Family lets go of grief, works to help artists after Ghost Ship fire

- When Jonathan Bernbaum died in the Ghost Ship fire last December, his family had several choices. They could be angry, they could sue, they could mope.

And yet they chose another path.

The Berkeley family decided to find whatever small ray of goodness they could from Oakland’s worst fire in city history and they set out to effect positive change. 

Now, the entire family – parents Diane and Ed Bernbaum and brother David – are deeply involved in keeping the memory of  Jonathan Bernbaum, 34, a  talented visual projection artist alive. They are doing this by establishing a memorial fund to grant innovative artists’ in the Bay Area small grants to pursue their passions, and by fundraising to eventually buy property to rent to artists for an affordable price. 

But first, before these grander projects came to life, David Bernbaum and his friends did something small, but tangible. They gave all of Jonathan Bernbaum’s material objects away. 

“We were thinking very much of the Tibetan tradition of a sky memorial, where the birds come and every bird comes and take a little piece,” David Bernbaum said. “One of the things that really took the sting out was getting to disperse all of his equipment that he’d assembled to people in the community.”

Giving away his projectors and his videos and even his clothes felt “almost like an organ donor,” David Bernbaum said. The family even gave his highly produced videos shown by the Austrian band Knife Party to the video DJ who took Bernbaum’s place after his death.

“And that made us feel really good knowing that his work was continuing to be seen,” David Bernbaum said. 

The Bernbaums want the works of other artists to be seen, too. His alma mater, the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, set up a scholarship in his name. But his mother and brother wanted to specifically be able to give money, $2,000, to Bay Area artists whose work “demonstrates innovation in their field.” The fund was created in partnership with the East Bay Community Foundation, and applications were due Nov. 1. The winner will be announced in December. 

And finally, Ed Bernbaum, working with attorney and neighbor Beth Jay and architect Tom Dolan, have been working to find a warehouse, or several of them, to buy, clean up, get the place the proper permits and then rent those spaces to artists at an affordable price.

Ed Bernbaum realizes that the Ghost Ship fire occurred because the venues for artists to create and experiment is most often out of reach because of skyrocketing rents.

“A lot of people knew the Ghost Ship was a dangerous place, but there were fewer and fewer venues to go and do this kind of thing,” Ed Bernbaum said.

The group, which they've named Vital Arts, is seeking donations from a variety of sources in the community, including major corporations.  

They have met with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who offered to help set up a meeting with large donors.  Vital Arts is focused on long-term projects that will take years to get off the ground.  The organization is starting by selecting smaller pilot projects within the next two years, in order to have 20 to 30 live work spaces and several performance spaces available within five years.  The goal is to have many more safe, affordable spaces available in 10 years.  One of those projects is already getting off the ground - a live-work warehouse at 30th W. Street, which the city of Oakland is prepared to give a zoning variance to so that 13 artists can reside there.

“All sorts of people come to this from all sorts of walks of life including people who work for Google and Salesforce,” Ed Bernbaum said, noting that it’s not just starving artists who like to go to electronic dance parties. “So I thought, what about trying to get substantial support from really large corporations in a really positive way to really make an impact? How about raising money from large corporations to have a real impact so that arts and culture can continue to thrive here?”

He added that the work his family members have poured themselves into has been beneficial for them, too, and it’s much better than sitting around and stewing.

“Most of the time I’ve been energized,” he said, “and life goes on. There’s nothing we can do to bring Jonathan back. But there is something we can do to honor his memory. Working on this for us is inspiring. Otherwise, all this vitality would be  lost.” 

If you're interested in being part of Vital Arts, click here.

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