Launching a new art
gallery is never an easy undertaking, especially when the space is dedicated to presenting offbeat, genre-bending artists and musicians. But since 21Grand opened last July, the downtown Oakland "live art gallery" has turned into a vital outpost for Bay Area's creative arts scene, with monthlong exhibits and regular gigs by adventurous performers of all stripes."I got tired of driving over the bridge to see the shows I wanted," explains Sarah Lockhart, one of 21Grand's three founding programmers and a survivor the venue's stormy first year. "I thought it would great to present the kind of art we go to see in the city, right here in our own backyard."
THE ART OF CONFLICT
It turns out that attracting audiences and artists hasn't been 21Grand's biggest challenge. Within months of opening, the gallery became the center of a convoluted war of attrition over the terms of its lease. Erstwhile landlord Stephen Kramer, who runs the computer business next door and holds the lease for the entire building, has sought to take over the space.
Allegations of drug dealing, harassment, and bad-faith negotiating have flown back and forth. Things got so hostile that the 21Grand folks took out a restraining order against Kramer (though it will be contested at a hearing on Friday). Kramer's attorney, James Reed, acknowledges that a part-time employee of Kramer's was recently arrested on the premises for possession of methamphetamine, and that there have been people living at commercially zoned 19 Grand--though he says Kramer has been trying to have them evicted.
"The case would be amusing if it wasn't so sad," says William Simpich, the attorney representing 21Grand. "The only thing that's unique about this dispute is that Kramer's so badly behaved. It's an outrageous situation. My clients are exactly the kind of tenants you want in a neighborhood."
The building, which housed the Meni-Keddi Music School for almost four decades, is owned by the Iowa City-based Scanlon Trust and managed by longtime Oakland realtor Heath Angelo Jr. He leased the building to Kramer last September, and said he tried to mediate the dispute, but gave up when the lawyers stepped in. "The whole damn thing is a tempest in a teapot, a clash of egos," Angelo says. "Kramer is in the right, though he's not the easiest guy to get along with."
Without a lease of three years or longer, it's unlikely 21Grand can receive the kinds of grants with which it can expand its programming. Lockhart and her collaborators Cera Beyer and Darren Jenkins have continued to run the gallery while fighting eviction, becoming something of a cause célèbre among artists painfully aware of how few venues are committed to presenting cutting-edge work.
The performance community marshals its forces on Saturday for a progressive benefit concert that moves back and forth between 21Grand and the Stork Club. The featured artists include tenor saxophonist Phillip Greenlief; human beatbox Yuri Lane; "Salane and Friends," a one-woman band featuring accordion, keyboard, and noisemakers; the machine-art ensemble Peoplehater; the brooding Americana quintet Jepor Heysh; and the ambient pop band Stratford Four, among other acts. The funds raised will help underwrite 21Grand's legal battle.
"We've talked about turning the space upstairs into artist studios and using it during the day to have music lessons," says Jenkins. "The end product is that we'd like to set up a nonprofit institution that would survive long after we moved on. But instead of dealing with that paperwork, we're dealing with all this other paperwork just to stay open."
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