The Editor's Back Fence

Today is Bonnie Hughes Day in Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday March 20, 2012 - 11:54:00 AM

Happy Bonnie Hughes Day! Rumor has it that the Mayor and/or the City Council will issue a proclamation honoring arts impresario and civic gadfly Bonnie Hughes, and it couldn't happen to a nicer person. When I heard that this was in the works, I asked Bonnie if she might be suffering from a terminal illness, which is why sometimes people in Berkeley get proclamations, but no, she's fine. Whew!

Bonnie has put in an incredible amount of service to the people of Berkeley and the world in the 20 years or so I've known her and before. She's managed to combine two particular passions, the arts and civil liberties, in an amazing way which could only have worked as well as it has because her personal charm overwhelms any potential adversaries. 

I first heard about Bonnie's efforts when she organized Artists Against the War to create graphic protests at the time of the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. I met her for the first time when there was a proposal in 1994 to make it illegal for poor people to ask for money in downtown Berkeley. 

Bonnie is one of the few long term residents of Downtown, and has always made friends with many of the down and out who live on the streets in her neighborhood. She long ago abandoned her car and now walks everywhere and chats with those she meets along the way. 

She's also been a dedicated believer that arts belong where people are. She's been the proprietor over the years in a whole series of galleries where she's presented eclectic music and graphic arts in vacant storefronts lent to her by landlords who recognized that a lively arts scene is much better than an empty space. 

When the Berkeley City Council decided to put Measures N and O, which among other things banned panhandling downtown, on the November 1994 ballot, Bonnie sprang into action, in the process awakening somnolent civil libertarians like me from their slumbers Her then-current space was the Berkeley Store Gallery on the corner of Bancroft and Shattuck, and it became the organizing focus for a series of actions designed to draw attention to the unconstitutional nature of attempting to control the speech of spare-changers as well as the dubious social policy of punishing homelessness. 

A series of forums on the proposed laws took place in the gallery, and also the "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" music festival, an artistic and critical triumph. Despite all of our best efforts, N and O passed, but as predicted the speech prohibitions were subsequently overturned in court on constitutional grounds. 

Since then, Bonnie has founded and managed a whole series of Store Galleries which have contributed immeasurably both to the arts and to strengthening the urban fabric in downtown Berkeley. She always seems to pull off the biblical tricks of turning water into wine, of producing loaves and fishes from thin air. 

At some point the galleries morphed into the Berkeley Arts Festival, a moveable feast which seizes storefront opportunities as they arise and turns them into arts venues. Her tastes run to the unusual, the avant-garde, but she also has presented plenty of traditional classical musicians and folkies, as well as graphic artists of all kinds. 

Oh, and in her copious free time she's a craftswoman too. She's always been a very fine knitter, long before the recent retro knitting fad took hold among the young. She's made much more ambitious objects than cozies for parking meters--a great series of stuffed dolls is particularly fine. 

I think she's told me that she's 80 this year, though I can hardly believe that's right. I expect the proclamation will be for some form of lifetime achievement, but she's by no means finished. Her current gallery is on University at Shattuck, and it will be there for a while. They used to say in vaudeville, "you ain't seen nothin' yet"— and if it's Bonnie Hughes, you can count on it. 

If you'd like to join the festivities, the Berkeley City Council will be attending to ceremonial matters like proclamations tonight at 7, in the council chambers at old City Hall (the Maudelle Shirek Building). Bonnie's friends and admirers are invited to come and cheer.