By Mark Vallen
Self Help Graphics, East Los Angeles’ venerable institution dedicated to Chicano art, printmaking and grassroots community arts in general, was closed on June 7th, 2005. The artistic heart of Chicano LA beats no more. Amazingly enough, it was the organization’s own “Board of Directors” that closed the doors of SHG to the public, changed the locks on the building to bar staff and artists from entering, and locked-up the parking lot used by visitors and community members alike.
While I was aware that there were problems brewing at SHG, its closure comes as a complete shock to me, and to many other artists, activists, and community members. I have exhibited my artworks at SHG, and I have prints and other artworks in its Tienda Colores giftshop. But it’s not being deprived of a venue at which to exhibit that I find so upsetting, more importantly - the Chicano community in particular and Los Angeles in general, has lost one of its premiere arts institutions.
Founded in the late 1960’s by Sister Karen Baccalero, Self Help Graphics quickly established itself as the center of artistic production for the people of East L.A., and has remained one of the most important community arts centers in the nation. Its Galeria Otra Vez has been a showcase for local and national artists, playing an essential role in bringing Chicano/Latino art into the mainstream.
As a non-profit organization SHG offered several important youth art programs and writing workshops. They maintained a print making atelier and collection of hand made prints that rival any collection of Chicano art in the country, and their annual print exhibit and auction was always a huge community event. One of the most popular festivals in East Los Angeles was held at SHG, the annual Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead celebration. Based on the ancient Aztec revelry that honored the dead, the community event took place every November 2nd. To say that Self Help Graphics helped to launch an artistic renaissance is an understatement.
While trouble was brewing just beneath the surface, it became apparent to all when Self Help’s executive director, Tomas Benitez, submitted his resignation on December 2004. His resignation was formally accepted by the “Board of Directors” on June 7th, who then made the unprecedented move of completely shutting down the institution. The mission of any board of directors is to protect, promote, nurture, and expand the body it presides over. not to kill it.
No matter what difficulties they face, a proper Board of Directors will do everything within its power to preserve what has been entrusted to them. Which begs the question. just who are the people sitting on the Board of Directors for Self Help and what exactly have they done for the institution? If financial woes were the core problem faced by the board, why did they not make a direct appeal to the people, artists, foundations, and various supporters for help? If the Board of Directors had an understanding of the actual historic significance of Self Help Graphics, if they grasped the importance of such a cultural center, if they had any respect or empathy for the arts or for artists. in short, if they had any integrity, they would have done everything in their own power to keep Self Help Graphics afloat, up to and including using their own financial resources. Instead, they chose to strangle the life out of this most revered establishment.
Now is the time for action, an occasion for all who have ever benefited from the good works of Self Help Graphics to rise in its defense. It is the artists and people of Los Angeles who built SHG, we are the ones who kept it alive and vibrant, and we are the ones who will defend and resurrect it. The Board of Directors may have chained the gates and locked the doors, but the demise of Self Help Graphics will only come about when it is abandoned by the people and the artists.
It is a crime to wrap a community arts center in chains, and the way forward is to sweep away the Board of Directors as it is presently constituted. The struggle for cultural democracy is “on” in Los Angeles, and all are invited to become active, as it’s said - “use it or lose it”. Having taken the unwarranted and extreme measure of closing Self Help Graphics, the Board of Directors now wants a community meeting to “discuss the state of the organization”, which seems an odd thing given that they’ve obviously made up their minds as to the direction of the institution.
We should all take this opportunity to demand the immediate reopening of Self Help Graphics as well as the removal of its abysmal Board of Directors. The meeting will take place at Ave 50 Studio in Highland Park, Tuesday, June 28th, at 7:00 pm. (location: 131 N. Avenue 50 (Figueroa).