Editorial: Educating Artists the Hard Way

By Becky O’Malley
Friday March 23, 2007

March is Arts Education Month, according to press releases from the City of Berkeley, Alameda County and county education superintendent Sheila Jordan. It’s a cause everyone can get behind: kids and arts, what’s not to like? We’d like to get on the bandwagon too, before it’s too late. We believe that art is good for kids, and kids are good for art. We’ll even endorse the slogan some creative PR firm dreamed up: “Art IS education.” Of course it is. 

The efforts to limit education to readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic which have come out of the Bush administration are badly misguided. Children have a thirst for creative expression which goes beyond learning to read My Pet Goat. Many a child has been persuaded to stay in school because of the band or the photography class, and some have even been able to build on their arts education for lifetime work.  

But it’s easy to lose sight of what usually happens to the arts after school is over. The traditional picture of artists in the Romantic culture of 19th and 20th century Europe was immortalized in La Boheme: beautiful and young, then starving, consumptive and dead. Few seemed to survive as artists into old age. 

Artists inherit neighborhoods left to them as the rich folks move on: the Left Bank, Greenwich Village, North Beach. They move into industrial buildings where manufacturing has declined: South of Market, West Berkeley, Emeryville. But after the artists move in, others begin to find their neighborhoods attractive, and most often the creative contingent gets pushed out. Now addresses in La Rive Gauche and Greenwich Village are pricey, and the artists, most of them, are the ones who have had to move on.  

It’s happening here in Berkeley again. On Tuesday night a vigorous and articulate group of independent filmmakers told the City Council that they were facing rising rents and threatened eviction from the building at 10th and Parker formally known as the Saul Zaentz Media Center, and popularly called the Fantasy building, from the name of the record company Zaentz ran there. One after another, they read out the names of the films they’d worked on and the many awards they’d received, including Academy Award nominations, Sundance Grand Jury Prizes, Peabody Awards and others. The new owner is Wareham Properties, a big-time developer, whose representative expressed the remarkable goal of turning the property into a world-class media center—which, of course, it already is. 

A press release posted on The Bates Update (the mayor’s official city-funded website) in July of 2005 flacked an arts tour of West Berkeley: “City officials and Assemblywoman Loni Hancock to participate in tour as part of effort to find permanent affordable arts space.” The Mayor was quoted: “Local artists and crafts people are a big part of what makes Berkeley such an innovative, interesting, and creative place. They are our soul,” said Mayor Bates. “But land values are skyrocketing. We need to find ways to make sure that artists and crafts people can always afford to be part of this community.”  

Less than two years later, artists have already been evicted from two prominent artists’ communities, the Nexus building and the Drayage, as well as from smaller sites. The permit for demolition of the Drayage was on Tuesday’s council agenda. 

The 2005 press release said that Hancock and Bates were joined on the tour by Councilmembers Max Anderson, Darryl Moore, and Linda Maio. On Tuesday night Maio said she hadn’t previously known about the work that went on there, but she seemed genuinely distressed by the story the filmmakers told, and promised to help.  

The problem which councilmembers must face up to is that the development-uber-alles philosophy of the current city administration has resulted in a West Berkeley land rush which promises to cleanse the city of any remaining artist-friendly locations, to be replaced by offices and biotech laboratories. The West Berkeley Plan, which was devised in Hancock’s mayoral administration, was supposed to prevent that from happening, but it’s been under attack on her husband’s watch with his blessing. 

Artist and former Planning Commissioner John Curl was the first victim in a series of commission purges orchestrated by the Mayor’s buddy David Stoloff, who just recently arranged to dump Helen Burke and install himself as chair of the by-now staunchly pro-developer commission. Curl’s analysis of the assaults on West Berkeley which are in the works is on today’s Commentary page.  

Bates (or his press secretary) inadvertently got it right in 2005. Artists are our soul, and now we’re in grave danger of losing our soul in the Faustian bargain the city administration is in the process of making with the technology enterprises which covet West Berkeley. 

The Fantasy film-makers constitute the most formidable group of artists yet to be threatened. Their national and international reputation and work are major assets in getting publicity for what’s happening. But since most of them have not been involved in local government, they are at risk of naively relying on the feel-good promises of local politicians whose real agenda is quite different, or whose existing allegiances might overwhelm their good will toward the arts. Many civic crocodile tears accompanied the demise of Nexus and the Drayage. When the wolf (or the crocodile) is knocking on the door of the henhouse, it’s not a good idea to rely on the fox for protection.