OAKLAND (KPIX) — An Oakland artist collective may be fading away. Tenants claim the new owners are using their own artwork against them as a way to force them out.

Dozens of artists were packing up and moving out of the West Oakland warehouse where they’ve been staying. Some are being evicted, others are going by choice, because they don’t agree with the new house rules.

“By Monday, I’m out of here. I’ve been working and losing sleep,” says one tenant.

The 6-acre West Oakland warehouse known as the American Steel Studios is a collective founded by artist Karen Cusolito.

“It’s pretty devastating and heartbreaking and bittersweet,” says Cusolito. She rented the warehouse 11 years ago and divided the empty building into dozens of work spaces. About 200 artists work here around the clock.

“It’s like taking away their church,” says Michelle Burke, another artist. “Like this is our family, and it’s being eviscerated.”

Burke needs to clear out of her space by Monday. She blames the new owners for pushing many of the 200 artists out with restrictive tenant regulations, like no work on nights and weekends.

Another guideline says no structures over 12 feet high. But some of the art pieces they make are more than 30 feet tall. For example, there is a bus being transformed into a snail mobile for Burning Man.

Cusolito has art pieces over 30 feet high. She’s upset about a rule that regulates noise. She says it’s hard to comply because of the machinery artists use to sculpt their work.

“Since we’re in an industrial area, in an industrial warehouse, doing industrial work, I’m a little confused by that because that’s what we do — we make a lot of noise.”

Cusolito is moving out in August and leaving the expensive Bay Area. Many others will be gone after this weekend.

“We’re flexible on all these rules but we have to take everything on a case by case basis,” says one of the new owners, Gerris Wilkerson of 11 West Partners. They bought the warehouse last fall say they need to have house rules and they’re not trying to push anyone out. They need to balance safety with creativity, especially after the Ghost Ship fire.

“There’s a way to have house rules and safety standards and not stifle creativity, and keep people safe,” says Wilkerson.

Some tenants who are staying say they welcome the new changes. The owners say six new artist groups are moving in as others are moving out.

The tenants say the new owners did not raise their rent, but they did take away some common areas previously shared by the artists for free. The new owners haven’t said what they plan to do with the warehouse in the long term.

Comments (5)
  1. Don Cain says:

    A few corrections. The artists at AmStl do not live there, they rent work space only. The new owners act unilaterally, without thinking about the detrimental effects of rules they ram down the tenets throats on short notice. For example, no storage in top of shipping containers. Even though you can somehow stack them six to eight high on a container ship that traverses storms at sea without them falling off, having something on top of a container was deemed “dangerous” by the new ownership. Karen ran AmStl Studios for 11 years and never had anyone injured by toppling containers? How does this effect a tenet? Square footage – they erased almost 25% of our usable space and commanded the same rent.

    “There’s a way to have house rules and safety standards and not stifle creativity, and keep people safe,” says Wilkerson. There are ways to have safety and not stifle creativity – too bad 11 West isn’t doing it that way. It takes more than lip service to the press and public to support local artists..

  2. Ken Howard says:

    the word is TENANT, not TENET….if you’re going to complain at LEAST spell correctly

    1. Don Cain says:

      So basically you have nothing to add to the conversation.

  3. Reema Gisel says:

    The new owner’s attitude towards artists, is a perfect example of the backlash against the local artist community that has occurred since the Ghost Ship fire. It is wrong to equate the two. American Steel Studios was a legitimate Industrial / Commercial space, and there weren’t any uses permitted there that were illegal. The entire building was inspected by the fire department, any special events permitted according to local code.

    The requirements imposed on tenants by the new owner exceed the requirements of the building code and any other local code and do nothing to improve safety. The new owners are discriminating against artists and creating rules to push them out. As a licensed architect and expert in the field of fire safety, I concur that I did not witness any unsafe practices by artist tenants. There was no one living at American Steel. Storage above containers and tall racks were bolted down and braced correctly as required by the CA building code. And the building was frequently inspected by the local fire department.

    The new requirements imposed on tenant by the new owner were designed deliberately to discriminate against artists. They have nothing to do with safety.

  4. No nights and weekends? No structures more than 12 feet tall? It really seems like the new owners are trying to strangle out the artist community so they can flip it into something more profitable. A pox upon these glassy-eyed capitalist vultures.