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Gala Benefit Celebrates City’s Newest Addition: The Ashby Arts District

Tuesday August 05, 2003

As Berkeley artists and their patrons gathered for a Saturday night fundraiser, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates bestowed official city recognition on the newly created Ashby Arts District. 

Formed to unify area arts organizations and raise awareness about arts activities, the district will “encourage cooperation, communication, and respect within this culturally rich district,” Bates said, and “provide recognition and support for the creative work and opportunities that exist.”  

Benefit performances on Saturday and Sunday featuring musical theater group Rosin Coven and the duet of Alexander Tsygankov and Inna 

Shevchencko on domra and piano served as the district’s inaugural event. 

Joint sponsoring the district are the Epic Arts Studio and several area arts organizations. Epic, a non-profit organization that works to promote community development through arts programs, initiated formal partnerships with existing area arts venues to better publicize neighborhood arts events. 

“[The venues] are all here already,” said Epic community organizer Tanya Hurd. “The problem is that most people don’t know about them. Since people do not know they are here, they go downtown to find art and entertainment.” 

Downtown Berkeley’s popularity as an entertainment hub had created problems for South Berkeley artists and residents, Hurd said, because as the downtown facilities were renovated, smaller arts organizations, unable to pay rising rents, were driven out. 

The recently established Downtown Arts District features several venues—including The Jazz School, the Berkeley Repertory Theater, and the 

Downtown restaurant—which frequently host musical performances. 

“Many local talented artists were ‘priced out’ of the mainstream and thus relegated to a lesser status,” Epic Arts staff wrote in a press release explaining the new Ashby Arts District. “We are convinced that art is ‘priceless.’” 

With that ideal in mind, Epic Arts set out to give the new district an identity as “Berkeley’s own ‘Off-Broadway’”—away from the town center but hosting a vibrant art scene. 

Representatives of Epic and the other organizations that created the new district say they hope to make art a more important part of the South Berkeley community by bringing local groups together to share resources to emphasize the project’s neighborhood focus. 

“Some of the plans we have for the future are collaborations so that our spaces are not all competing for audiences, but rather sharing them,” Hurd said. “The [benefits] were a wonderful example. Epic Arts and Transparent Theater worked together rather than hosting events at the same time.” 

Bates’ official proclamation, presented to Epic Arts Saturday night by a member of the mayor’s staff, recognized the effort to unite neighborhood groups as a key aspect of the official designation. 

“We saw a need for artists and arts organizations in this area to come together to create a stronger base,” Hurd said. “It’s one of the easiest, 

most direct ways of bringing community together.” 

Funds raised through the weekend’s benefit concerts and other activities will fund a community arts calendar for distribution to South Berkeley residents. Epic Arts is now looking for neighborhood sponsors to design, print, and distribute the calendar both to minimize costs and to make the calendar a true community creation.