Next year, the Berkeley Art Center hopes to celebrate its 40th anniversary. The Center, housed in a small gem of a Ratcliff building beside the creek in Live Oak Park, has been displaying the work of Berkeley artists since 1967. But the prospects for a 2007 celebration are far from certain. The more likely scenario is that Berkeley’s municipal art gallery will be forced to close down before its anniversary date arrives. Its budget has been shrinking every year and if the city cannot restore the grant for the coming year to the 2001 level, the Center will not be able to keep its doors open.
The loss would be a sad one for the entire city. The Center has been a civic showcase for a wide range of Berkeley artists, bringing some of them to national prominence. Each year it sponsors a Youth Art Festival; this year over 200 Berkeley High student artists exhibited their work. Recently it began a series on “Berkeley Treasures,” work by internationally acclaimed artists who may not have received the attention they deserve in their hometown. Work includes the photographs of Brenda Prager, who created the Addison Street Windows, and the crafts of Kay Sekimachi and Bob Stocksdale.
BAC’s 2001 exhibition, “The Whole World Is Watching: Peace and Social Justice Movements of the 1960s and 1970s” just completed a five-year national tour, including runs at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. Last year’s “From Isolation to Connection: Artists Living with Psychiatric Disabilities” received unusual acclaim and funding.
Other shows have focused on issues of special appeal to Berkeley’s multicultural values. “Ethnic Notions: Black Images in the White Mind” explored the perpetuation of racism through caricature and stereotype. “Asian Roots, Western Soil” celebrated the contributions of Japanese aesthetics to American culture.
The Center presents a wide range of art, including films, chamber music, plays, dance, and discussions. But while its ambitions have grown, its non profit resources have steadily shrunk, forcing its budget from $169,000 in 2004 to $154,000 in 2005 to $140,000 in 2006. The city’s contribution has decreased as well, from $92,000 in 1979 to $68,000 in 2001, to $42,000 last year. With the paid staff down to one and a half persons, there is nothing more to cut. If the city cannot restore the $20,000 per year reduction it made five years ago, the Center will likely close its doors this summer.
This happened once before: in 1978, following the cutbacks forced by Proposition 13, the Center closed for a year. With the building locked down, BAC’s redwood-shaded area alongside Codornices Creek became a littered hideout for drug dealers. One of Berkeley’s treasures—an extraordinarily beautiful spot in an extraordinarily beautiful city—turned into a hazard, a danger to avoid.
We urge the Council and the mayor to act as good stewards of Berkeley’s artistic and architectural heritage, and keep the Art Center open. For more information about the Berkeley Art Center, call 510/644-6893.
Kathleen Kahn is on the board of the Berkeley Art Center.