Band together for 21 Grand

Pub date December 18, 2007
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer


SONIC REDUCER "Fuck New York. I can stick it out longer. I’ve got a masochistic streak!"

Cue divine, mad laughter. No, this isn’t a disgruntled renter pushed out by another owner move-in or a painter or sculptor resisting the draw of the trad national marketplace — the speaker is Sarah Lockhart, who runs 21 Grand, the jeopardized arts nonprofit and music space around the corner from the Mama Buzz Café, Johansson Projects, and other galleries participating in the insanely popular monthly Art Murmur walk set in what has become the grassroots-art epicenter of Oakland and the East Bay at large.

Going on seven and a half years downtown, Lockhart has been toiling in the trenches of ambitious music and arts programming longer than most. But in the past few weeks she and partner Darren Jenkins have had to close the doors and move shows after a troubling visit by the Alcohol Beverage Action Team, a unit of the Oakland Police Department that also ushered in the closure of underground music venues like the French Fry Factory and Oaklandish. "My thing is to work on this and fight it," the ever-feisty Lockhart continues. "We’re actually going to stay open and maybe provide inspiration for others. I want to have at least 10 years, because Tonic in New York City closed — they lasted nine years — but we’re still here." She chuckles, contemputf8g her tenacity and the vaunted East Coast experimental music club, which closed in April. "I get competitive about weird things! No money, lots of work — let’s see how long it takes before I totally burn out. This is our form of an endurance test."

Consider their current gauntlet the latest in the uncanny, imaginative struggle to provide a place for visual artists, film and video makers, poets, and, notably, musicians — working in every esoteric, noisy, experimental, rockish, improvy, and otherwise unclassifiable stripe — to show, speak, or sound out. Some of the best live music shows I caught in 2007 were at their space: Marnie Stern, the Gowns, the High Places, Lucky Dragons, and Breezy Days Band, which made the programming there the best in Oakland, if not in the running for tops in the Bay. Lockhart and Jenkins have survived nightmare landlords and condo push-outs — first at 21 Grand Avenue, then on 23rd Street — but this new challenge has to be their most frustratingly Kafkaesque.

On Dec. 1, ABAT officials were looking into Shashamane Bar and Grill, whose kitchen door shares the alley entrance with 21 Grand. The latter was closing for the night after a performance. Recycling buckets with empty beer bottles, a tip jar, and a cooler led one of the visitors to give Lockhart a card, saying, she recalls, "We don’t want you to have any problems in the future." Lockhart was alarmed enough to put a halt to most of December’s shows, explaining, "I’m 33 years old. I feel like I’m too old to risk horrible fines from the department and have to call my mother and say, ‘I have a fine for $10,000 — can you lend me money?’ That’s how things began, and then the ball started rolling and things started escautf8g."

It wasn’t enough for Lockhart to simply apply for a cabaret license; she had to navigate a bureaucratic maze of Byzantine proportions while she attempted to get special-event permits from the police in order to continue to put on a few larger shows by artists like Zeena Parkins and Eugene Chadbourne, which led to efforts to get approval from the fire and building departments. "For all they know, we’re a large firetrap that has raves for 4,000 people, so they weren’t signing off on anything," says the exasperated Lockhart, who recently put in 40 to 70 hours of footwork on paperwork and approvals. The nonprofit has been organizing shows for years using grants from the city, but 21 Grand’s hard-to-define, multidisciplinary programming has puzzled bureaucrats.

Still, the onetime Artists’ Television Access programmer is hoping that the few helpful city officials she’s encountered, who are familiar with the closure of spaces like Oakland Metro, can help the nonprofit. Lockhart wants to resume shows next month beginning with a Tom Carter and David Daniell performance Jan. 10, and in the meantime she’s trying to maintain a sense of humor: "the irony is not lost" on her that their recent fundraiser had to be moved to someone’s home and that new legislation allowing the Fox Theatre to be redeveloped as a live-entertainment venue within 300 feet of a school, library, or church might help 21 Grand, which has had its share of developer travails, to get a cabaret permit for their present spot near a Presbyterian church.

Going the private-club route like the 924 Gilman Street Project or heading underground isn’t an option. "Our goal is to have 21 Grand actually have a public presence," Lockhart says. "I want to do something that’s advertised and open to the public so a kid in bumfuck nowhere can see something about it and say, ‘This is cool. I’ll go to this.’ " *



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