Arts & Events

Still Creatively Improvising, Berkeley Arts Festival Turns 20

By Steven Finacom
Tuesday July 12, 2011 - 09:09:00 AM
Paintings by local artists fill the vacant storefront space at 2133 Shattuck.
Steven Finacom
Paintings by local artists fill the vacant storefront space at 2133 Shattuck.
Bonnie Hughes, founder of the Berkeley Arts Festival, inspects the venue she and other volunteers are preparing for this year’s performances.
Steven Finacom
Bonnie Hughes, founder of the Berkeley Arts Festival, inspects the venue she and other volunteers are preparing for this year’s performances.

A quarter century ago Bonnie Hughes was perhaps best known in Berkeley as the proprietor of Augusta’s, a well regarded restaurant on Telegraph Avenue just north of Ashby. 

After she closed that business, she moved from her West Berkeley home to Downtown Berkeley and began a new career as creator and volunteer organizer of the Berkeley Arts Festival. 

The twentieth year of the Arts Festival kicks off this week, with pianist Sarah Cahill performing on Tuesday, July 12. 

There are nearly two-dozen separate performance dates extending through August 15, and numerous artists featured. “Basically it’s new music, a lot composed by the people performing it”, Hughes says. “Some of it is improv.”  

Some performers are regulars at the Festival, some new. Of one, Hughes says, “she plays the cello, but one year she played the bicycle wheel.” 

The performers range from the well-known and established Cahill, to cellist, Berkeley High alumnus, and Bard College student Dylan Mattingly who was born the year the Festival began. 

Most of the performances are at 8 pm, but a few are noon concerts. Admission is on a sliding scale, but Hughes hopes for an average of ten dollars contribution per audience member.  

See the website for calendar and performer details. In addition to individual musical performers there’s a book reading by Philippa Kelly, an Upsurge Jazz / Poetry night and, perhaps in the spirit of the original Festival year, a Stop the War sing-along. 

The Festival is unusual is that it has no permanent home but moves from location to location, improvising not only performances but performance venues in borrowed spaces in Berkeley’s Downtown. These are usually storefronts vacant between business occupants, and lent by the building owners. 

This year the festival occupies a storefront in the old Acheson Physicians Building, at 2133 University Avenue between Walnut Street and Shattuck. (The Berkeley Ace Hardware is the neighbor on one side, Long Life Vegi House on the other. The building is currently awaiting renovation / conversion to housing as part of the proposed Acheson Commons project). 

Hughes started the Festival in 1991 with a set of performances with an anti-war theme. “That was very well attended”, she says. “We got off to a rousing start.” By coincidence the Gulf War erupted at the same time, and “we had TV people from all over.” 

The original space was in part of the old Hink’s Department Store, now long since renovated into the Shattuck Cinemas. When the Festival had to move, it went to a former Crocker Bank space in Berkeley’s old Masonic Temple at Bancroft Way and Shattuck Avenue. 

The Festival operated there year round, and the Tinker’s Workshop also had a space in the corner of the facility. 

After that building was sold the Festival had to move, and went to various storefronts “for a month or so” at a time, says Hughes. “We could only plan a month or two ahead, because no one was able to promise longer than they could get permits” for a planned business or development in a particular space. 

The Festival is “always a seat of the pants operation”, Hughes says, organized largely by volunteers and using the borrowed spaces. “We do it on a shoe string.” The City of Berkeley gives the Festival $10,000 a year, but the rest of the support must come from admissions and volunteers. 

Admissions are split between the performers and the Festival.  

Other spaces used by the Festival over the years include the old Edy’s storefront that had become an Eddie Bauer store (it’s now the Downtown Kinko’s). In that venue “one of the walls was wavy and that made the music incredible”, Hughes said. The Festival also had quarters at one time in the building on Allston Way now being renovated for Magnes Museum collections. 

The current performance space is adorned for the Festival with large-scale paintings by four East Bay artists, Robert Brokl, Lisa Esherick, M. Louise Stanley and Livia Stein. The paintings line the walls and a narrow balcony / mezzanine that overlooks the performance area. 

How long will the Festival continue? Hughes isn’t sure. She jokes, “This may be the last year I do it, but everyone says I say that every year.” She’s now in her early 80s. There’s no obvious heir to organize the event.  

“I do it as a volunteer”, Hughes told me as we finished lunch one recent day Downtown. “There are not that many people who have the time or inclination to do something so time consuming.”  

Then she was off to the Festival space to check on preparations, look for extra chairs for the first Sarah Cahill performance, and attend to a multitude of other details. 

For more information on the Berkeley Arts Festival contact Bonnie Hughes:  

Or visit the website: