Organizers prepare for Oakland’s all-online 2021 White Elephant Sale
By Lou Fancher
Propelled by pandemic protocols and the need for continued social distancing, the Oakland Museum of California’s annual White Elephant Sale has wholeheartedly thrust itself into the realm of e-commerce. Presented by the Oakland Museum Women’s Board, the 2021 rummage-sale event May 1-23 will be held entirely online.
Simultaneously, during the past year a vigorous pursuit mounted to increase OMCA’s anti-racist, equitable and multicultural infrastructure and community profile has led to major shifts in the museum’s staffing, compensation, management and decisions regarding its collection and future exhibitions.
Alongside the operational redesigns, a large-scale renovation of the museum’s 7-acre campus on Oak Street near Oakland’s Lake Merritt is nearly complete and will improve access to the revamped gardens, upgraded café and galleries with new entrances on 12th and 10th streets and additional signage and ADA-accessible ramps. In a nutshell, behind the museum’s still-shuttered entry doors closed by the pandemic and within the massive 96,000-square foot sale warehouse on Lancaster Street on the Oakland Estuary, there are beehives of activity.
“It has been a journey,” says OMCA Director and CEO Lori Fogarty.
Reluctantly admitting the aptness of “unprecedented” and “pivoted,” two overused words that nonetheless describe the pandemic, current social justice movements, economic distress and the museum’s active response, Fogarty says the months since their doors closed on March 13, 2020, have caused a multilevel reckoning.
“We have not had earned revenue since then,” she says. “We lost about $3 million, strictly because of closure of admission, the store, cafe and parking facilities.”
Anticipating financial loss to be less but to continue in 2021, it became necessary in April to reduce the annual operating budget from approximately $16.6 million to $14 million. Reductions in staffing and structure decisions were aimed at becoming smaller but centered primarily on equity and anti-racist practices.
“We took the opportunity to really think about what structures and functions needed to work strongly. We shifted the base pay, which will be no less than $26.25 per hour across the board. The process engaged the full staff and was transparent,” Fogarty says.
Similarly, Women’s Board President Sherry Westernoff says in a separate interview that hosting this year’s online sale was a major rethink and a mighty undertaking.
“It took a huge effort by a very dedicated group of women,” Westernoff says. “We were fortunate; we found among our volunteers a few women who had worked with online sales and had technology and website backgrounds. They helped us set up our online store.”
Instead of the hands-on intake process — with donations pouring in and sorted into 20 categories, researched and price-tagged — a determination had to be made about whether or not each item could be sold online and how.
“We had to really be able to describe the condition because people wouldn’t be able to touch them,” says Westernoff. “If (a linen tablecloth) had a stain on it, we might not put it online. We have hundreds of thousands of items coming in, so we had to pick the best. Then we still had to research them, write up descriptions, measure, photograph and upload all the photos and information to our online store site.”
They even set up a queen-size bed to photograph bedding and made videos that revolve 360 degrees around the furniture.
“We had to move around the furniture so we didn’t have to move the largest pieces,” she says. “We had to have light boxes so (all items) would be well lit. It’s been a real learning experience.”
Among the limited number of photographed items displayed in advance on the White Elephant Facebook page (facebook.com/whiteelephantsaleomca) and the sale’s other social media sites are salt-and-pepper shakers, trolls (the old-fashioned doll kind), handbags, one-of-a-kind furniture pieces and art pins by African American artist JoeSam. The limited-edition pins are hand-painted by disabled Asian Americans and are miniature replicas of public art sculptures JoeSam has created. A brightly colored pin bears a label that reads, “imagine,” and is considered a compelling example of the inventory’s quality and wide variety.
Operating with fewer volunteers (60 instead of 1,000) and a tightened timeline that had the collection van out in September — in previous years it was out in May, a year before the sale — Westernoff applauds the volunteers.
“Our volunteers arrived in October. We wanted to make sure our warehouse was a safe place and implemented and rigorously followed COVID-19 protocols,” she said.
Purchased items must be picked up at the warehouse. A helpful FAQ page on the sale’s website (whiteelephantsale.org) answers most questions. Westernoff says what she’ll miss most about the normal in-person sale is the visceral excitement of shoppers rushing into the warehouse.
“They can’t wait for bargains and treasures they’ll find. There are people who’ve shopped with us for 30 years. Being the largest annual sale of gently used goods in Northern California, there’s something for everyone.”
During the last 61 years, the Oakland Museum Women’s Board has raised more than $27 million to support OMCA’s acquisitions, exhibitions, programs and capital improvements.
“It’s generated $1.5 million annually for the last several years,” Fogarty says. “Last year, they were able to have a full sale on March 7 and 8. This year, we had the funds (they) contributed from the 2020 sale. We’re so grateful they drew on their network and commitment to the museum to create an online White Elephant Sale.”
About OMCA’s reopening, tentatively forecast for June, Fogarty predicts the museum will be essential.
“People will look for places to gather, to commune with other people. We can be that kind of place. Our collections, how we tell undersold stories, a hybrid of online and physical experiences, school programming — we can have a much larger reach. We are so ready to — not just pretend it’s business as usual — but to show how we can become an indispensable resource for our community.”