In New York, a Latinx Arts Center dissolves its membership program for a fresh start
The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, located in a city-owned building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was founded in 1996 to preserve and promote Puerto Rican and Latino art and culture. But for nearly two decades, control of the building’s 42 artist-subsidized studios, four theaters and two galleries has been “contested between its original Latino founders and a group of predominantly white artists who hold leases for them. studios, “says a recent open letter. by the advocacy group Free La Clémente.
For the first time in its history, the center voted to dissolve a membership structure established in 2006 that gave every entity in the building at the time – organization or individual artist – the right to appoint board members. administration. But according to Libertad Guerra, who was appointed executive director of the center in February this year, 38 non-member artists currently occupy the building, and other non-members who are also enjoying affordable spaces for short-term projects.
Guerra said this division “results in disconnected membership “, but”did not flesh out the duties and responsibilities of the organization’s shared infrastructure.
“The affordability we offer is between 80% and 50% below the market rate per square foot. It’s an invaluable resource for working artists, ”she added. “My goal is to modernize the major program to open it up to more diversity and highlight all the projects that are taking place there that do not give the Clemente all its credit.
The vote, open only to members of the center, was held last Thursday, September 24, following a decree by the Directorate of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) abandon the membership system or lose over $ 350,000 in municipal funding. The city intervened after a number of artists in the building raised concerns about conflicts of interest between members and the council.
The referendum was passed by 31 to 19 votes, Guerra shared with Hyperallergic. “There is a lot to be done to follow through on so many great ideas and plans for The Clemente’s collective future and the important role it plays in providing a platform for independent artists and producers of color,” she declared.
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, DCLA’s Director of External Affairs, Ryan Max, sent the following statement from the agency: “The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center is an important cultural institution for the Lower East Side and the whole of New York City. We look forward to continuing our work with the organization to foster a vibrant and accessible cultural space for generations of New Yorkers to come. “
But the vote was marked by polarities that have long plagued the center: Clemente members in favor of disbandment argued that it would transfer power to the Clemente administration, free up essential funds for the center, and end. to an obsolete system; members voting against feared this would lead to rent increases, lack of affordability and top-down management.
“The Clemente was ruled by a non-representative body of members,” wrote FreeTheClemente. “The nearly 50 members who hold leases with the administration and the minority faction who have benefited from the governance of its board of directors have been plagued by conflicts of interest and a lack of accountability and transparency towards LES artist communities and taxpayer dollars. . “
However, some members of the institution say the process leading up to the vote was strained. They feel they didn’t have enough time to sort out their outstanding issues before the city-imposed September 30 deadline to end membership before losing funding.
In interviews with Hyperallergic, stakeholders on both sides acknowledged that distrust of the administration runs deep and reflects issues with past rulers.
“In my opinion, it was actually a real chance to bring people together, to strengthen the community within La Clemente and to solve some of the issues that have plagued the center forever, but it would have taken longer,” said Tine Kindermann, member artist. , said Hyperallergic. “I hope that now that the statutes vote has passed, we can complete this work together in the future.”
The members, she explained, came from two camps: those who believed the new administration would settle the remaining issues after the vote, and those who found the negotiations inadequate and felt they could not vote on faith alone. .
The current statutes which determine the structure of the members are born of a long schism between visual artists and performing artists in the building. In the words of Flavia Souza, a member artist who has worked in construction since 1996 and voted in favor of disbandment, visual artists at first felt like a “cash cow” for theaters to be renovated and renovated. operate while few funds were funneled into repairing their studios. They organized themselves into the Artists Alliance Inc., which continues to this day, and went to court to fight for control of the building. The two sides reached an amicable settlement which resulted in the creation of the membership system.
Following these and other historical grievances, Souza explained: “everything Clemente does is seen as corrupt.
“The difference between me and the people who voted ‘no’ is that I think we can work with the people who don’t agree with us and who agree,” she added.
Others, like Natalia de Campos, a member since 2001, said membership implementation was a “long-standing necessity”. The artist, who recently hosted an event with support from the center, agreed the statutes needed to be adjusted, but argued for a different path.
“Membership was clearly not at the heart of the issues that the Ministry of Cultural Affairs wanted us to solve internally,” she told Hyperallergic. “The main problem we face is resolving past corruption and the personal dealings of former board members over the years, with conflicts of interest at heart. This led to a deep financial crisis. Membership did not. Membership means the right to vote.
She also opposes some characterizations of conflict as a stalemate between white artists and Latinx.
“The center currently has many Latinx artists as resident and member artists, including myself, and a majority of Latinx organizations, among member organizations,” said De Campos, who is Brazilian. “Whoever has sold this narrative over the years to become the mainstream narrative does not have diversity in his mind, but simple domination. This is unacceptable.
A member artist opposed to the disbandment, who spoke to Hyperallergic on condition of anonymity, said: “The director said we had reached a consensus, when 19 of the 50 votes were against the result. When rents go up and artists can no longer afford their studios or leave an affordable studio for the next generation, they might remember that they once had guaranteed voice and oversight mechanisms, and that they have voted for their rights. I hope I am wrong, but I do not regret having voted against.
During a phone call with Hyperallergic, Patricia Parker, who is part of Clemente’s advice, said removing membership entirely would allow “a clean slate with a respected administrator.” Guerra believes the center stands at an unprecedented crossroads that could lead to a fruitful collaboration between the two sides.
“I am not nostalgic for these unproductive battles of the past. In this voting process, I engaged with a lot of people – people who had genuine concerns and who have already made this place feel more real. There is unanimous agreement that we cannot waste time remaking the past over and over again, ”Guerra told Hyperallergic.
The goals of the new director for the coming years include the establishment of an effective governance board without conflicts of interest and the appointment of various individuals to serve as ambassadors. She also hopes to develop a sustainable affordability model for the long-term studio program, opening up new opportunities for Latinx / BIPOC inclusion, and raising Clemente’s public profile.
Esther Robinson of affordable art space nonprofit Artbuilt, who was invited as a counselor ahead of the vote, believes the conflict is at the heart of a trust issue. In the end, she wrote a letter advocating the dissolution of the membership.
“Places like Clemente are really very special and very important to the neighborhoods where they came into being,” Robinson told Hyperallergic. “They also function as spaces of radical possibility in the imaginations of all New Yorkers. And they are living links with artists like Edgardo Vega Yunqué and Ornette Colman.
“I believe all of these things are worth fighting for… Not in a way that puts too much emphasis on the past, but in a way that can pay homage to the possibilities that we fought for, and for. make room for this possibility to be given to more and more artists. “