Walking through Berkeley’s Arts District, along Addison Street — Berkeley’s Broadway with its theaters, arts and music venues and restaurants — it's impossible to miss the Addison Street Window Gallery.
Open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, this well lit art gallery captures the attention of everyone passing by. At least ten art shows a year are showcased in this streetside gallery.
“I try and balance it with non-profit arts, children’s art, disability art shows,” says Brenda Prager, curator and 30-year Berkeley resident. “I did a show called “Artists on the Fringe” with BN Duncan. It was a great exhibit featuring artists who were mostly street people.”
When the city built the Center Street Parking Garage, it included windows for civic clubs and agencies to market their services and programs. Fifteen years ago the windows were dirty, crumbling and vacant.
After three months of nagging from the City Council, Prager, then a new Berkeley Civic Art Commissioner as well as an art student at SF Art Institute, volunteered to take on the task of cleaning them up and installed her first show in February of 1988.
“My basic philosophy has been to support local artists,” said Prager. “To be able to show artists that don’t usually get exposure and be able to support them. Berkeley is one of those places where there're just hundreds of people working away on their art with no venue (in which) to show it. That’s my niche.”
With no staff and a minuscule budget, Prager presents shows every day of every month and takes pains to ensure that the gallery space reflects various segments of the community, featuring photography, painting, installations, children’s art, dancers and political teach-ins.
“When it first started I decided to handle the space as much like a gallery as possible,” Prager said. “And I underwrote all the expenses. There was no budget for paint. If the windows needed painting, I would buy the paints. If we needed light bulbs, I would find the light bulbs, I begged the Berkeley University Art Museum and the Oakland Museum for their old light bulbs. If we had a little ‘opening’ I paid for the opening. I even washed the windows.”
In 1994 the Civic Art Commission created a modest budget for the gallery. Addison Street, home to Berkeley Repertory Theater, had developed into an important arts district for the city of Berkeley. Now Prager is paid a stipend of $360 a month to manage and maintain the gallery space, and the artists are paid a modest honorarium.
“We give the artists $200 from which they have to pay for their own mailings and other expenses.
“For example, the artist who’s currently displaying paid for the paint to change the background color. She’ll pay for the paint to repaint it white again,” said Prager. “Out of my $360 per month I still pay for the openings and once a month I hire a window washer for $40 to wash the windows. The city now reimburses me for the other little expenses like light bulbs.”
The current exhibition at the Addison Street Windows Gallery is a multi-media exhibit by Terri Garland documenting the imperiled lifecycle of endangered Sea Turtles in Baja, Mexico. The show opened in the sidewalk gallery on Monday and runs through May 14.
“Art is the lifeblood of culture,” Prager said. “It’s a marker of our culture. It enhances our well being and it indicates our quality of life.”
A recent study on the impact of the arts in Berkeley — tracing the money generated by the arts in Berkeley, where the money goes and where it stops along the way until it leaves Berkeley — showed that art is the fifth largest business in Berkeley, just behind city government, she said.
“This is definitely different from most communities in the Bay Area. There are over 230 non-profit arts organizations in Berkeley. When they want to cut back on the arts they don’t take this into consideration. They say art is the most dispensable item but it’s not, it’s one of the most indispensable.”