July 8, 2005

The Self-Help Graphics Crisis: Lessons From San Diego

By Sandra Peña-Sarmiento

Early Rumblings

The warning signs began early, slowly trickling in while I was Director of Programming for the 2004 San Diego Latino Film Festival. I had set up a deal to license the artwork of Los Angeles based artist/activist Alfredo de Batuc for the 2005 Festival. In March of 2005, while the festival was in full swing, De Batuc came down to promote his work. I showed him the local sights: the murals at Chicano Park, Chicano Perk Café and Adams Ave. We spoke of community art spaces, in particular, the situation at San Diego’s Centro Cultural de La Raza.

Community comes together for the Self-Help Graphics. Photo by Harry Gamboa Jr.

Five years after a new administration employed draconian measures that resulted in a rift between the Centro and the local community, the organization was largely absent from the local art scene. Both Alfredo and I had visited the site in its heyday, and we lamented its spiral downward.

De Batuc spoke of the problems of many organizations throughout the nation, all started 30+ years before, and facing the challenge of maintaining their viability without choking off the vision of its participating artists. Without the artists, the centers had no creative resources to fundraise with, no stellar shows to publicize, no audience base of adoring art patrons to provide a revenue base. He began to tell me about similar problems at Self-Help Graphics, that started after its founder, Sister Karen passed away. Her assistant, Tomas Benitez became the new Executive Director, even though it was not a title he had actively sought out. The role of ED at any institution in this age of budget cuts and lack of federal funding, was certainly a heavy one to bear.

The Crisis Hits Home

It came in the form of an email. Internationally famous photographer, Harry Gamboa, sent out a single image to a massive e-list. It showed the gates at Self-Help heavily chained and locked. He posed a simple question, “What has happened and who is affected?” I received it the day after curating an art show for San Diego native Victoria Delgadillo, a participant in one of Self-Help’s prestigious print workshops. The parallels between the Self-Help crisis and the one at the Centro were disturbing.

* Both institutions were founded 30+ years ago.

* Both institutions had alienated their artistic communities.

* Both institutions had shut their doors abruptly with no explanation or attempt to involve the local community in finding a solution.

* Both institutions dismissed the emails and inquiries of concerned community members.

* The Boards of both institutions had begun to operate in a “secretive” manner, not alerting artists or community members of their meetings, agendas or fiscal status.

* Both institutions created barriers between Board members and artists. Many people in LA didn’t even know who the SHG Board members were or how to reach them. This was also the case in San Diego with the Centro.

People in the LA art world knew I was involved in the Save Our Centro effort. I had moved back to San Diego in 2004 to program the SDLFF for the Media Arts Center San Diego, an organization whose history included it’s own rift with the Centro. I was saddened to find that the once-vibrant art center, The Centro Cultural de la Raza, was closed and the subject of a boycott. Upon further investigation, I found that every single person I had known there, when I was a student at UCSD in the early ‘90’s, had been locked out in 2000 when an Executive Director and Board that were hostile to the local community took the organization over.

I reviewed many articles, written statements, videos and documents about the situation and found that a community of over 50 artists and activists had been struggling to establish dialogue with the new administration since the takeover in 2000. I found page after page of petitions, written complaints, proposals for dialogue, fundraising plans and heartfelt letters drafted by legions of SOCC members, such as Valerie Aranda, Richard Lou, David Rico, Carlos C. de Baca, Eloissa Leonna, Victor Payan, Endy Bernal and many others. These statements and queries written by Centro founders, former Board members, and curators went completely unaddressed. The size of this dispute and its resulting “disconnect” with the community had widened over the years into a chasm of distrust and frustration.

I became involved and began to advise the SOCC. I alerted people outside of San Diego about the local situation and consulted with my long-time mentor Chon Noriega, the Director of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center. Noriega, along with many local artists and activists, helped draft a plan of action to resolve the Centro dispute. I fully credit this collaborative plan as a breakthrough element that led the current Centro director and Board to begin negotiations with the SOCC.

Coincidentally, Centro founder Victor Ochoa filed a lawsuit against the Centro. Shortly thereafter, the Centro’s President left the Board, its Executive Director resigned, and a long-standing SOCC petition for dialogue was acknowledged.

The Coalition of Concerned Citizens for Self-Help Graphics is formed (CCCSHG)

Ricardo Duffy, a world-renowned ceramic and print artist, had crossed the SOCC picket line in November 2004 for an event organized by COFAC. Ricardo and I were longtime friends, and he didn’t understand why it was important for artists to take a public stand against the policies of any art institution.

Flash forward to June 2005. Now Duffy was calling to apologize, “Until it happened to me, I couldn’t really appreciate what you guys were going through.” He asked me to join “Mental Menudo,” a group he and fellow art star, Magu, were a part of. We met in a gallery at Olvera Street in downtown LA. Many people involved in the Self-Help Graphic crisis were present and wanted to hear about the SOCC.

The knowledge of the SOCC struggle prepared Ricardo Duffy for his position as co-chair of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for Self-Help Graphics (CCCSHG), the group the Self-Help artists decided to form. I sent an email out to other CCCSHG members and detailed the progress the SOCC had made in San Diego. The efforts of the SOCC served to inform the CCCSHG in how to deal with Board / Community conflicts.

The CCCSHG’s showdown with the Self-Help Graphics Board

SOCC member Victor Payan and I drove up to LA on Tuesday, June 28, to attend the CCCSHG-led community meeting with the Self-Help Board. The meeting was held at Ave 50 Studio, a gallery in Highland Park.

Upon arriving, we found a group of over 200 artists, activists and community members, packed into three rooms. The entire space was rigged for sound, with loudspeakers connected to each area, so that everyone could hear what was happening. Video and still cameras were present everywhere. People held their cell phones up to the speakers so those absent could listen in. The meeting was also taped for the public record.

The Board sat on folding chairs, behind a long white table. They spoke slowly and deliberately into a microphone, detailing their involvement in the current crisis, breaking down the Self-Help Graphics operating budget, and explaining the reasons why they shut down the institution without notice.

Audience members behaved in an organized fashion, firing off hard-hitting questions into microphones. Chon Noriega moderated the session. With his own brand of skillful diplomacy, Noriega emphasized the need for the Board to communicate and dialogue with the community.

A public statement drafted by the CCCSHG was read aloud by Linda Gamboa while Ricardo Duffy passed out copies to Board members. He informed them that a copy of the document would also be sent out by certified mail.

The CCCSHG letter began politely, describing the coalition as a “group of concerned citizens.” It went on to detail 15 requests, which included: Board minutes, financial status, business plans, the ED’s monthly reports, and a 6 month plan for dealing with the crisis. It inquired about the reasons why Self-Help had closed and the status of the new Executive Director search. It also required a response within 48 hours and demanded that a public statement be posted on the organization’s website (http://www.selfhelpgraphics.com/home.shtml) to ensure transparancy. Most importantly, the letter emphasised the CCCSHG’s role as a pro-active group whose sole motivation in requesting the Board’s cooperation was to assist Self-Help’s successful transition to a new administration.

The Board responded to each of the 15 points in an open and public fashion, vowing to cooperate fully with the CCCSHG, even if meant creating a whole new Board. In addition, the community passed the hat and collected $850 to contribute to Self-Help. Everyone left the meeting feeling empowered and inspired. It appeared to be the best of all possible outcomes.

What SD can learn from LA

As Chicano art historian Shifra Goldman observed, in the 70’s there were hundreds of community-run Latino cultural arts centers all over the nation. Today it’s less than 10. Many of the surviving institutions, such as the Museo del Barrio in New York, The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Arte Americas in Fresno, Self-Help Graphics in Los Angeles and our own Centro Cultural de La Raza in San Diego are all facing a similar crisis. It’s crucial that we, as a community, step back and see the commonalities in these situations. We must identify and change negative patterns in operations, while re-invigorating these institutions’ ties to the communities they were founded to serve.

One common factor are Boards that at one point or another, appeared to have lost their vision, desire for transparency in business, and accountability to the community they were founded to serve. Boards that favor a “corporate” approach to leadership, fall prey to Enron-style mistakes, abuses and secrecy. A “public” benefit organization that regards the “privatized” interest of a Board above the needs of the community will ultimately face a crisis.

As a community, we may want to draw upon the experiences of our fellow brethren in other regions, and learn from their mistakes, so that painful histories won’t be repeated elsewhere. Most importantly, we must learn from our own mistakes. The common solution to these dilemmas is found in reaching out to the communities that created our cultural institutions by embracing their energy and their willingness to create positive community-based solutions.

Sandra Peña-Sarmiento is a producer and arts administrator. Her website is www.pocharte.com

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