Fair Weather and Foul on the Berkeley Arts Horizon

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday July 20, 2011 - 12:09:00 PM

Last night’s Berkeley City Council meeting started off with a genuine warm fuzzy moment. My old friends Russ Ellis and Julie Shearer were lauded and given a richly deserved award for their many, many contributions to the arts in Berkeley. A couple of highlights: Russ, a retired UC Vice President, has been an avid supporter of the Young Musicians’ Program, a UC-based program which provides extra encouragement and excellent teaching on a full scholarship basis for gifted music students, many of whom come from underserved communities. Julie is a performer and a composer, especially in the area of musical theater.

They’re both singers too— Julie was an early member of the celebrated Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. I’ve been privileged to hear the classy recording Russ made as a young crooner before the demands of making a living overtook him. And much later in life he was part of a distinguished local group of music-makers whose celebrated members included Professor Troy Duster and Federal Judge Thelton Henderson.

Russ and Julie typify the devotion to the arts that many Berkeleyans exhibit. Another example of what Berkeley at its best can do for the arts is the Berkeley Arts Festival, now in its 20th season of stone-soup productions by the indefatigable Bonnie Hughes. Bonnie has managed, time after time, to beg and borrow unused downtown storefronts for exhibit and performance spaces, benefiting all at the same time the festival’s (always sensational and always paid) performers, the downtown businesses and most of all audience members. She gets a lot of amenities contributed, sometimes gets modest funding from the city of Berkeley, and always seems to turn a few drops of water into a lot of wine. A short unsolicited tribute to the Berkeley Arts Festival by one of the participating painters appears in this issue, and we've given the schedule a free display ad as a thank you for 20 years of pleasure.

There’s another arts story this week that’s not so heartwarming, however. Professional musicians who have survived the somewhat rigorous jurying process for performing at the Solano Stroll received a letter this week from Allen Cain, Executive Director and Events Manager of the Solano Avenue Association, which said in part:

“We simply cannot afford to pay for entertainment this year. ... We simply lack the resources....As a result, moving forward – we are suspending entertainer pay…We do recommend you pass the hat, which can be lucrative – especially when you tell the public you are performing for free and rely on their generosity! What are we asking from you? We are asking you to perform for free. It’s just that simple." 

Some of the musicians affected forwarded the letter to the Planet, along with their responses. A couple of them: 

From Carol Ginsburg, Business Manager, Ellis Island Old World Folk Band: 

“Ellis Island Band is very disappointed in your decision not to pay the performers to play at Solano Stroll this year. It is really discriminatory to musicians not to be paid for their services. All other merchants are paid and not expected to give away their wares. How did the merchants association come to this decision? If musicians perform for free how likely is it that paying a fee will ever be reinstated? “Our band has played over 25 Strolls and although we rarely got other jobs from the publicity, we were ok to play for the small fee offered by the SAA. Our fans enjoy coming to the Stroll to hear our music. It takes a considerable amount of preparation to set up for the Stroll, hauling equipment and instruments through the street barriers, then doing the whole thing in reverse when we finish, not to mention the actual playing time and travel expenses for those who drive here from a distance. Our band is not willing to do this for the Solano Avenue Association without being compensated for our services." 

And from Carol Denney, a fiddler, on behalf of the band she’s with, Failure to Disperse, here’s a letter to Cain and the association board: 


“I discussed the matter as best I could with my band, and we feel as though we've been put in a very hard position. We went through the application process with the understanding that we were applying for a paid slot, and while we don't want to offend you or the Board, we also don't want to offend our colleagues in the Ellis Island Band or any other musicians who are baffled or offended at suddenly being expected to play for free—not for a benefit, but for a group of merchants in one of the most lucrative commercial districts.”  

The Solano Avenue Association is being penny wise and pound foolish if it really goes through with this decision. The number of vacant storefronts along Solano these days attests to hard times, but if there’s any reason for Berkeleyans to go to the Stroll, it’s the entertainment. From their own website posting about the event: 

“You will hear the best in local music, dance and other performances and absolutely stunning costumes from all over the globe!” 

Well, not if only musicians who’ll work for free are on the bill. Free music usually means over-amped under-skilled garage bands in dirty t-shirts and jeans. There are plenty of these available, but quality acoustic entertainers like Failure to Disperse and Ellis Island don’t need to play for free. There’s no reason for would-be shoppers to come out on a hot September Sunday to hear nothing but noise. 

Solano merchants have been unrealistic for quite a few years now, and it’s starting to catch up with them. In the whole 8 years we were trying to support the Planet with advertising revenue, most of them absolutely refused to advertise, saying that their location, for which they paid high rents, was how they attracted customers. 

It wasn’t just the Planet. Crackerjack sales people who worked for other publications reported hearing the same response. But now many of the merchants who refused to advertise are gone, ant those who are left will soon follow if they don’t pony up for a reasonable amount of self promotion, including paying the musicians who have worked to build their customer base at the Stroll. 

The cities of Berkeley and Albany are both sponsors of the Solano Stroll with thousands of dollars of cash and in-kind financial contributions, including police, fire department and public works employee overtime provided in generous amounts. As far as we can determine, none of these public employees have been asked to work for free, or even to contribute part of their time. If times are really as tough as Cain claims, it might be appropriate for these cities and the Solano Avenue Association to review the whole budget for the event, not just the modest stipends paid to musicians.