For many people in East Los Angeles, Self Help Graphics is more than a community arts center, it's an institution.
The building on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, with its distinctive murals, has for years housed a printmaking shop that served as one of the early incubators for the Chicano art movement in California. Many noted artists who launched their careers there remain active, visible members of the community. Of the center's ongoing events, like its popular Day of the Dead festivities, many have become Eastside traditions.
But today, more than 30 years after it was founded by a Franciscan nun in a Boyle Heights garage, Self Help Graphics & Art is evolving. Driven by ambitions to make it an indispensable cultural center for the entire region, Self Help is building links past its Eastside roots and planning more innovative programming.
In recent years, its expansive print collection by some of the most recognizable names in Chicano art has attracted the attention of museums, galleries, schools and collectors, from coast to coast and globally, from South Africa to Scotland.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is finalizing the largest acquisition of prints from Self Help in the center's history, said Tomas Benitez, Self Help's executive director. The acquisition is expected to total about 500 prints that range from the printmaking workshop's beginnings, when the output was for the most part political in content, to the latest work by artists as young as 17, Benitez said.
Beyond that, Self Help's leaders say they are working to make fundamental changes at a place some still identify as a grass-roots home base for Latino artists in Los Angeles.
The shift reflects a broader change of focus among some Latino artists and theorists. Many believe that Latino urban culture has outgrown the ideology of Chicano nationalism and is turning to the idea of the "post-border metropolis" that stretches from Tijuana to Los Angeles as the new cultural vanguard.
This new way of thinking, some say, is being driven by a rising generation of artists taking the helm of Self Help's activities.
"The challenge we have is to create a space that's more critical, more daring intellectually," says Gustavo Leclerc, Self Help's newly hired artistic director, "a space for a new discourse, and it seems to me that's a new paradigm."
It's talk that's making some old school members of the Eastside arts community slightly apprehensive.
Shifra Goldman, who has documented the Chicano art movement in several books and papers, says she is worried that longtime East L.A. artists would be alienated if the working philosophy at Self Help Graphics turns away from primarily showing Chicano art and "also Chicano issues."
"I would hate to see a problematic [change] that has to do with something that is very sophisticated and not amenable," Goldman says.
Born of politics
Vigilance over Self Help's legacy is understandable.
Grass-roots arts organizations and collectives sprung up on the Eastside at the height of the Chicano political movement in the early 1970s, but many gradually closed down or disbanded over time. Today, Self Help is one of only a few survivors.
When Sister Karen Boccalero and her associates opened a printmaking shop and gallery on what was then called Brooklyn Avenue near Soto Street, the artists who came to them were "few, very marginal and hadn't been accepted," Goldman says.
Sister Karen, as she's still called today, wanted to nurture a place where the largely Latino Eastside arts community could empower itself by creating art in its own space, by its own rules, thus the name. Printmaking was central to those goals because many artists started out making political posters for Chicano political rallies and the high school walkouts of 1968.
Self Help quickly became a beloved meeting place for Latino artists and members of the surrounding community. As it expanded, the center moved to an old Christian Youth Organization building farther east. Many Chicano artists who built printmaking skills at Self Help early on, including Frank Romero, Gronk and Patssi Valdez, matured into established gallery draws.
"She gave a lot of Chicanos a break," says Romero, the widely exhibited member of the one of the first Chicano art collectives, Los Four. "Everybody's been through there, everyone."
When she died in 1997, Sister Karen was memorialized as a matriarch of the movement. Almost immediately, though, voices from across the Latino arts community wondered aloud if Self Help could survive without her.
"The minute she died, we had a bunch of people say, 'Oh, now what's going to happen?' " recalls Benitez, who served as Sister Karen's assistant. "I had to get on the phone and say, 'We're here, we're fine' ... and we went to work."