Gautam Tejas Ganeshan at the Subterranean Arthouse during better days (photo by Gautam Tejas Ganeshan)
Gautam Tejas Ganeshan at the Subterranean Arthouse during better days. Photo: Deepa Preeti Natarajan

News that the Subterranean Arthouse is closing didn’t come as a complete surprise, but that doesn’t make the loss of the inviting downtown performance and exhibition space any less disappointing.

Founded seven years ago by Claire Duplantier and Nicole Rodriguez, the intimate storefront at 2179 Bancroft Way in the Odd Fellows Building quickly became a vital hub for a disparate array of artists, teachers and organizations. But, over the past year, as the space transitioned from focusing on evening performances to daytime classes, noise complaints from other tenants in the building and rising rent led to an impasse. As of February, the Arthouse will cease to exist, and the space will be made available for other tenants.

“It’s been seven years since we started it and so much has happened in that time,” said Duplantier, who started phasing out of running the Arthouse about a year ago when she had a baby. “It’s sad that it’s closing. So many amazing people have come through, and I’ve learned and grown so much. I want to focus on celebrating the Arthouse’s contributions more than feeling angry at the Odd Fellows. We started in 2009 and people would tell us, you’re crazy, starting a business now. It was so much fun and we made it work.”

An event at the Subterranean Arthouse in downtown Berkeley in 2014. Photo: Subterranean Arthouse

As Duplantier and Rodriguez stepped away from their roles as founders and directors of the Arthouse, a collective of artists started managing the space. Rather than depending on ticket sales from concerts, the space came to depend on the dues paid by Arthouse collective members. The changing use of the venue led the Berkeley Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which owns the building, to revise the new lease, hiking the rent 60% and requiring sound-proofing. It’s easy to cast this as a story of a greedy landlord, except for the fact that the Arthouse only existed because the Odd Fellows essentially subsidized the venue with below-market rent from the beginning.

“They were paying less than 50% market,” says building manager Jeff LeRoux. “The building is getting old, and we had to do so many repairs that we ran in the red and simply couldn’t keep up supporting people. The second issue was that their noise bothered the neighbors. The walls are lathe and redwood two-by-fours that act as a sounding board. They had a children’s dance class with a guy playing a tuba right next to the wall, six feet from the bookbinder’s front desk next door, and he couldn’t talk with customers. We offered to let them stay if they would put in sound-proofing, but that’s an expensive proposition. We are sorry to see them go.”

John Carnahan, who dances with the Oakland-based dance theater group This Sweet Nothing, took over the lease from Duplantier and spearheaded the efforts to negotiate a new lease with the Odd Fellows, consulting with Meyer Sound and exploring numerous options to mitigate the noise issues. He’s not bitter, but felt communication with the Odd Fellows, which is also a collective, could have gone much more smoothly.

“It was confusing because both groups are multi-headed collective organizations,” Carnahan says. “Sometimes it was difficult to know where we stood. Do they just want us to go away? Do they want to work with us? I always assume good faith, and I think there was a real collision between the Arthouse being a narrow storefront and the collective expanding more into daytime activities. It was hard to know where the noise complaints were coming from, and hard to know what to tell acoustic engineers.”

Gautam Tejas Ganeshan performing at the Subterranean Arthouse in June 2015. Photo: Subterranean Arthouse

No-one made better use of the venue than Gautam Tejas Ganeshan, the Berkeley singer/songwriter who creates original pieces using traditional Carnatic forms. Under the auspices of his Sangati Center, he presented nearly 100 concerts at the space and received a Creative Work Fund grant for a collaboration with the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive and the Arthouse that involved writing songs in response to the work of fellow singer/songwriters.

Ganeshan ran his own performance space in San Francisco for a few years before moving to Berkeley, and he knows all about the magical serendipity involved in launching a venue.

“There is this sense of if you build it they will come,” he said. “I was talking with an emeritus teacher of book arts and she observed that small presses often have a lifespan of seven years. They come into being with a lot of energy, but can’t really generate enough income, and shut down after seven years, which is how long the Arthouse ran.”

He’s looking for alternative spaces to perform and got a nice turnout at Oakland’s recently renovated Starline Social Club, which coincidentally used to be an Odd Fellows Hall. Once the largest fraternal organization in the United States, the Odd Fellows now seem more like an artifact in search of a purpose. According to Berkeley Odd Fellow Jeff LeRoux, the process is well under way.

“The Odd Fellows went through a long slumber, and we’re trying to become more a part of the community,” he says. “We have a great space on the second floor where we’re hoping to hold music events and weddings. Our lodge is going to be 90 years old in September and we’re going to have a birthday celebration with music and food.”

Watch this space for more on the Odd Fellows evolution.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....