For the past 15 years, longtime Berkeley resident Brenda Prager has made community art her public persona, both as a Berkeley arts commissioner and as curator of the Addison Street Windows Gallery.
Four weeks ago this vibrant and vital artist and arts supporter was diagnosed with terminal, end-stage cancer. The Bay Area’s arts community will host “A Tribute to Brenda Prager & 15th Anniversary of the Addison Street Windows Party and Art Sale” on Sunday afternoon as a small token of its affection and appreciation for Prager’s dedicated years of service.
“We started on this about 10 days ago,” said fellow arts commissioner Bonnie Hughes. “Brenda and I talked about it; actually it was her idea. Through the wonders of e-mail the word got out very quickly. Artwork is coming in not just from people who’ve shown in the windows but from people who know Brenda from all over the world. It’s really wonderful because it gives people a chance to do something. When one of your friends is dying you feel pretty useless. And here’s something you can do to make it a little easier.”
“I came here in ‘73,” Prager said. “I moved from Cazadero to Berkeley to open one of the first vegetarian restaurants, Ma Goodness on Shattuck and Emerson. It became omnivore when the menu changed.”
While she was still a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, Prager joined the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission in 1988. Within a few months she created the Addison Street Window Gallery.
“The City Council sent a letter requesting the arts commission do something with these windows [on the city of Berkeley’s Addison Street Parking Garage] because the Rep was building their first building at that time,” Prager recalled. “For about three months, at every meeting, they’d bring this up: ‘Does anyone want to take over this project?’ No one wanted to do it, so after the third month I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’”
“Brenda is one of the most wonderful assets of the arts community,” said arts commission secretary Mary Ann Merker. “In the five years I’ve worked for the city of Berkeley, Brenda has just been a tremendous help and asset in all of the ways we have worked to help the arts community.”
Albany artist Eve Donovan agreed, “She has really given a lot to this community over the years in ways that even she doesn’t know. It’s all about public art, it’s all about public access and she’s been doing all of this, for a lot of people, in a very invisible way. I think that it’s really important that an event like this is happening, to let her know that people really do appreciate what she’s been doing. Who wouldn’t want to know how much they meant to people before they left? It takes courage for everybody, but it’s important.”
“Brenda not only did the Windows, as an arts commissioner she established policies that have benefited and continue to benefit artists and ordinary people,” said Robbin Henderson, executive director of Berkeley Arts Center. “She’s given opportunities to artists no one else might give them, even persons who might not consider themselves artists. It’s hard to understand how this could happen to such a vibrant, vital person, such a dynamic person.”
In addition to her work for the public, Prager won national recognition for her photographic images of disabled persons expressing their sexuality. Her civic work kept her from promoting her personal art.
“She’s been kind of isolated for the last few years because she’s been doing these embroidery photographs,” said Karen Youst, Prager’s daughter. “She hasn’t really shown them yet. She’s been spending years doing these photographs, so I don’t think she’s realized how many people she’s touched, how many friends she had.”
The Berkeley Art Center is currently negotiating to exhibit a career retrospective of Prager’s hand-worked photographs in September.
“She’s a really, really good artist that never spent the effort promoting herself,” said Henderson. “She was always focusing the attention on to others.”
“She’s an extremely community-oriented person. She’s a person of the people,” said Elizabeth Sher, an artist and teacher at California College of Arts and Crafts. “She had her own artwork and she had shows separate from this curating position. She invented this position; she wanted to use a space that people would see when they walked by in a very public place. Now this is the art corridor, but in a way she made it the art corridor. She was there from the beginning.”
Prager has asked local artist Carol Brighton to pick up the reins as curator of the Addison Street Windows.
“Brenda put the Windows on pretty firm footing. She brought it to this point,” said Brighton. “It will be very difficult to fill her shoes but it’s important to keep it going.”
Prager plans to attend Sunday’s show and party.
“I’m not looking backward on my life, not one minute,” she said. “I don’t have yesterday, I only have tomorrow. Yesterday is gone, I only have what’s now.”
A Tribute to Brenda Prager & 15th Anniversary of the Addison Street Windows Party and Art Sale at 2324 Shattuck Avenue, Sunday, July 27th, from 2 to 5 p.m.