Monday Profile: Frank Bette Center for the Arts’ Debra Owen
By Diana Ariza Klose
Debra Owen has helmed the Frank Bette Center for the Arts since 2004, offering a the center as a canvas for a wealth of creative offerings in art, song, verse and more. Owen has combined her love of the arts with experience in the garment industry to keep the center strong through a tough economy that has seen other arts organizations fail. “We are essentially a million dollar organization operating on a hundred thousand dollar budget,” she said. “We have a reason to exist, and I think at a core level that’s why we are still here.”
The native Texan and 25-year Alameda resident took some time out in late February to be interviewed for The Island’s Monday Profile.
How long have you been the executive director of the Frank Bette Center for the Arts?
We are in our eighth year now, nine years if you count the first one.
I wonder if you had doubts about it when you started.
You are catching me on a good day. If it was offered to me again, I’d say yes, but ask me tomorrow and I’d say, no way (laughs). It’s just been very fabulous and very difficult. Nonprofit art organizations are obligated to serve the community, to bring something that isn’t or can’t be provided by the for-profit world. The reason that a nonprofit engages in the arts is for human enlightenment. The art that is in a nonprofit art gallery space is meant to change lives, to profoundly open minds, to make people think about things that they didn’t think about before, to make a difference in someone’s life, without the price tag. Yes, of course, sometimes it sells – hopefully often it sells – but the criteria is not “is this a sellable piece,” the criteria is, “is the quality of this piece of artwork high enough in its execution and in its impact to make a difference in someone’s life when they see it.” Consequently, the price that people in the community have to pay for the ability to have this resource of profound creative experiences, artistic experiences, is the donation. Allowing the Frank Bette Center to stay focused on what enriches people’s lives, as opposed to what will sell.
An example of the kind of choices that get made, we have our Signature Salon, and it’s often solo exhibits and also social awareness exhibits. The social awareness exhibit for last year, for example, was about women who have been victims of violence. The difference is that this exhibit was about the women, not the violence. And that’s what happens in our media culture, in that trauma and crisis situation we forget about the human individual that is impacted, and this exhibit did an incredible job of celebrating the lives of real women who have been victims of violence. From women in Mexico to across the United States, some that are well known, and some that you don’t know the names of. It was life-changing and inspiring.
What do you think is unique about your work?
I think one of the things, if not the primary unique definer of the FBC, is that our programs exist because someone or multiple people come together and say “We want X program,” and my job is to say, “Yes, here are the parameters, this is what FBC is about, what are you willing to do to make it work?” My job is to say “yes” and then to enable the people who want the program to exist, to make it possible for them to do the program.
What are the programs that the center houses?
We have poetry readings; storytelling swap; two SAGAs (Sunday Afternoon Gallery Acoustic) – it’s a song circle for adults, and we now also have one for little kids – we have the body painting jam; a third Friday au fait, which is open mic music; a second Friday slam contest, which is oriented to the younger crowd, 12 to 18 years old. We have our latest – the fourth Saturday, it’s called “All Open All Good,” and it can be anything: music, poetry, spoken word, comedy. It’s simply an open mic. We have 16 different classes. How we describe our organization is “programs, classes and a gallery setting.” We have several satellite exhibits venues: Gallagher & Lindsey, Eyewise, High Street Station.
After eight years, have you seen any tangible changes in the community?
I think that there definitely have been changes. I certainly can’t say that FBC can take full responsibility or credit for those changes. I think that FBC is one important element in the awareness of the artists and the awareness of the community for art and artists and of what can happen should we combine our resources in a singular vision. What FBC is doing is simply, and importantly, is giving not only a space, but an energy to plug into.
Did you ever meet Frank Bette?
No I didn’t. While he was still alive, I did, a couple of times, come along the street, and put my eyes up against the window and look in, but it was very dark and dusty and I couldn’t see anything.
Did he work here in this house?
Yes. The upstairs was a single family unit that he rented, and that was what provided him a regular income. The downstairs, where he lived – he lived in this room that we are sitting in, the Signature Salon – and the front gallery, which has the entrance off the street, was his workshop and storefront. That was piled with furniture that he was either working on or going to be working on. I’m told he work late at night, he was very soft spoken, a very deep thinker, very worldly in his knowledge of the current events. He was very productive as an artist, but he didn’t promote himself as an artist, so he left many paintings, drawings and sculptures that people didn’t know existed. He was known as a master woodcraft person, and people would bring their antiques to him and ask him to restore them. I’ve been told that he would work on whatever piece of furniture was of the most value, and he would say, “I’ll call you when it’s done; it may be next week, it may be a few years from now.”
Do you see yourself doing this job for the rest of your life?
I am very inspired. I feel like I’ve gone through university, and now my job is to deliver the message. I couldn’t have delivered this message seven years ago, or five years ago, even two years ago, I needed to be worked on more (laughing). And now it’s imperative that we find a person or persons to take on the responsibility that I have had in the trenches, because now I see the potential of what I can do for not only FBC but for the arts, the creative arts, and for our community. I think now, in our eighth year, I’m in a time when I get the message. It’s a real simple thing: We are going to be creative. You are going to find something to eat tomorrow morning, I just know you will, whether your financial situation changes or not, you are going to be creative enough to find something to put in your tummy, I just believe it.