Faultline may put the brakes on co-op, gallery

By Maya Smith Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday May 23, 2002

It is not the artists’ fault that they live on a fault, but an expensive retrofitting job, to the co-operative gallery located in the 1700 block of Shattuck, will be their problem.  

The space being rented by the Berkeley Art Co-op, the ACCI art gallery in North Berkeley, is faced with the formidable task of either meeting stringent retrofitting standards or clos down. 

The art gallery is a luminescent space, replete with sun flowing in through large windows, a skylight and color photographs and paintings on the wall. The room is accented by colorful tield mozaics, and in one one corner there is a puff of white mesh and lights — glowing and ethereal in the soft afternoon light. 

But behind that white-walled showroom lies the beginning of the co-ops problems — it is a dark, cramped passageway wich a crack zigzagging down the brick wall, cutting a crevasse from the high ceiling almost to the floor. 

“Everyone is afraid of this spot,” said Angela Livingston, artist and fundraising coordinator. Gaping holes showed where bricks had fallen. 

Pipes protruded from the ceiling. Cobwebs wove across the wall and nestled in corners. 

The cost to repair the 69-year-old building is inconceivable for many of the members.  

Livingston hesitated when asked how much the repairs would cost. The original estimate for the repairs was $250,000, but now the price tag is closer to $175,000, said Sarah Hunter, sales manager for the 

gallery. This is because the co-op has been allowed to delay making the building wheelchair-accessible, which is usually a city requirement if a business undergoes repairs. They will do that “at a later date,” said Mia Capodilupo, administrative manager. 

The earthquake issue, on the other hand, is not up for debate. The city is requiring that the co-op reinforces the walls, fixes the roof, and strengthens the building’s alignment. To help fund the repairs the co-op will have to rely heavily on donations, and to this end the artists have set up a non-profit foundation so that they will be tax-deductible. 

Until now the co-op has functioned as a normal business, so its income from contributions has been paltry ? usually less than $150 a month. 

“We should have done this a long time ago, because we don’t really make any money,” said Kirk McCarthy, one of the six co-op members who comprise the board of directors. 

Making a profit has never been the aim of the co-op, but its very survival is testimony to its success. It was born in 1957, a time when the original Berkeley Food Co-op was spawning dozens of smaller 

member-owned organizations. As the years passed and the co-op fervor cooled, the artists watched the other co-ops fall by the wayside, while their own group continued to flourish. 

“We were the only successful co-op left, and we were in a very good financial situation,” said Martha Whiteway, who managed the co-op for 25 years. “We ran a tight ship.” 

The closure of the Berkeley Food Co-op in 1988 signaled the end of an era, and now the art co-op is a relic of those idealistic times. 

“Co-ops are a dying breed in the Bay Area,” Hunter said. “Our co-op is really a treasure.” 

The key to the co-op’s survival is largely in the hands of the community, which seems to be willing to help. 

“People have responded really favorably ? they have wanted to participate,” Hunter said. “They want to keep this organization alive and going. It’s really brought people out of the woodwork.” 

But the question of whether pledges of support will lead to financial contributions remains unanswered. As it stands, the flow of donations remains a trickle. 

The members admit that they may be part of the problem: they simply don’t know how to get people to open their wallets. 

“We’re artists, we’re not good businesspeople. We don’t know how to raise money,” Livingston said. 

At the first of several monthly jazz evenings, attendance was so low that the gallery barely broke even. It was a blow to volunteers who had worked hard on the event. 

“I cried because I was exhausted and no-one showed up,” said Livingston. 

Other attempts at raising money have been just as tough. When the co-op raised the rents of the small business owners who work in the rooms upstairs, the tenants protested. 

The members themselves are bearing part of the financial burden, by donating art and a higher portion of the profits to the board of directors. Although they have been generous it is not easy. 

“We’ve hit them up a lot, and it’s difficult,” said McCarthy. 

Since its fate lies so heavily in the hands of the community, the co-op’s members are trying to remain optimistic. Though times are hard now, they want people to trust that the cracks in the wall will go but 

the art is here to stay. 

“Every day is a little bit better,” McCarthy said. “I want to be upbeat 

about it ? if you say ‘we’re going off the