.Kala’s Half-Century Under the Sky

Berkeley art institute celebrates 50 years

Yet another Berkeley arts institution is celebrating a half-century of innovation and service. More than a gallery, Kala Art Institute incorporates classroom, workshop and studio spaces, providing a place for artists to learn, take risks, and share connections and conversations.

The word “kala” (kah-LAH), as institute materials explain, has multiple meanings in multiple languages: “In Sanskrit it means ‘arts’; in Greek, ‘good and beautiful’; in Japanese, ‘sky and emptiness’; in Hawaiian, ‘sun, gold and money’; in Turkish, ‘fortress’; and in Hebrew it means ‘bride.’”

Founded in San Francisco in 1974 by artists Archana Horsting and Yuzo Nakano as a space to share art-making equipment, Kala quickly attracted participating artists and outgrew its first home. The founders moved it first to Adeline Street in Berkeley, and then, in 1979, to its current home in the H.J. Heinz Building in West Berkeley, where it now occupies more than 15,000 square feet of the historic building on San Pablo Avenue.

Kala today offers fellowship and artist-in-residency programs, more than 100 classes for both adults and children, stages exhibitions throughout the year and provides an art-based curriculum to thousands of students through its Artists in Schools program.

Mayumi Hamanaka has co-directed Kala with Ellen Lake since 2008. But her association with the institute goes back to 2002, when she moved from Chicago to the Bay Area with her partner, who was awarded a fellowship at Kala. She gradually became more and more involved with the organization, helping its gallery director, building a website for it and eventually becoming communications manager. 

Now, she provides artistic vision and direction for the organization and is the gallery curator, organizing exhibitions, public programs, and related events at Kala Gallery and outside venues. She juries Kala’s Fellowship and other artist-residency initiatives, and supervises arts education, art sales and gallery programming.

In a phone interview, she said she believes it’s the founders’ original vision and the organization’s core values that have enabled it to survive and grow for 50 years. “They encouraged artists to come and share the space, to experiment and share experiences,” she said. Kala’s core values include:

  • Creativity and Transformation: Providing a high-quality space for experimentation, reciprocity and empowerment.
  • Equity: Reducing barriers to participation and amplifying diverse experiences, particularly from historically marginalized communities.
  • Access and Belonging: A creative and welcoming culture with access to art-making resources and platforms to share stories and experiences.
  • Collaboration and Interdependence: Embracing community wisdom, learning from one another and fostering a spirit of exchange.
  • Integrity: Approaching work, art and life authentically and with purpose. 

These values, she said, are celebrated in the new exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary, “Under the Sky,” which features work by former Kala Fellows and others, including Demetri Broxton, Kota Ezawa, Cathy Lu, Adia Millett, Emmanuel Montoya, Gregory Rick, Rupy C. Tut and Minoosh Zomorodinia. The exhibit opened May 18 and is on view through July 5.

Kala materials about the exhibit explain: “Artists in the exhibition celebrate and reflect on their cultural heritage and related crafts, historical events, and collective memory and wisdom. Their work provides a window into contemporary issues through layers of past histories and imagined futures. The work explores ruminations about how to move towards a more connected and mutually supportive future. Under the sky, the world can be seen as a united entity.”

Adia Millett, one of the featured artists, works in a number of mediums, including paint, glass, video and textiles, and her quilted textiles are part of “Under the Sky.”

“Mayumi was interested in textile work, and she had a theme for the show: the human connection to community, how do we make our connections,” Millett said. Her own work in “Under the Sky” taps into the link to “the mystical, the mythical. Symbols and metaphors.”

Millett was introduced to Kala through a 2021 artist’s residency in printmaking. Before that time, she viewed several exhibitions at the institute and was impressed. During the residency, she said, she found both her fellow artists and Kala staff extremely supportive.

Kala’s importance to Berkeley, the East Bay and the greater Bay Area is that it’s a “great example of the diversity you see in the Bay Area,” Millett said. “All walks of life, such a range of people coming together.” She also praised the institute’s commitment to its education programs for adults and children, which “can help give them a new perspective of creative spaces,” lessening the feeling of not feeling welcome that some institutions still exude.

Like Millett, another “Under the Sky” featured artist, Gregory Rick, loves the Kala community. An Iraqi war veteran, he came to know Kala through a “veteran artist” residency in printmaking and painting, in 2015.

Today, he both paints and creates works on paper, “and there are elements of printmaking in my paintings,” he said. His three pieces in “Under the Sky” reflect his “relationship to the current environment, violence and healing, the journey towards healing from undisclosed trauma.”

In his work “The White Panther,” he imagines an alternate history in which, “J. Edger Hoover discovered he was Black.” Another, “Healer,” depicts Harriet Tubman holding a child and surrounded by animals. In “Escaping Progress,” Rick pictures “some kind of city under siege,” he said, partly inspired by the work of Octavia Butler.

Despite some violent imagery in his work, Rick believes “there are still some things that unite everyone. The micro/macro [of “Under the Sky”] is about diverse voices and more intersections,” he said.

Kala has become such an important part of the East Bay art scene, he said, because it continues to support artists and their visions, and “welcomes people with open arms. The studios are charged with energy … there is clearly collaboration.”

So what lies ahead for Kala Art Institute as it enters its second half-century?

Furthering and expanding on its original goals, said Hamanaka. She added, “We are unique in a way, in that we offer [so many programs], including free community workshops. We are a gathering place, and artists are drawn to us from all over the East Bay cultural community.”

Kala is at a point, she said, “where we need to push our values to the forefront, lifting up the voices that have to be heard.”

A story from Kala materials expresses this: “In his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, novelist Haruki Murakami mentioned that, ‘Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.’ The egg here reminds us of the role artists and their work can play. Artists carry important messages and unique perspectives through their work, often breaking through walls and barriers with creative insight. Artists embrace the vulnerability that comes with this challenge. They courageously breach the norms, challenge the expected, inspire collaboration and compassion, and lift the voices of those stuck between walls and hard places.”

‘Under the Sky,’ Kala Art Institute Gallery, through July 5; 2990 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. 510.841.7000. www.kala.org.


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