To an extent unrivaled almost anywhere in the world, the best that America has to offer is a result of the combined efforts of the private and public spheres, in a society where hard work is rewarded and those who succeed are encouraged to give back. Our great cities have always borne the mark of private citizens who use their personal achievements for the greater good: John D. Rockefeller’s almost single-handed establishment of the University of Chicago, for instance, and Andrew Carnegie’s thousands of public libraries – not to mention Carnegie Hall.
In the course of our everyday lives, residents of the Bay Area witness the kind of private philanthropy that weaves itself into a city’s daily life, shaping urban development that becomes an indelible part of our community. The Berkeley Rep, the University Art Museum, the Freight and Salvage, and The Magnes would not be the local gems they are without the consistent engagement of private citizens.
The historic UC Theatre is an example of the kind of institution that served the city of Berkeley for nearly a century, but was then allowed to languish. Originally a nickelodeon, I came to know the theater as a revival house cinema (many an East Bay resident likely recalls seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show there, at least once) – but in 2001, the theater’s doors closed, seemingly permanently.
In 2012, however, the Berkeley Music Group began working to renovate the space as a music venue. Last year, we joined the effort with a matching grant that allowed others to take an active part in the effort to revive this cultural facility. I am very proud that the UC Theatre Taube Family Music Hall is once again open to the public. The venue is now offering shows that appeal to a range of ages and interests; singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco is one of the big names on this spring’s docket.
However, beyond providing entertainment, the new UC Theatre is also committed to serving and strengthening the East Bay’s existing community of nonprofit arts and service organizations, providing education and career opportunities in performance production for local youth, ages 16-25.
Literacy and education, music and the arts – culture understood both narrowly and broadly – are gifts that should be accessible to everyone, regardless of income or zip code. That’s the philosophy that institutions like the UC Theatre are employing toward our community, and setting a model others should follow.
This approach necessarily requires an understanding of community and culture that’s inclusive and diverse, an approach that contributes to broader civic life around us – and, I would further argue, it demands a commitment not just to the moment in which we live, but also to the future.
As we develop new organizations or projects, we must also seek to deepen and widen the aims of existing institutions, building new relevancy for the 21st century. Neighborhoods and communities are often anchored to historic buildings or cultural programs, and we have too often seen the cost of letting formerly great institutions collapse rather than enabling innovation. We have a responsibility to ensure that any project we support can mature and thrive over decades to come, so it can be utilized and appreciated by the next generation and have an impact that goes far beyond our own involvement.
Members of this community with means have a responsibility to use our resources toward improving the social and communal welfare of those around us, especially those in the most need. The great cities of this nation are great precisely because of the involvement of their citizens. Government will never be enough; communities thrive when they’re marked by a sense of mutual obligation, civic pride, and a willingness to invest in tomorrow. It can be easy, in the middle of our all-too busy lives, to forget these simple truths – but if want the Bay Area to continue to grow and thrive, we must dedicate ourselves to furthering them.