State of the Arts in Berkeley

Several days ago I had an errand to do in Emeryville, so I did what I usually do when I need to go there: walk. I always enjoy the walk through southwest Berkeley to get there, but Emeryville is another story. If you are not familiar with this town, it is difficult and frustrating to be on foot – navigating the freeway and rail crossings, backtracking many times due to “no crossing on this side of the street” signs, dangerous intersections, etc. I had hoped to make some detours on the way home through Berkeley, but the trip to Emeryville had taken longer than I had anticipated. One of the places I had planned to check in on was The Shipyard, and – after hearing the news about this place the next day – I was sorry I had not stopped. The Shipyard is a collective art space located on the southern edge of Berkeley in a group of shipping containers. Well, I should say “may be” located. The Shipyard has been told by the City of Berkeley that it must move from the location. Scott Beale’s Laughing Squid blog has very thorough coverage of the news.

If you have been following this blog for awhile, you can see that I have quite a few questions that I have been pondering as I walk in Berkeley. One that I have been thinking about from the very start of the walk is whether Berkeley is a supportive place for artists and a good place for those who appreciate the arts. This is a very difficult question to answer, and so far my best answer is “it depends.” It is also a difficult question to answer based only on what I see on walks. For a small city, Berkeley has a fair number of arts venues – the Berkeley Art Museum, art galleries, a few theaters, opportunities to see dance, music, poetry readings, etc. In the downtown area, I have seen signs referring to the growing Addison Arts District. Rental studios for artists are available in West Berkeley, and artist open studios are held a couple of times a year.

My sense in my travels around Berkeley is that there is support for the arts and artists, but that the city is somewhat lacking in a diversity of arts experiences and opportunities for artists. One reason for this is a very universal one in the arts community: many artists want or need to work in a place where it does not cost too much to have the appropriate space they need to work on their art. It is possible to find such a space in Berkeley, but not that easy — especially if a large space is needed. Artists who have lived in Berkeley for many years and have low housing costs or those who have a good income level or other source of income can easily have studios here. Artists with lower incomes and more experimental arts are not as prevalent here as in other places where the cost of living is comparably more affordable. Of course there are always exceptions – and I know artists who have found appropriate rentals in the neighboring suburbs of Albany and El Cerrito as well.

After hearing about the Shipyard, I realized that what is not here in Berkeley has helped me pinpoint and better explain my sense of arts here. In Oakland (where the Shipyard may look for a new space), is a large industrial arts center called The Crucible. This organization offers arts events and classes in welding, blacksmithing, jewelry making, neon, fire arts, and a variety of other interesting disciplines. Originally the organization was located in West Berkeley but was not able to stay in the city. Before I moved to Berkeley, I went to a few events at an experimental music venue near Ashby BART that was called the Jazz House/Tuva Space. This space was closed and a Berkeley Police parking lot is in its place. Over the past few years, artists’ communities in West Berkeley (such as the Drayage) have closed due to lease or building code issues. Behind each of these arts venues, and the others like them, there is a complicated story to which there are always numerous points of view. And these events are certainly not unique to Berkeley; artists being in situations where they need to find new places to do their art is an age-old story. As I mentioned at the start of this entry, I can’t really say from my observations whether or not Berkeley is a supportive place for artists. What I can do is to observe the types of arts that do exist here and those that do not.

I expect to talk more about art in Berkeley at some point, and would love any feedback from artists who live here or have lived here — and of course anyone else who has an opinion about this topic!



  1. Spike said

    Saw an interesting programme about that very problem. Some crowd of impoverished artists was renting display cases in railway tunnels and empty shops as galleries.

  2. Richard Links said


    I just wanted to mention the existence of the artists complex which exists at 2547 8th Strreet in West Berkeley, an unusual structure known as the Kawneer Building, or just “Sawtooth” Building.

    It has quite an interesting history and is a great place to visit on open studio days.

    Thanks for your intersting blog entries!

    Rich Links
    North Berkeley

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