Archana Horsting, co-founder of the Kala Art Institute, will receive the Berkeley Community Fund's Benjamin Ide Award this year.
Archana Horsting, co-founder of The Kala Art Institute, will receive the Berkeley Community Fund’s Benjamin Ide Wheeler Medal this year. Photo: Kala Art Institute

Archana Horsting, director and co-founder of Kala Art Institute, has spent four decades committed to what seems like a paradoxical concept: providing a shared space for artists — precisely the type of people who stereotypically are known as fiercely individual workers.

But Horsting has been proved right with her vision, and serious artists gravitate to Kala in West Berkeley where resources and equipment are shared to cut costs.

So successful has she been, in fact, that Horsting is to be awarded the Berkeley Community Fund’s (BCF) prestigious Benjamin Ide Wheeler Medal, or “Most Useful Citizen” award, at their annual dinner fundraiser on Oct. 8.

Previous award honorees include Berkeley notables Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Foundation, and counterculture activist Wavy Gravy.

Horsting, along with co-founder and artistic director Yuzo Nakano, founded Kala more than 41 years ago in a dark, cramped garage in San Francisco “with just one press and a hot plate,” she said.

The space has long since moved to the side of the Bay “with much better weather,” and become a local institution in the Berkeley community, offering classes, exhibitions, and selective fellowships to both aspiring artists and those just dipping their fingers into the artistic world.

“What for some people would be a real drag to be working around a bunch of other artists, for some people it turns out to be an inspiration,” Horsting said recently.

Humble beginnings

"Our faith in the artist has definitely been fulfilled, and I think I started with that faith," Horsting said. Photo: Emily Dugdale
“Our faith in the artist has definitely been fulfilled, and I think I started with that faith,” says Horsting, pictured at the Kala Art Institute. Photo: Emily Dugdale

After training together at the prestigious Atelier 17 art institute located in Paris, Horsting and Nakano moved to the Bay Area to pursue their individual artistic passions — as well as something a little bigger.

“We loved the fact that Atelier 17 was so international, and when we came to this country we wanted to do something that was inspired by that,” Horsting said. “We wanted something configured more for the comfort of the artist — so we created our own model.”

Asked why she thinks some artists do like to work alongside others, Horsting said: “I think that what we’ve always tried to do is a little bit impossible, because most artists, people imagine, are in their own studios privately painting in a corner,” Horsting said. “Certainly Kala won’t take the place of personal studios, but there’s something very contagious about people following their noses, and working really hard and producing work.”

Paint-spattered aprons rest between classes at Kala, where dozens of art classes are offered each week. Photo: Emily Dugdale
Paint-spattered aprons at Kala, where dozens of art classes are offered each week. Photo: Emily Dugdale

After six months in San Francisco, Horsting found a bigger space in Berkeley, and was sold. “We knew that artists needed high ceilings, light, and an opportunity to think large things, even if they were working on a small scale,” Horsting said.

Berkeley in the 1970s immediately hooked Horsting, who paints a vibrant picture of a city alive with the intellectual fervor and spirit that has characterized the area for decades.

“You know how special Berkeley is,” Hosting said, with a nostalgic twinkle in her eye. “There was clearly much better spaces and values here — but I think most of all it was that I found so many bookstores here,” she recalled. “There were cafés where people could talk about big concepts, talk about their ideas, even dream a little bit.”

“Our faith in the artist has been fulfilled”

Kala's large exhibition gallery displays approximately six exhibitions each year. Photo: Emily Dugdale
Kala’s large exhibition gallery displays approximately six exhibitions every year. Photo: Emily Dugdale

Located at the busy intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Heinz Street in West Berkeley, the Kala Art Institute today boasts an expansive gallery showcasing 2,200 square feet of student work. Over 2,o00 pieces of student artwork are also housed on consignment at the institute with hopes of someday finding a permanent home — a task that Kala’s sales manager, Andrea Voinot, takes on by working to pair up interested businesses and individuals with one-of-a-kind creations.

But the real joy of Kala is down the leaf-littered street and up a few flights of stairs, where art classes and artists-in-residence flit around a well-lit converted industrial space immersed in their craft in a converted industrial space — formerly the Heinz ketchup building — that serves as the institute’s shared art studio.

Andrea V, xxx at Kala, displays student work on consignment at the institute. Photo: Emily Dugdale
Andrea Voinot, Kala’s sales manager displays student work on consignment at the institute. Photo: Emily Dugdale

Dusty and paint-spattered artists hard at work stop briefly to chat about their ongoing projects. They point proudly at an etching they’ve worked on all morning under the soft light filtering in from the high-ceilinged window panes lining the studio.

“There’s something really great here, and you can just judge by the quality of the artwork that comes out,” Horsting says as she drifts around the room, greeting her artists-in-residence and Kala instructors as if she had bumped into them at the neighborhood coffee joint.

“No matter how many troubles we’ve had — earthquakes, Oakland fires or financial hardships —there’s something about this that works, as dysfunctional as it can be in some situations,” she said proudly.

Kala's shared studio makes high-quality and costly equipment available to working artists and students everyday. Photo: Emily Dugdale
Kala’s shared studio makes available high-quality and costly equipment to working artists and students. Photo: Emily Dugdale

The art institute has become a mainstay in the Berkeley community, drawing about 25,000 participants a year to Kala’s sizable program of art classes, workshops and the well-known Artists-in-Schools program that brings professional arts into public schools across the East Bay.

Highlights from Kala’s course catalog include etching, letterpress, bookbinding, and even computer classes tailored to those with an artist’s eye.

“We have a lot of experimental classes — we bring in everything from natural dyes to experimental drawings,” she said. “Some artists just bring great ideas, so we just insert them into the class brochures.”

For artists with experience in the studio, a highly competitive fellowship program also hand-picks eight artists per year to receive a cash award and 24/7 access to the institute for up to six months.

Donna Westermann, an artist-in-residence at Kala, shows off her latest etching. Photo: Emily Dugdale
Donna Westerman, an artist-in-residence at Kala, shows off her latest etching. Photo: Emily Dugdale

Takuji Hamanaka, an incoming 2015-2016 fellow at the institute, expressed his excitement at being chosen to work at Kala. “Kala is the one kind of place I wanted to visit,” he said via email. “Though I live and work [on the] East Coast, I have known about its reputation and activity — I was so excited when I found out that I was selected as a fellow artist.”

“We’re looking for artists who make good work,” Horsting said when asked about the qualifications she, Nakano, and a panel of jurors look for in the incoming art fellows. “I like to see something and feel I can look through that artist’s eyes.”

While Horsting is quick to clarify that the institute has never existed to promote her own artwork, she remains a working artist in the East Bay community. Horsting lives in the Emeryville Artists Cooperative, and was among the first members of the co-op, which was established in 1980.

Berkeley’s “Most Useful Citizen” Award

Horsting, pictured in her studio's darkroom, attests that her upcoming award is a "shared effort" among her staff. Photo: Emily Dugdale
Horsting, pictured in her studio’s darkroom, attests that her upcoming award is a “group effort” among her staff. Photo: Emily Dugdale

Horsting will receive the Benjamin Ide Wheeler Medal at the Berkeley Community Fund annual dinner on Thursday, Oct. 8. According to the BCF, the award has been presented to a Berkeley citizen since 1929, and honors the “outstanding nonpartisan service in any field of activity that has benefited the quality of life for a significant number of people in Berkeley.”

The BCF provides $16,000 needs-based college scholarships to motivated Berkeley youth from lower income families who embody the spirit and values of Berkeley.

“Archana embodies the very spirit of this wonderful medal  with her vision and her proven mettle in the 41-year plus commitment in nurturing and providing a multi-faceted hub of creativity which reverberates through Berkeley, the Bay Area, and internationally,” Amrita Singhal, BCF board member, said of Horsting.

When she first heard she had won the award, Horsting said, “I thought they must have run out of other qualified candidates!”

“But, of course, I am very honored to have people present this award to me, and I really could only accept this because it’s a group effort — it comes from many different people doing wonderful work and using their own creative powers to create new programs or opportunities for people to learn.”

Now with eyes turned towards the future, Horsting hopes that the many ideas she still holds for the institute will continue long after she’s gone. “I’m 66 now, so it’s a little presumptuous to assume that I’ll still be around  for the next 41 years,” Horsting said with a laugh. “But I’d like to keep working for a number of years, and I hope there will be the right person for me to pass the baton to when the moment comes.”

“I’m absolutely sure that Nakano and I never dreamed that it would be this much, or go this long.”

The Berkeley Community Fund 2015 Annual Dinner is on Thursday, Oct. 8 at H’s Lordships Restaurant, Berkeley Marina, 199 Seawall Drive, Berkeley, Reception and Wine 5:30 p.m. | Dinner 7:00 p.m. For tickets, visit the BCF website.

Celebrating the life of artist and curator Susan O’Malley (03.17.15)
Inspired appropriation: Enrique Chagoya at Kala (06.26.13)
Community arts, education projects get boost from Cal (06.05.13)
In an old ketchup factory, Kala offers art and much more (o4.20.11)

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Emily Dugdale is a journalist and graduate student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. She previously lived in Oakland and contributed to local news publications...