mobile food trucks and popup retail. “It’s going to save these cities time and effort and money. There’s very few other states in the U.S. that have this,” Filley says. “This would put California in a leadership role again.”
“One of my passions as an artist was to look at artists as people who are problem solvers and citizens, not just producers of culture on the margins,” she says. Being invited to work with government feels like a big step in that direction. “The journey from public artist to sponsoring policy is something that has been very very exciting. One of my goals when I started Popuphood was to see the creative people in our cities as people who have solutions.” Artists should be seen as resources for solving urban problems, according to Filley. She leads by example.