When Michael Sturtz founded the The Crucible (1260 7th St., Oakland) twelve years ago, one could've written it off as a flight of fancy. An institute-trained sculptor and welder, Sturtz wanted to create a space for the community to come together and produce industrial art. But industrial art as recreational practice was a long way off, and, this being years before Art Murmur and the gallery explosion of the mid-2000s, the local arts community was diffuse and largely stagnant. Finding funding for a nonprofit organization of any kind was (and is) notoriously arduous, let alone for one whose mission was to focus, essentially, on placing blowtorches and soldering irons in the hands of laypeople. "There wasn't anything like the Crucible then," Sturtz recalled. "Letting everyday people have access to the industrial arts was sort of unheard of."
But Sturtz gathered a group of friends, scored a $1,750 grant through a high-school acquaintance who was well-connected in the nonprofit world, and loaned the fledgling organization the rest of the capital it needed by dipping into the remains of a settlement he'd received in a motorcycle accident. Twelve years ago this week, The Crucible opened in a 6,000-square-foot rented warehouse in South Berkeley.
Today the organization boasts a faculty and staff of nearly one hundred people, offers a full slate of classes for kids and adults annually, puts on a number of wildly popular fund-raising variety shows each year, and occupies a sprawling 56,000-square-foot warehouse in West Oakland. What might have looked like a pipe dream in the late-Nineties has become the largest industrial arts nonprofit in the country — and Sturtz is ready to step down. "I want The Crucible to soar," he said. "And at a certain point that means without me in charge of it." In the face of a struggling arts economy, the organization can't afford to sustain his position, and instead of cutting programs, Sturtz has decided to leave. The move is something he's been thinking about for awhile, he said, and he's looking forward to having time "to make art that's not stamped with the Crucible logo on the side" — to be part of, rather than a leader in, the East Bay's industrial arts community. "I've been holding the portal open for a lot of people to get in, but haven't gotten a chance to get in myself," he said.
To celebrate Sturtz and his legacy, The Crucible's annual fund-raising variety show, "Crucible Revival: Keep the Fire Burning," will be held in his honor. According to Sturtz, the show — which combines music, art, opera, dance, aerial arts, and lots of fire — will be something of a greatest-hits compilation of the last decade's shows. From the looks of it, it'll also bear the unbridled enthusiasm for spectacle that Sturtz made a trademark of the Crucible's performances. "It's very hard for us to do a simple, small show," he said. "It always ends up getting over the top. It's hard to stop." Friday and Saturday, January 14-15. 7 p.m., $55-$65. 510-444-0919 or TheCrucible.org