Berkeley Art Center celebrates 50 years, but faces an uncertain future

The Alt-Left show at the Berkeley Art Center. Photo: Rusi-ko Photography

Update, June 1, 12 p.m. The Berkeley Art Center has reached its $10,000 crowd-funding goal. In an announcement on the GoFundMe campaign page, BAC said the campaign will continue until June 18 and reminded potential donors that there are still rewards available for contributions.

Original story: The Berkeley Art Center (BAC) is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a well-received exhibit called Alt-Left, as well as a certain amount of angst.

Since 1967, BAC has provided a home and exhibit space for Bay Area artists who were not represented by commercial galleries. But artists are generally under-capitalized, so the center has never been self-sufficient: it has always relied on funding from the city of Berkeley, as well as rent-free space. But the strength of that city support is now in question.

The current exhibit uses “humor and surrealism to make statements about current political issues,” according to BAC Executive Director Ann Trinca. And that sense of the surreal doesn’t end with the show: it extends to the BAC building as well as its balance sheet. The gallery space was built specifically for BAC by the Rotary Club in 1967 and given to the city for upkeep. At the time it was assumed that Berkeley would have funds to maintain the site, and artists could just do their art and not have to worry about building maintenance.


However, Berkeley has deferred maintenance on many of its buildings over the years, including those leased at highly reduced rates to nonprofits. BAC is one of the few that has never paid rent at all. But now Berkeley is requiring nonprofits that lease city buildings to do their own deferred maintenance and upgrades.

According to a structural audit, the BAC building now requires a new roof, upgraded heating and electrical systems, and more. For the past three years, BAC has been in negotiations with the city over a new lease that would require the organization to make about $211,000 in deferred maintenance repairs and would also require BAC to pay 5 percent of earned income as rent. “We decided not to sign the lease,” said Trinca. “The terms would have financially destroyed us.” The City Council gave BAC until April 2018 to try to raise the needed money and keep its building.

So at a time of decreased funding for the arts — and as many artists are leaving Berkeley and the Bay Area due to high rents — BAC is also facing a very uncertain future. There is a possibility that BAC, whose annual budget is about $200,000, could move to new space in downtown Berkeley as part of the One Percent for Public Art program, Trinca said. But no specific site has been found yet.

For many years, Berkeley has been contributing $60,000 a year to BAC, but more recently the city increased its support to $86,000. Now BAC is asking Berkeley for an additional $45,000, which would bring the city’s underwriting to $131,000 in 2017.

The extra funds would be used to pay for fundraising expenses, as well as possible moving expenses or deferred maintenance costs. BAC is asking its members to attend tonight’s City Council meeting to ask for a consent item which would allow its request to be a part of the budget discussions. Berkeley’s fiscal year ends on June 30, so the funding decision will be made by June 27, said Matthai Chakko, a spokesman for the city of Berkeley.


“Many Bay Area artists who are now world-famous were featured early in their careers at BAC,” Trinca wrote in a fundraising letter to the city. “There is no other organization in Berkeley that fosters artistic careers better than BAC.” Even though BAC features many Bay Area artists who do not reside in Berkeley, Berkeley is the only city providing financial contributions to the center.

BAC came into being at the time of the Free Speech Movement and the Human Be-In in San Francisco. It is contemporaneous with larger institutions such as the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives (BAMPFA), the Oakland Museum of California, and the Asian Art Museum. (There is a decade-by-decade summary of Berkeley art history here.)

The group’s membership has shrunk in recent years from 400 to 300 members, Trinca said. “I notice that people’s addresses are shifting and people are leaving Berkeley,” she said. The center had a staff of four or five people just a few years ago, but now Trinca is the only staff member. Because of city funding, entrance to the gallery space has always been free to the public. Membership is  $50 per year and classes are $10 for children and $20 for adults. “I notice that if we charge more than $20 per class registrations drop off,” Trinca said. About 5,000 people per year attend free art exhibits at the center every year, and about 360 children and 120 adults take art classes there. Because Trinca is the sole staffer, BAC is limited in the amount of offerings and outreach it can offer, she said.

BAC is now running a GoFundMe campaign to raise $10,000 in small donations. The campaign will run through June and has already raised more than $7,000.

Surreal Left-Leaning Art


The Nightmare, a work by Mark Bryan, currently on display at the Berkeley Art Center. Photo: Rusi-ko Photography
Trump-o-matic by Mark Bryan, currently on display at the Berkeley Art Center. Photo: Rusi-ko Photography

The Alt-Left exhibit currently on view at BAC features work by three painters, a sculptor, and two collagists. As a group, these artists have been “among the most outspoken critics of mainstream, status-quo politics as usual,” according to the BAC website. The show is curated by DeWitt Cheng, an artist and art writer based in San Francisco. There will be a discussion about “left-leaning surrealism and art-making in the Trump era” with the artists and Cheng this Saturday, May 20, at 4 p.m. at BAC.

“What is really interesting about this show is that Cheng chose artists who were making this kind of work back in the 1970s,” said Rik Ritchey, a now-established who has exhibited in New York and San Francisco as well as at BAC. “It all looks like it belongs together, and you ask yourself, ‘What has changed?’ And then you realize that nothing has changed. It has been like this for a very long time. This is not protest art, but art about the miasma of our dystopia.”

“I think this is a good show, but BAC has had many many good shows,” said Peter Selz, founder of the BAMPFA and professor emeritus of art history at UC Berkeley. “BAC is important because it has a 50-year history, and because local artists don’t get that many shows. Museums in San Francisco and the Berkeley Art Museum don’t do local art shows.”

Berkeley was known for its art in the 1960s when BAC was founded Selz said. “But good art has been done here for a long, long time, and continues to be done here,” he said. And local artists need a place to show their work when they are just starting out before they become well-known. “There is no reason the city doesn’t give them more support,” Selz said.

“Berkeley doesn’t really have an art scene, which is what makes BAC so important,” Ritchey added. While admitting that Berkeley has many competing demands for its limited budget, Ritchey said that “in terms of scale, BAC represents a minuscule amount of money.”

The next show is called “Resistors” and will feature photos from the 1960s until today focusing on marches and social movements. It is curated by Ken Light, professor of photojournalism at UC Berkeley, and Melanie Light, a fine arts appraiser. The current show runs through June 17, and the following show opens June 29.

BAC’s 50th-anniversary celebration will be Saturday, May 27, from 1 to 5 p.m., and will include live music, food trucks, face painting and art making. The center is located at 1275 Walnut Street and is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.