Collective’s Departure Marks Another Berkeley Arts Loss

By Richard Brenneman
Friday August 04, 2006

With the deadline for their eviction from their home of the last 31 years fast approaching, the artists of the Nexus Institute are looking for a new home. 

“We’re sort of running around over here trying to find someplace we can locate without having our work disrupted,” said Aspy Khambatta. “As you can imagine, that’s going to be hard to do. And we have an enormous amount of stuff.”  

When Nexus leaves—possibly going to the old Ford plant in Richmond—it will mark just the latest in a series of losses of Berkeley’s once numerous artist communities. 

Three similar centers have vanished in recent years, including most recently the Drayage, a former warehouse at 651 Addison St. that had been converted into illegal live/work spaces that were shut down earlier this year by city officials. 

The Crucible at 1036 Ashby Ave., another collective, was forced to move to Oakland after run-ins with city officials in 2002, and the artists who inhabited the live/work spaces in another former warehouse at 2750 Adeline St. were evicted after a sale in 2001. 

The departure of Nexus follows a courtroom battle that pitted two well-liked nonprofits against each other in a classic landlord/tenant dispute, while triggering a schism within Nexus itself. 

The landlord in this case is the Berkeley–East Bay Humane Society, a charity founded in 1927 that recorded an income of $1.24 million in 2004. 

The tenant, Nexus, was founded in 1974 and recorded a far more modest income of $84,369 30 years later. 

Each group provides much needed services to a deserving clientele—the humane society offers care and support for starving critters while Nexus supports starving artists—and some in Nexus sought to settle the dispute outside the courtroom. 

“I thought it would be better to go to the City Council and to the public,” said Carol Newborg, who was ousted as an officer of the collective during a struggle she says has left the membership divided and troubled. 

“We lost some members,” Khambatta acknowledged, “but the majority stayed.” 

After losing a courtroom challenge of their eviction notice last month, the artists and woodworkers that make up one of the city’s last remaining art collectives may be forced to leave the city, Khambatta said. 

“The sheriff served us with an eviction notice on a Wednesday, giving us seven days to move out. We went back to court on Friday and requested a hardship stay. The judge gave us 40 days,” he said. 

Newborg said she had favored a more conciliatory approach, and said she felt the decision to go to court should have been made by a vote of the full membership rather than just the steering committee. 

“I was ousted as president because I disagreed,” she said. 

“We tried to avoid litigation,” Khambatta said, “but in the end, we didn’t have a choice. We had no help from the city.” 

Newborg disagreed, pointing to a letter of support from Jos Sances of the Civic Arts Commission. 

“It’s really a complicated mess,” she said. “There are other who would like to speak, but they’re afraid of getting kicked out.” 


Economic pressures 

A member of the collective since 1979, Khambatta said he regretted that officials of the Humane Society had broken off talks with the collective, which had hoped to work out terms to buy the property for themselves. 

Mim Carlson, the Humane Society’s executive director, is the only official of that organization allowed to discuss the issue, said a spokesperson for that organization, and is on vacation. 

In earlier interviews, Carlson said they had notified Nexus last October that their lease wouldn’t be renewed when it expired on May 31st. 

Carlson said the society needed to sell the buildings to raise money to replace their aging facility that occupies much of the same block to the east of the Nexus buildings. 

Nexus members responded by filing a petition to initiate proceedings to landmark the structures. Carlson and Humane Society supporters responded by asking to file a petition of their own. 

In the end, the Landmarks Preservation Commission landmarked the brick structure at Eighth and Carleton but declined to designate the metal buildings. 

The building they did honor was built in 1924 by the Austin Building Co.—the same firm that built the landmarked H.J. Heinz Co. factory of Ashby and San Pablo avenues—for Standard Die and Specialty Co. Formed in 1973 and located ever since in a unique collection of buildings at 2701-2721 Eighth St. in West Berkeley, Nexus is faced with the reality of a landlord eager to sell the property to raise much-needed funds. 

In addition to the landmarked building at the corner of Eight and Carleton streets that houses the collective’s gallery, members also work out of a pair of adjacent sheet metal buildings, one of which housed the plant that manufactured bombs during World War II. 

Aspy and fellow woodworker Daniel Caraco showed a reporter through the woodworking shop area Wednesday, a large, well-lit space filled with all manner of equipment, from massive planing and joining machines to the fine hand tools required for intricate detail work. 

“I’m afraid we won’t be able to find anything quite as nice. At least not in Berkeley,” Caraco said. 

Both Newborg and Khambatta note that the West Berkeley Plan requires anyone who purchases the buildings to replace at least 75 percent of the space for art and craft tenants. 

Prominently displayed high on one of the walls of the landmarked building is a “For Sale” sign, posted by Norheim & Yost, the Humane Society’s broker—the omen of yet one more change in the transformation of West Berkeley.