“Berkeley is absolutely full of artists and natural wonders,” says Bonnie Hughes, director of the Berkeley Arts Festival. “Once a year we like to stop and take a look at what we’ve been doing.”
The fourth Berkeley Arts Festival, which runs June 16-30, kicks off Saturday with an opening ceremony and “music circus” on Shattuck Avenue, with a performance by the City Council Singers at the BART plaza, and flocks of musicians playing on street corners, fire escapes, and rooftops. Local poets, including Richard Silberg and Julia Vinograd, will read their works at the public library. The Arts Festival gallery at 2200 Shattuck hosts an exhibit of outsider art (on loan from the local Ames Gallery) and will be the site of several events throughout the month, including an evening of films by local filmmakers, concerts by pianists Sarah Cahill and Jerry Kuderna, and a “Beanbenders’ Reunion,” featuring some of the local avant garde jazz performers whose music was heard weekly at the Berkeley Store Gallery through the 90s.
The inspiration for the Arts Festival came from Hughes’ efforts over the past decade. For ten years, she made a career out of finding buildings around town where she could establish multipurpose arts centers. When the last such space was sold to become a copy center, supporters decided to continue their efforts with an annual arts festival. The festival has quietly grown, until this year there are literally hundreds of performers, presenters, and artists taking part.
It’s not just music and poetry that’s celebrated in the
Berkeley Arts Festival. The wondrous works of nature are on display all around us, and festival organizers plan to draw attention to them with a series of “Carfree Carefree Tours,” which encourage public transportation and/or walking to various sites. They include a tour of an installation at the Berkeley Marina and a chance to explore some of Berkeley’s gardens and creeks. There’s also a tour of Berkeley’s historic architectural buildings, and a “Free Speech Tour” led by veteran activist Michael Rossman, who will take participants to some of the sites of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in the 1960s and lead discussions of what took place. The festival finale takes place in the great outdoors, too, when the Christy Dana Quartet performs jazz on the Berkeley Pier Saturday, June 30.
The joint emphasis on arts and environment is showcased this year in “Berkeley Stories,” an evening of discussion and storytelling by some of the East Bay’s most famous writers and personalities, held June 29 at the Julia Morgan Theater. Malcolm Margolin, local publisher and founder of Heyday Books, organized the event by contacting many of his longtime friends. “In some ways, I’m putting my rolodex out there on stage,” he says. “We’ll have something that’s almost like a living room, where people I know get together and tell stories any way they want. The question that remains to be answered is, will something bigger result?”
Participants include award-winning novelist Maxine Hong Kingston, celebrated poet Al Young, fiction writer Dorothy Bryant, and longtime activist and writer Tillie Olsen, recently honored with a Cody Lifetime Achievement Award and still going strong in her late 80s. Also joining the get-together are Black Panthers co-founder David Hilliard, mime artist Leonard Pitt, singer Anna de Leon, and Cody’s Books founder Pat Cody. Environmental writer Ernest Callenbach adds his perspective, and the entire event serves as a fundraiser for the David Brower Center, a planned environmental and art center intended to honor the late environmental activist David Brower, a lifelong Berkeley resident.
The festival overlaps with cultural and environmental offerings by other groups, and it is hoped that residents will further explore artists’ open studios, performances at La Pena, and films at the Pacific Film Archive. The point, says Hughes, is to recognize what a wealth of treasures we have under our noses. “There are local artists and musicians known throughout the world who are not known here at home,” she says. Hopefully, this annual festival will help to change that.