Public Comment

Commentary: Keeping the Arts In the Public Eye Proves Challenging Every Year

By Robbin Henderson
Friday July 21, 2006

It has been a challenging year for the Berkeley Art Center. In fact, the past few years have increasingly tested our ingenuity and resilience. While we offered professionally mounted exhibitions, undertook lots of adjunct programming, presented opportunities to attend performances of music, spoken word, films and theater performances, our funding decreased. Rising costs accompanied this decline. We have been told that the oil “crisis,” brewing since the 1970s, is the reason postage, maintenance and printing costs increased. Insurance rates skyrocketed; both Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina are blamed for the rise. We watched our communications costs soar, as we increased our use of the Internet to mitigate rising postal rates. Our small staff is dedicated and offers the BAC many volunteer hours without a cost-of-living raise. 

Fifteen years ago, private foundations and the California Arts Council regularly supported our programs. Today, the California Arts Council, whose budget was slashed from $18 million to $1 million by Gov. Schwarzenegger, offers no grants to arts institutions. Private foundations have changed their funding priorities. These days they devote their declining resources to agencies that provide, as they say, “direct, measurable services to at-risk populations,” putting us in competition with youth programs, homeless shelters, food banks and battered women. Increasing our membership fees, and cutting down on the number of printed materials we produce, were attempts to mitigate the drop in income. In 1977 The Berkeley Art Center was a city agency with four full-time staff and an operating budget of over $90,000. In today’s dollars that equals nearly $300,000. Last year the BAC received $49,000 on its contract with the City of Berkeley. In early May the BAC Board of Directors struggled with these realities and came to the conclusion that if we couldn’t convince the Berkeley City Council to raise our contract by $20,000 we might have to close our doors. We thank the Berkeley Daily Planet for letting readers know of this state of affairs. 

Our precarious situation is not unique, and it may represent increased alienation from direct experience of art. As more people wear earphones, talk on cell phones in public, acquire bigger, high-definition screens for their TV’s or personal computers, the consumption of art becomes a solitary experience, instead of a participatory one. Every week we hear of another arts agency closing its doors or in danger of closing. California Poets in the Schools lost its administrators and offices, the Oakland Ballet is no more, Theater Bay Area is struggling, and other non-profit galleries in the Bay Area are teetering. I don’t believe that the problem is lack of money. The problem is warped priorities. At the national level we are prosecuting an enormously costly war—$250 million per day to kill, maim and starve civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan—at the expense quality of life funding for health, education and the arts in the United States.  

California, badly hurt by Enron’s corrupt manipulation of our energy supply, scapegoats immigrants and cuts expenditures to education, meanwhile spending $4.2 billion over the past 15 years to construct new prisons. Since 1980, 23 new prisons have been constructed in our state, but only one new university, making California number one in prison spending but 41st in the nation in spending for education. 

But Berkeley is different! Our city government has shown an uncommon commitment to the arts. Income projections for next year in the City of Berkeley are good, so we asked the city to step up to the plate and increase our funding. A favorable decision was made on June 27. We are truly fortunate to have a city government whose priorities include more than lip service in support of the arts. On behalf of the Berkeley Art Center Board of Directors, staff and patrons, we are grateful to the mayor, the City Council and all our supporters for helping us survive.  


Robbin Henderson is the executive director of the Berkeley Art Center.