Father of Ghost Ship Fire Victim Makes Artist Live/Work Buildings His Mission

By Malsteria (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

June 20, 2017; San Jose Mercury News

The Ghost Ship was an artists’ living/work space in Oakland, California, and when it went up in flames 18 months ago, killing 36 of its residents and visitors, many wondered what would happen to other such places around the country. (The cause of the fire is still undetermined as of Monday, when a 50-page report was released by the fire department, though no one is arguing that the Ghost Ship wasn’t out of code.)

Erin Baldassari, writing for the Mercury News, reports that Jonathan Bernbaum was 34 when he died in the Ghost Ship fire. Jonathan’s father, Ed, is trying to do his part to answer the need for spaces for artists by starting an ambitious effort with neighbor Beth Jay and architect Tom Dolan. The nonprofit, named Vital Arts, will raise funds from the Bay Area’s tech sector to support safe living/work spaces for artists in Oakland—because, after all, it is largely the tech sector that has driven rents up so high that most local artists can no longer afford them.

The money will be used to purchase buildings for living and working in or provide safety enhancements to landlords that agree to maintain buildings as rental spaces for low- and moderate-income artists.

The wildly innovative and resourceful San Francisco-based Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), which NPQ has previously covered, will act as a fiscal sponsor for Vital Arts. CAST has a remarkable track record in helping to retain and create arts facilities in combination with local established arts nonprofits but some of the groups in Oakland are a newish proposition.

CAST recently began working with the city of Oakland to develop a program to provide technical and financial assistance for arts and cultural organizations. Many of those organizations are informal art collectives that often operate as de facto nonprofits, Levin said, prompting CAST to become increasingly focused on supporting these sometimes amorphous groups.

There is no doubt that live/work spaces have been endangered since the fire. One collective of artists and performers, known as the Castle von Trapp, will imminently lose its West Oakland compound after the cost and logistical challenges of making a bid on the property proved too challenging for the collective. Still, the collective plans to move forward together.

Eventually, Dolan envisions a network of collectives that can share resources and knowledge, beginning in Oakland and spreading across the bay to San Francisco with Vital Arts ultimately serving as a model for collectives across the country.

“There are so many people in spaces right now who feel really beleaguered, who really feel alone,” he said. “The more people can communicate with each other, it seems like the more strength can be derived from a community of communities.”

—Ruth McCambridge