Berkeley candidates outline their positions on the arts

Various candidates wait at the Freight & Salvage before a forum on the arts, held on Wednesday Sept. 28, begins. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Five Berkeley mayoral candidates and a slew of contenders for City Council gathered Wednesday evening at the Freight & Salvage to discuss their commitment to funding the arts.

The Berkeley Cultural Trust, a consortium of individuals from various arts organizations in Berkeley, put on the candidates’ debate. Its setting could not have been more appropriate: the building, which once housed a garage, now serves as the Bay Area’s premiere venue for folk and bluegrass performances. The Freight & Salvage sits on Addison Street in the heart of Berkeley’s Arts District, right across the street from Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Aurora Theatre and the California Jazz Conservatory (which is expanding across the street).

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Years ago, this area was just another random block in downtown Berkeley, but it now serves as one of the most vibrant stretches in the city. When Mayor Tom Bates recently hosted a meeting of mayors from around the country, one of the most popular events of the conference was a tour of the downtown Arts District, according to Michael Caplan, the manager of Berkeley’s economic development department, who led the tours.

Berkeley has done a lot to ensure that dance, music, performance and the visual arts thrive. Earlier this year,  the City Council adopted a ‘1% for arts’ provision, which requires developers of new projects (except those in the downtown) to devote 1% of their construction costs to public art or pay an in-lieu fee. That’s on top of a similar 1.5% art requirement tied to public improvements and bond measures. In 2016, Berkeley will give out $389,00 in grants to various arts groups, a boost of $150,000 over recent years. Berkeley has also provided capital grants to places like the UC Theatre and the Kala Arts Institute.

Whether this is the beginning or the final shape of Berkeley’s commitment to the arts was a central question of the forum, which attracted around 250 people.

Monologist Josh Kornbluth emceed the evening and began with a hilarious performance from Citizen Josh, his 2006 monologue about his “distress at the anemic condition of American democracy — and [his] nagging suspicion that our society’s political health depended on the active participation of all its citizens, even ones as habitually passive as [Kornbluth].

Each candidate was given two minutes to discuss what the arts meant to him or her. They had also been asked to fill out a questionnaire prior to the forum. In general, the candidates mostly seemed to be in agreement. They all acknowledged that the arts were central to Berkeley’s wellbeing, both economically and spiritually. A number of the candidates brought up the possibility of finding new sources of revenue to fund the arts. Some of the ideas included a new tax on cannabis, taxing night-time parking, and funneling a portion of the Transient Occupancy Tax for hotel and Airbnb stays to the arts. The issue of rising rents squeezing out artists was also a theme throughout the evening.

“I grew up singing for justice,” said Nanci Armstrong-Temple, who is running for a City Council seat in District 2. She said her grandfather was a jazz musician for the Harry James Orchestra. “I think of the role music has played in history in changing people’s lives. I think of … how people do better because of the arts. We know in the very best cases, art changes us. It changes the world.” (Watch a video of Armstrong-Temple talking).

Ben Gould, who is running for mayor, delivered a portion of his opening statement in haiku. City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who is also running for mayor, wrote a poem for his comments and continued to compose poems on the fly throughout the evening.

Josh Kornbluth was the emcee for the evening. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Josh Kornbluth was the emcee for the evening. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Here are a few snippets of the candidates’ comments. There are links to videos of some of their speeches, too.

Mark Coplan, who is running for City Council in District 3, pointed out how he had been the official photographer for the Berkeley Unified School District for decades, and made a point to attend as many student performances as he could. “What I have done for arts and culture speaks for itself,” he said. Coplan said 70,000 people each year look at the videos of school performances. In the last three years, 300,000 people had looked at his 15 million images of the happenings in the schools. Coplan pledged to attend numerous arts and culture events in Berkeley, and place videos and photos of those events online. He also said Berkeley should stop emphasizing the construction of “luxury” housing and focus more on homes for artist and teachers.  Video of Mark Coplan’s presentation.

Deborah Matthews, who is running for City Council in District 3, said she has a long history in the arts. She is a published freelance photographer and gospel singer. She has worked with Alice Waters, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and also traveled with Gloria Steinem, the feminist leader. Matthews worked on the documentary Warrior Marks about female genital mutilation. “Art is something I am passionate about and I plan to focus on it as you city council member,” she said. Video of Deborah Matthews.

Ben Bartlett, who is also running for City Council in District 3, said he had a vision for the Adeline Corridor, which the city is currently examining. He envisions sculptures lining the streets and the creation of an amphitheater for performances. “We owe it to ourselves to realize a future where the artists can help us see and the government … will help that happen.” Bartlett wants art to “infuse art into every single fiber” of Berkeley. Video of Ben Bartlett.

Cheryl Davila, who is running for the District 2 council seat, told the audience that she loves to dance and has been a dancer for 35 years. “I love culture. I love the arts,” she said. “I want you to know culture is part of my life and my family’s life.” Video of Cheryl Davila. 

Darryl Moore, who is running for reelection in District 2, said he was one of the supporters of the 1% for public art program which should bring more publicly accessible art to the city. He also voted to add $150,000 to the arts fund this year. Moore thinks the sewer fund does not pay into Berkeley’s Cultural Arts Fund, and should. He thinks Berkeley needs to more aggressively promote affordable ‘workforce housing,’ which would be geared toward artist, teachers, and other mid-income workers.

Sophie Hahn, who is running for city council in District 5, said she wants Berkeley to be known “as the premier multi-cultural center for the arts, intellect, creativity, and cuisine.” Hahn also said that the arts had permeated her life. Her grandfather played the violin for the Boston Symphony and her mother was an opera singer. Hahn said she co-authored the successful proposal to create a zoning overlay in the Civic Center district to restrict uses of the buildings for cultural purposes, such as museums, performance halls, etc. Video of Sophie Hahn.

Stephen Murphy, who is running for city council in District 5, stressed that the best way to promote art is to make sure that there is strong economic development in Berkeley. “Art transforms, art changes lives… art is vital to Berkeley’s well-being. The best way we can promote art is to highlight the vital link between a robust art scene and a robust plan to promote economic development.” Video of Stephen Murphy.

Susan Wengraf, who currently represents District 6 and is running for reelection, said, “If UC Berkeley is the brain of our city, then our arts and culture are the heart of our city. This is what gives life to our city.” But Wengraf said escalating rents and wage requirements are threatening arts organizations and are making them difficult to stay afloat. Her number one priority is finding a sustainable source of revenue for Berkeley’s arts. Wengraf wants to look into finding arts funds from new sources of revenue. She suggested that a percentage of the hotel occupancy tax could be tapped, as could a percentage of night-time parking revenue or a percentage of the tax placed on medical marijuana. Video of Susan Wengraf.

Fred Dodsworth, who is running for City Council in District 6, is a published writer and poet and a longtime journalist. He said his father, mother, daughter and son were all artists and art teachers. When Dodsworth was the publisher of an Emeryville newspaper, he saw the economic difficulty artists had in that community. He was one of the people who created the Emeryville Artists Cooperative, which provided low-cost live/work spaces for artists, he said. He would look for a similar creative solution in Berkeley, he said. “We spend millions and millions of dollars on police services and homelessness. I don’t understand why we can’t spend a little more money on the arts.” He wants to direct some hotel taxes to the arts.  Video of Fred Dodsworth. 

The mayoral candidates were asked if they would support increasing the 1% for the arts program.

Jesse Arreguín said he was the person who proposed the 1% for the arts program. Since there currently is a “rush of development” in Berkeley, Arreguín said he believes the percentage assessed new development could be doubled to 2%. Arreguín said he would like to find a way to funnel some new taxes into the arts. He said that when the City Council finally passes a tax on Airbnb rentals, some of those funds might be put into arts program. Similarly, he would like to see taxes that are assessed downtown be reinvested downtown. “Arts are one of the most important economic priorities for our city,” said Arreguín. See video below.

Laurie Capitelli said he was a long-time supporter of the arts. He pointed out that he was one of the main drivers in purchasing the burned out Elmwood Theater in 1991. Within a few months, Capitelli and others had raised $400,000 to refurbish the theater, now held in a foundation. Since then, one million people have watched movies in the Art Deco place. Capitelli said he could not promise to increase the amount of money Berkeley spends on the arts. There are many competing needs and many issues in Berkeley that need attention. He referred to the recent shooting of 19-year-old Ignacio Francis in South Berkeley, the rise in the number of people living on the streets, and the recent death of Roberto Benitas on the streets of Berkeley as examples of things that needed the city’s attention. See video below.

Ben Gould said that the arts of part of what makes Berkeley culturally distinct. He wants to find more funding for the arts but believes that new revenue must be found to do that. He does not support cutting existing programs that get money from the general fund. Instead, he would like to fund money produced from new taxes on things like cannabis, hotel taxes,  or parking fees. See video below.

Mike Lee mentioned that Berkeley is underfunding critical needs to the tune of $1 billion. He said he is dedicated to increasing funding to the arts “to 2%, or 3% or 4% or what you need.” But Lee said he is not an artist and wants to consult with the artistic community. “I need your help,” said Lee. “We need a plan. You are the focus of the plan. We need to work together.” See video below.

Kriss Worthington said he is in favor of raising the public percent for art to 2%. He said artists are being pushed out because of rising rents. Worthington said he put forward 39 proposals to increase affordable housing in Berkeley and everyone was postponed and never brought forward to the council for consideration, he said. “Our do-little council we must not repeat,” he said, as part of one of his impromptu poems composed on the spot. (See video below)

You can see the forum in its entirety, as well as other candidate forums, on Berkeley Community Media’s Chanel 33 at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day.

More resources:

Read more 2016 election coverage on Berkeleyside.

Forum alert: Get to know your 2016 Berkeley candidates (09.12.16)
Opponents reach compromise on Berkeley minimum wage ballot language (09.02.16)
2 open Berkeley City Council races draw significant cash (08.09.16)

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