New Meaning for the Term 'Art Cars' 

Supporters of Berkeley's independent arts community complain that the city's arts commission hopes to spend city arts funds on parking.

Hermann Göring may have reached for his revolver when he heard the word "culture," but these days, Berkeley reaches for its pocketbook. Despite reeling from a nasty round of budget cuts last summer, the city is dreaming big about the future day when its coffers are stuffed with tax dollars and it can spend, spend, spend on projects promoting the public arts. But as the city's Civic Arts Commission prepares to finalize a five-year plan to spend nonexistent money to boost its cultural profile, people who feel left out of the theoretical spending spree are already crying foul. In fact, City Councilman Kriss Worthington claims that, for months, the arts commission has been drafting a secret plan to build a downtown parking garage -- and call it art.

Such are the tensions surrounding public art in Berkeley, a crowded city where land values continue to mystifyingly skyrocket and local artists' spaces are increasingly coming under the eye of developers looking to cash in on apartment complexes. The city spends comparably little on art, and its ever-vocal citizens, who apparently have nothing better to do, already scrutinize each expenditure. Broke as always and worried about being priced into Pittsburg, local artists have grumbled for years that city arts funding exclusively targets downtown venues -- in particular the Tony Award-winning Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which scored an unprecedented $4 million subsidy in the late 1990s -- leaving struggling neighborhood arts groups to wither on the vine.

As an example of the pressures local artists are facing, consider the Nexus Art Institute in West Berkeley. For years, city officials have been searching high and low for a site for the new animal shelter, but if getting citizens to approve the construction bond was simple, finding an appropriate parcel of land has been next to impossible. Councilwomen Betty Olds and Dona Spring have scoped out at least five different sites in West Berkeley, but every potential deal has either fallen through or stalled, often for comical reasons. Now Olds, Spring, and the Berkeley Humane Society are looking at buying the Nexus Institute, demolishing its 25 artist-studio spaces, and building the new shelter there. "They thought this was an opportunity to get them out of the red," says institute president Steph Zlott, referring to the shelter. "It would be a shame to see the arts squeezed out of this neighborhood."

Needless to say, the proposed demolition of one of Berkeley's few remaining artist studios has left many arts supporters unnerved. City Arts Commissioner Bonnie Hughes says this is exactly the sort of thing the commission's five-year plan should be focusing on. Instead, she gripes, the commissioners have proposed a plan that is almost geared to boosting the fortunes of downtown arts giants at the expense of smaller, more interesting artists. "You need all the different levels of the arts, and if you take away the most experimental of the arts, that depletes the rest of the city," she says.

Hughes isn't the only one chafing. Artist Natasha Shalver spent three years fighting eviction from her space on Adeline Avenue in South Berkeley. She claims that when she approached the arts commission for help in 2002, its members paid her the barest lip service and waited politely for her to get tired and leave. "They turned a blind eye to our problems because it was a landlord- tenant dispute, not an arts problem," she says. "They have no conception of what real artists are facing. Real artists are extinct in Berkeley. Artists who want to live a humble existence and focus on art -- they're not there anymore. There's no culture in Berkeley anymore."

For the better part of a year, Hughes claims, she sat in quiet dismay as many of her fellow commissioners ignored all suggestions to help neighborhood arts groups and instead dedicated themselves to throwing millions into downtown. "People were working on a public plan, and they didn't want any input," she says. "That has really been the focus of a lot of people, to build a garage."

Admittedly, the city could use more downtown parking, especially since TransAction Companies intends to demolish the Hinks Garage, wiping out 229 spaces used by patrons of the Berkeley Rep and the downtown movie theaters. But Hughes claims the atmosphere on the commission has silenced dissent, and some commissioners seemed to regard public input as a burden. Three months ago, the panel marked its preliminary plan "confidential -- not for distribution."

That was too much for Hughes. Not only were commissioners irritated with public input, now they were keeping the public from viewing their plan. She promptly leaked the draft plan to Kriss Worthington, who proceeded to raise hell. "The idea that out of an open meeting comes a confidential document doesn't make sense," Hughes says.

Worthington and two arts supporters came to the next meeting and demanded public access to its plans. Bemused commissioners immediately circulated the draft and thought that was the end of it. But they haven't talked to Worthington lately. "It's an outrageous, horrible plan," he says, still fuming. "That's why they tried to keep it a secret, because it's so reactionary. The big issue facing artists is people getting evicted from their homes, and it doesn't say what they're gonna do about it. ... We're talking about spending $10 million on a parking garage, and we're calling it spending money on the arts. Then they had the audacity to write in the plan that it was created in a democratic, open process!"

But other commissioners don't see what the big deal is. The whole secrecy thing was just a big misunderstanding, they say, and Worthington just got all worked up over nothing. "We listened to him politely, we didn't disabuse him of that notion, but he's incorrect," says arts commissioner David Snippen, noting that hundreds of people have attended the panel's meetings. "I don't know how much more public you can get. If you're not tuned into a planning process, then I suppose you might be surprised to discover you weren't involved. Someone may be misinforming him. It may be someone with an agenda. But that's Berkeley."

Certainly, Worthington has long been irked by the city's generosity toward the Berkeley Rep while other arts groups go hungry. City officials financed the Rep's grant by issuing certificates of participation -- interest payments and other associated costs ran up to $10 million, leaving local banks with even more public money than the theater received. Now, Worthington views the commission's planned push for a downtown parking garage as just another subsidy for the Berkeley Rep. He claims, in fact, that city officials recently tried to lure La Peña to the downtown arts district, starving the South Shattuck arts corridor in their obsession with downtown.

It may be that the dire situation of Berkeley artists is making an honest administrative oversight seem more sinister. But as the city's artists flee to the burgeoning scene in Oakland's Uptown district, Berkeley arts supporters worry that their vaunted reputation as a culturally edgy city may increasingly be a thing of the past.

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