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Art group will need new home

After 30 years, owners have sold the East L.A. building that houses financially struggling Self Help Graphics.

July 10, 2008|Hector Becerra and Esmeralda Bermudez | Times Staff Writers

In the early 1970s, a Franciscan nun turned an East Los Angeles garage into a thriving cultural center that gave rise to some of the city's most successful Latino artists. Self Help Graphics & Art later moved into a 1920s-era building on Cesar Chavez Avenue that would become distinctive for its mosaic-covered facade.

Artists such as Gronk, Frank Romero and Barbara Carrasco exhibited their work and taught at the center. Sister Karen Boccalero, its founder, became a patron of the East L.A. art scene.

But more than 10 years after Boccalero died, her Franciscan order and the Los Angeles Archdiocese have sold the Self Help property to a private investment firm. The arts center may have until the end of the year to move from the site it has occupied since 1978.

"It's a huge loss for the community," said Patssi Valdez, a prominent artist of 30 years whose first exhibitions took place at Self Help Graphics & Art. "I'm hoping there will be something in the future that can replace it or compare to it."

Sister Carol Snyder said it became untenable to support a venture that did not make money. The center's budget plunged from $708,000 six years ago to $231,000 last year, relying mostly on sales from its renowned print shop after failing to secure government grants and corporate sponsorships.

Earlier this year, the Order of the Sisters of St. Francis, based in Redwood City, Calif., transferred the deed to the 15,000-square-foot building to the archdiocese and asked that it be sold.

"All these years, they've been rent free," Snyder said. "They've never been profitable, and they were no longer able to get grants. We were losing money and we had to loan them money periodically."

Snyder said Self Help had "functioned extremely well" while Boccalero was alive, but had gone downhill ever since. She said some proceeds from the sale would fund art scholarships in the community in honor of Boccalero.

"We don't feel like we're abandoning East L.A.," she said.

But Armando Duron, the art center's board president, said he has been fielding calls from concerned artists and community members. He said the Sisters of St. Francis' lawyer first informed him about the sale July 3 -- a day after escrow had closed.

"I told him I was very shocked and disappointed to hear they sold without telling us," Duron said. "I terminated the conversation by telling him, 'May God be with you.' "

He disputed Snyder's assertion that the order had worked with Self Help for three years to acquire grants to buy the property, which was appraised two years ago at $1.5 million. He said the order's assistance consisted of one letter of support.

"To characterize it like they've been helping us for three years is absolutely misleading," Duron said. "I hope she goes to confession about it."

Snyder said she didn't know whether Self Help was told the property was about to be sold, but that the writing was on the wall. "I don't think this should be a surprise," she said. "If they didn't buy the place, we would have to sell it."

Snyder said the new owner, who did not return phone calls from The Times, had agreed to let Self Help stay in the building an extra six months rent-free.

As the director for Self Help Graphics, Boccalero kept the center going for 26 years even as other community organizations disbanded because of cuts in arts funding.

Born in Arizona, Boccalero moved to East L.A. when she was a young girl. She attended Immaculate Heart College in Los Feliz in the 1960s and studied under renowned artist Corita Kent.

Boccalero went on to study in Rome and earned a master's degree in fine arts from Temple University in 1971. After returning to Los Angeles, she started working with other artists in a garage behind the home where she lived with other nuns. An old printing press became the start of Self Help Graphics.

"She's the heart and soul of the place," artist Frank Romero said after her death in 1997. "We don't know what's going to happen without her."

Snyder said that after Boccalero died, the nun's order, which had seen its numbers drop, was unable to find a replacement for her on the art center board.

"You have to have a real interest in art to work there, and Karen had that," Snyder said. "We had no others gifted that way."

As its financial troubles mounted, Self Help was forced in 2005 to temporarily close its doors, sparking an uproar among Latino artists and community activists. Snyder said her order was not told until after it happened.

The former executive director resigned. New leaders, including Duron, were brought in to rescue the center, popular for its annual Day of the Dead celebrations. The arts collective also hosted theater groups, concerts, poetry readings and workshops for children.

Artist Patssi Valdez said Self Help was the only place where young Latino artists could flourish in the 1980s. But she said she thought the center had outlived its time when it briefly shut down.

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