Berkeley Art Center executive director talks keeping gallery timely, relevant in times of uncertainty

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What is visual art, and what purpose does it serve? It’s a difficult question to approach, overwhelming in its vastness and in art’s constantly changing nature in the public eye.

And yet no matter how overwhelming this query, it’s a question that art galleries and museums must regularly answer. How does visual art, they must ask themselves, relate to the lives of our audiences? Is it pleasurable aesthetically? Does it spur action? How does it relate to a particular place and time? In the case of recently appointed Executive Director of the Berkeley Art Center Daniel Nevers, the question is a bit more specific, albeit still broad: How does visual art relate to the people of the East Bay in 2018?

In September, Nevers replaced Ann Trinca in the high-ranking position, joining the center in a period of uncertainty for the future of BAC. With city funds for the arts in decline and many BAC members and supporters pushed out of the Bay Area by rising rents, BAC must find ways to remain relevant in order to survive.

That’s not to say that BAC has historically put timeliness on the back burner. Since its founding in 1967, the center has consistently aimed to maintain a finger on the cultural pulse of the community and plan its exhibitions accordingly.

But Nevers thinks the center could go further. He hopes to turn BAC into a more dynamic and active space, an intersection of arts, education and social justice.

“There is a strong desire — of people on the board and artists, members and our donors and supporters — to see Berkeley Art Center be the kind of place that can respond to the moment,” he said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “Right now — certainly in the Bay Area, but also well beyond just the city — people are really interested in art as a vehicle for conversation. … I think that people want a place where they can engage with the things that are going on, in their lives and in the world, and try to make sense of (it all).”

All well and good in theory, but tapping into this public desire for art in a relatable way doesn’t happen overnight. To achieve such an objective, Nevers voiced an interest in working from the bottom up. He aims to do so by partnering with artists who emphasize timeliness and relevance in their work, with the hope that BAC can then better embody the dynamic space that Nevers envisions.

“We want to … bring in artists who are really interested in engaging in the social aspects of what art has to offer, and to build a community of people to come (to BAC) and to have a conversation with (these artists),” he said. The end goal is an inclusive space for both artists and BAC visitors.

Nevers believes that another key to BAC’s success moving forward revolves around increasing local awareness of the space and its services. The potential for growth in this area informed Nevers’ decision to apply for the executive director position. He stated, “For me, the thing that was interesting was … the potential of (BAC) to expand beyond the community it has been serving, to think more broadly about the arts in the city of Berkeley and of the long legacy of artists who have come out of Berkeley for generations and making sure people know about that and understand it.”

He compared BAC’s current reach to that of a “neighborhood park.” A lot of its support comes from those who live in the area and know about the space simply because they happen to pass it on their way to work. Nevers explained, “We would love to have people from Oakland and Richmond and San Leandro and other parts of the East Bay really start to identify us as a place where they’re going to see some great work. I know that we’re a bit of a hidden gem right now, and we’d like to just be a gem.”

The effects of getting the word out about BAC may prove more far-reaching than one may initially think. Nevers believes in the power of art galleries to not only ignite dialogue, but also to provide spaces of calm in a world of hyperactivity.

“People … want to maybe disconnect from technology and reconnect with the world in a more human way, and I do think that there’s certainly a long history of artists’ spaces being sanctuaries or places for self-reflection,” Nevers said. “There’s a long history of art being something that can help ground us — a vehicle for thinking about ourselves and the world.”

I think we can all agree that a little grounding right about now would come as a welcome change of pace. For the sake of artists and viewers alike, let’s hope that the shine of this gem, as a historic site and an encourager of critical thought, only grows in brilliance with Nevers’ assistance.

Ryan Tuozzolo covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].