Museums are shuttered and theaters remain silent as the tomb, but the arts in Berkeley are not kaput. The city is moving forward with plans for new public art and, in a recent special meeting, approved grants for nearly 100 artists, organizations, and festivals totaling almost $580,000.

The catch? In order to proceed, artists and festival organizers must show they won’t allow any groups to congregate – you know, basically what festivals and the performing arts are all about.

“It’s really challenging; however, people are rising to the challenge,” said Lisa Bullwinkel, chair of Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission. “They got their grant money and have been asked to file a new report about how they’re going to – I hate to use the word ‘pivot’ but that seems to be the vernacular right now – pivot onto some other platform.”

“I think it’s so important we do support these arts organizations for a couple of years,” she said. “And it IS going to be a couple of years until we’re able to meet in theaters again or in big groups outdoor at festivals or concerts. It’s going to take a long time, not only for the vaccines and medicines to work but for people to feel comfortable psychologically to be in a group like that.”

The city originally wanted to allocate zero funds for festivals this year. But it changed its mind and released $80,000, about half the usual annual amount, after realizing that some festivals could go online.

Not all of them translate, however. Chahar Shanbeh Suri, the Persian New Year celebration that has people ritualistically leaping over bonfires, will not have an official Berkeley analog in 2021. “There was no way that could pivot and go online,” Bullwinkel said.

But some of the larger ones are proceeding in transmogrified forms. The Bay Area Book Festival, for instance, is holding an online, one-day mini-fest on Oct. 4 called “Berkeley Unbound” featuring local activists and luminaries like Steve Kerr, W. Kamau Bell, Alice Waters, and the legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky. (Watch the teaser.)

“We’re at this real inflection point in the history of our country, I mean probably more than since the Civil War,” said Cherilyn Parsons, executive director of the Bay Area Book Festival (for which Berkeleyside is a media sponsor).  “Here in Berkeley we have extraordinary intellectuals and thinkers and writers, so we thought, ‘What does Berkeley have to say about this really key point? What is its vision for forging a better society out of this time?’”

Theater lovers are also in luck, as local troupes seem to be adapting to the new age.

“The theaters are uniquely dangerous places to be when you’re in a space with somebody who has COVID,” says Patrick Dooley, founding artistic director of Shotgun Players. “One person coughing in the back of the theater with the HVAC blowing air all over the building could infect a hundred people a night, you know?”

So what Dooley’s group is doing is delivering props, sound equipment and green screens to its players so they can erect their own home studios. A costume designer virtually rifles through their closets to see what clothes they should wear. The actors then stage performances via Zoom that are sprinkled with the magic of live theater.

“I saw a cat come and kind of walk through once,” says Dooley. “We’ve had dogs barking, phones ringing, neighbors knocking on the door. You think you’ve worked out everything, and then somebody starts ringing the doorbell.”

People bold enough to go outside can expect to see some new public art this year, too. The Downtown Berkeley BART Plaza will soon be getting a 50-minute sound installation by Thea Farhadian and Dean Santomieri called “A New Sense of Place.” The artists say they “hope that people traversing the plaza will appreciate encountering something familiar, or something strange, coming from the multichannel, overhead speaker array, and for some moments be roused from their thoughts, conversations, or devices by the unexpected gift of music.” (Thea Farhadian is the featured photo for this story, taken by Dean Santomieri. Hear two audio excerpts from the composition.) 

And Cube Space, the public-arts display in the Center Street Garage on Addison Street, is switching up exhibits this fall. The Oakland-based digital/video artist Leila Weefur is curating a next year-long show, featuring three African American artists presenting different material over separate four-month periods.

So what else is on the arts horizon for 2020 and beyond? Some of the winners of the recent arts grants chatted with Berkeleyside about their pandemic plans. (See the full list of grant awardees.)

Visual arts

David Brower Center

The center is using its grant to showcase a series of digital exhibitions, supplemented by a virtual artist panel instead of a physical opening reception, about art that advocates for environmental activism. “Currently on view is Art/Act: Local – Wild Places, our annual juried show which features four Bay Area artists exploring the importance of connecting to nature,” says Sibel Güner, communications and development manager. “Our next exhibition [in October] will be ‘Art/Act: Award,’ which will be on view for an entire year and features the work of National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting.” 

Berkeley Art Center

Berkeley Art Center current show is Experiments in the Field. Photo: Chanell Stone

“We planned to open [last] weekend, but given the announcements about school closures and all that it seemed like a really weird time to do that,” says executive director Daniel Nevers. “We will reopen sometime. We’re watching the [COVID] numbers, and in the meantime are proceeding with our exhibition schedule, some of which we’re going to share online as well as create original digital content like artist interviews and digital publications.” The just-installed exhibition Experiments in the Field features art about the intersection of climate science and personal and cultural identities, and will be available to extremely small groups of people (think two, wearing masks) to physically tour by appointment.

Kala Art Institute

The gallery is lettings its arts fellows transform the interior into a constantly evolving creative lab that might feature different material depending on the week you visit (by appointment only, of course). This show, titled Residency Projects in Flux, will last through September and features the works of print artist Jonathan Herrera Soto, who explores “collective memory and historical instances of state-sponsored violence,” photographer and book artist Sara Press, whose fascinations include “dog fighting, feral children, and our co-evolution with snakes,” and many others.


Shotgun Players

Regina Monique of Shotgun Players on videoconference from the ongoing show The Niceties. Photo: Courtesy Shotgun Players
Regina Monique of Shotgun Players on videoconference from the ongoing show The Niceties. Photo: Shotgun Players

Shotgun Players thought about canceling their 2020 season but instead have gone all-in on livestreamed and prerecorded shows on a pay-what-you-can basis ranging from free to $40. Playing now is “The Niceties,” a show about a black student and a white professor debating slavery, truth, and the American Revolution. (Tickets available here: Up next in early August is “Quack,” about a doctor who runs a popular TV show for women who encounters a savage media take-down. (Tickets here:

Aurora Theatre Company

Shunning the Zoom craze, Aurora has decided to embrace the format of an old-fashioned audio drama. “We’re known for being intimate – the audience is only four-rows deep all the way around three sides of the stage. You’re very close to the actors, and we bring in some of the best actors in the Bay Area to do nuanced, high-quality acting with a real emphasis on language,” says artistic director Josh Costello. “Trying to replicate that in Zoom didn’t feel right, but an audio drama has a sense of intimacy, because it’s a voice in your ear.” The play, which will be released on an undisclosed platform in October, is about “three neighbors who all live in a Berkeley triplex due to an extended shelter in place,” says Costello. “And ultimately it’s about how people deal with a shifting world and how we move forward as a community at a time when the existing structures and systems are no longer serving us.”


Berkeley Juneteenth

The organizers of the annual Juneteenth Festival in Berkeley do not have plans for an alternative event at this point.  

Freight Fest

Freight & Salvage is exploring different options for its next traditional-music fest, which will take place likely online in 2021, but in the meantime will provide free music lessons to all middle schoolers in the Berkeley Unified School District in the fall. It also has developed a robust schedule of online music classes for adults, such as this one about jug bands. “The cool thing right now is we’re not limited by classroom size or geography,” says executive director Sharon Dolan. “So our enrollment is higher than it would be for some classes, and we have teachers from around the country.”

Berkeley Kite Festival

kites in the sky
The new shape of the popular Berkeley Kite Festival  is thousands of free kitemaking kits  Photo: Ave Goldstein

The new shape of the kite festival is thousands of kitemaking kits that people are picking up for free at “our solar-powered kite shop on wheels at the Berkeley Marina,” says festival founder Tom McAlister. People can grab them on weekends, weather permitting, and assemble them at home. “We really believe that now more than ever we should be encouraging families to get outdoors, safely, in small groups, while social distancing, and enjoy the universal wind,” he says.

Chocolate & Chalk Art Festival

The delightful melding of sweet treats and sidewalk art is losing its street-fair component. “We’re going to have people do artwork at their own homes and sidewalks and send pictures to us, and we’ll upload it virtually,” says organizer Lisa Bullwinkel. “And instead of having people buy chocolate tickets and walk around to stores and eat chocolate, we’re just going to get prizes and gift certificates from the merchants for chocolate items that we’ll distribute as prizes for the artwork after it’s judged on the website.”

Individual artists

Theater artist Bruce Bierman received an individual-artist grant to produce the first West Coast adaptation of Sholem Asch’s controversial 1906 Yiddish drama, God of Vengeance. “I served as the Yiddish dance dramaturg for the Tony-Award winning play, Indecent, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Washington, D.C.’s  Arena Stage last year,” Bierman says. “Paula Vogel’s play Indecent recounts the turbulent history of the play God of Vengeance when it first came to America in 1922 and was shut down for obscenity and the actors thrown into the slammer. Yep. First lesbian-love relationship ever seen on Broadway.”

Jazz performer Faye Carol is putting together a yet-to-be-announced group of renowned musicians for a virtual concert. “I’m developing a suite of music around social-justice themes arranged for an all-star sextet that will premiere in December in an online livestream,” she says. “The sextet will feature collaborations with some amazing musicians and name artists in the jazz world.” This YouTube video, she says, will be emblematic of what she’ll be doing this year.

Paulina Berczynski says she’ll “be using my individual-art grant to continue work on an ongoing project making story quilts with unhoused individuals and communities through my collaboration Feral Fabric (with artist Amanda Walters).” They’re inviting housed Berkeley community members to help finish the quilts, if you’re interested check out their website.

Lena Wolff and her graphic-design collaborator Lexi Visco are making at least 20,000 posters to promote voting that they plan to ship across the country and put on billboards prior to the November election. “We see the project as a timely public-service announcement and critical public-art campaign, with the goal of boosting enthusiasm around voter engagement ahead of the most significant election of our lifetime,” Wolff says.

Other organizations

La Peña Cultural Center

“Our main goal this upcoming year is bringing La Peña online,” says fundraising and operations associate Dainiz Almazan. The center has three types of programs planned: free online classes about the organization’s cultural art forms, social-justice dialogues about civic engagement and the arts, and a sponsorship program for artists to livestream content to make up for pandemic-related lost work. The center is also launching its first online program this week about immigrant detention and prison reform; find more info here.  

Small Press Distribution

The nonprofit book distributor plans on using its grant funds to “help small-press publishers adapt to the challenges of COVID,” says executive director Brent Cunningham. “To that end we’ve started a series of SPD summer school workshops online…. We’re also planning to revive our reading series in online form for the fall, have added 10 new spots to our ad programs, and are featuring authors and books in our new social-media reading series, where we will be posting minute-long recordings from SPD authors of their work. And, as always, there will be new poetry and fiction books coming out in the fall, some by local authors.”

Shawl-Anderson Dance Center

The center is using its grant to sustain its weekly online dance classes for ages ranging from infants to seniors. “The program includes traditional modern and ballet classes, alongside expanded styles and forms that serve more students, both locally and nationally, such as adult jazz with Antoine Hunter with American Sign Language, ‘Big Movement in Small Spaces Contemporary for Teens’ with Julie Crothers, and ‘Stepping/Body Percussion’ with Antwan Davis,” says executive director Rebecca Johnson. It’s also producing the work of local dance choreographers online and will have a virtual Queering Dance Festival in mid-September that highlights the “artistic work and issues on the minds of the queer, trans and gender-nonconforming dance community in the East Bay.”

John Metcalfe is an Oakland-based freelance reporter who's written for Berkeleyside, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Atlantic. He enjoys covering science, climate and weather, and urban...