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East L.A. Arts Center Closes

June 18, 2005|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Self Help Graphics, an East Los Angeles arts center that has struggled for its life for the last year and recently lost its executive director, has temporarily closed.

Leaders of the nonprofit organization say a financial shortfall precipitated the closure and that Self Help will reopen as soon as funding is secured and the administration restructured.

"We are optimistic that a number of grants from major funders will be forthcoming," said Oralia Michel, a member of the board of directors. "We are totally committed to raising the money needed to find a new executive director and continue operating."

Tomas Benitez, the former executive director, advised the board in December of his intention to resign. He officially ended his six-year tenure June 7. A search is underway for a successor. Michel said the board would use the transition period as an opportunity to reorganize.

"It is time to upgrade our management systems, the way we fund programs, the way the money is allocated," she said. "We need to restructure so this doesn't happen again."

Self Help was founded in 1973 by Sister Karen Boccalero, a Franciscan nun, to promote and present the cultural heritage and contributions of Latino artists.

The organization grew from a grass-roots effort to a vital community center with an international reputation, offering a theater for performing arts, a print workshop for artists, a gallery and classes.

Like many nonprofit arts organizations, Self Help has operated on a shoestring and faced repeated financial challenges. But its problems assumed crushing proportions last winter, when a lack of money forced the organization to let go half a dozen employees and postpone several exhibitions. In addition, heavy rain damaged the already fragile landmark building on Cesar Chavez Avenue.

News of the closure has elicited strong responses from artists and others.

Chon Noriega, a Self Help advisor and UCLA professor who directs the university's Chicano Studies Research Center, said he thought Self Help could be revitalized if artists would rally behind it, set reasonable expectations and hold it accountable.

In response to community concerns about the closure, the board has scheduled a public meeting to consider Self Help's future at 7 p.m. June 28 at Avenue 50 Studio, 131 N. Avenue 50, in Highland Park.

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