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A new day for the near-dead? A Latino art center regroups

November 02, 2005|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

There will be two Day of the Dead celebrations tonight at Self Help Graphics & Art, the venerated East Los Angeles arts center that abruptly closed last summer amid mounting financial and organizational problems.

Inside the fence surrounding the mosaic-covered building, Self Help will hold its traditional Day of the Dead event, with altars, food, a procession and a print made for the occasion by the artist known as Germ.

Outside the fence, artists long associated with the nonprofit are planning their own Day of the Dead art "happening." They're calling it "The Death of Self Help Graphics," and the goal, they say, is to demonstrate that Self Help, as they have known it, is no more.

The dual Day of the Dead celebrations highlight the dilemmas facing Self Help. Since its controversial June closing, the organization's future has been passionately debated by artists and activists as several members of its board of directors have resigned, others have signed on and a new board president has been elected. Funding has been obtained from several sources, and a consultant has been hired to help the group reorganize. Armando Duron, the new board president, says Self Help is getting back on track.

But as the new leadership works to restructure and reopen, even stalwarts concede that the organization expected to emerge will be changed in ways yet to be determined. And they acknowledge that to be successful, Self Help's new leadership must find a way to reengage the artist community it was founded to serve and reignite the spirit that made it an internationally recognized presenter and promoter of Latino culture.

Like many community arts organizations, Self Help has struggled for years to cope with dwindling public and private funding. Tax records filed with the state show that for fiscal years 2002-03 and 2003-04, the group's total contributions and grants fell from $708,000 to $347,000. In addition, last winter's storms caused heavy water damage to its landmark building on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and brought to light the fact that the facility was not properly insured.

The debate over finances, as well as Self Help's need to redefine its vision in a changing artistic and demographic landscape, strained relationships between the board and Executive Director Tomas Benitez, who took over in 1997 after the death of Self Help's founder, Sister Karen Boccalero.

Benitez's management was also under fire. In an interview this week, he acknowledged that his handling of Self Help money -- such as shifting funds for building insurance to cover staff salaries -- had contributed to the difficulties.

In an emergency meeting June 7, the board accepted Benitez's resignation and decided to close Self Help for the first time in its history.

Outraged by the way the closure was carried out, with staff quickly laid off and the gates to the center chained shut, Self Help constituents, in particular the artists, organized public meetings and railed at board members, complaining of years of disconnect and under-appreciation. The board apologized, but many saw it as too little, too late, and artists and community members formed a coalition to "save" Self Help, with some openly calling for the entire board to resign.

Amid the furor, advisors, including Chon Noriega, a UCLA professor who directs the university's Chicano Studies Research Center, initiated a campaign to regroup, restructure and seek emergency funding.

Since then, about $125,000 -- from the Annenberg Foundation, the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department and the California Community Foundation -- has been awarded to Self Help to pay overdue salaries, insure its building and hire a consultant to help it regroup.

Max Benavidez, an art writer and visiting scholar at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, has taken on that role, overseeing the restructuring with Duron, an attorney and former president of the board at the Venice-based Social and Public Art Resource Center.

Six board members who were serving when Self Help closed have resigned, according to Duron, and three new board members have been elected, bringing the current total to seven -- two fewer than bylaws require.

Those who have left are Olivia Montes, Ginger Varnay, Michael Amescua, Dennis Martinez, Oralia Michel and Sister Mary Elena, a representative of the Sisters of St. Francis, who own the Self Help building. New board members include Duron, artist and teacher Omar Ramirez and public relations executive Valarie de la Garza, who join remaining board members Marisol Torres, Charles Miller, Gilbert Cardenas and Julio Martinez.

Although a reopening date has not been set, Duron said he hoped it would be in early 2006. In the meantime, a new business plan is being prepared, with the search for a new executive director to come later. Duron added that artistic director Gustavo Leclerc, hired in 2004 and hailed as an innovator, would not be asked to return after the restructuring.

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