Save Self-Help Graphics!

Chon Noriega served as moderator for the mass meeting
An extraordinary event took place at Ave. 50 Studio in L.A.’s Highland Park district on Tuesday, June 28th, 2005. Nearly 200 artists and their supporters packed the small gallery to try and find a way to save Self-Help Graphics, which was mysteriously shut down by its Board of Directors on June 7th. The closing of the cultural center galvanized artists and their supporters all across Los Angeles, and sent shock waves across the nation. The crowd at Ave. 50 was so large it spilled out the front door and onto the sidewalk - where people excitedly discussed how to revitalize the popular arts center. Eight of Self-Help’s Board of Directors attended the meeting, and they issued their first public statement since closing the popular art space on June 7th. The mass community assembly was moderated by Chon Noriega, the director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. Noriega was an excellent and even handed moderator who kept the proceedings moving along, despite the often heated exchanges.

Reyes Rodriguez of Tropical de Nopal Gallery asks questions of the Self-Help board
Along with numerous established artists like Yreina Cervantes, Harry Gamboa, Diane Gamboa, Wayne Healy, Margaret Garcia, and many others too numerous to mention, the gathering was also attended by representatives from galleries and institutions like Tropical de Nopal, Galería de la Raza, Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), Instituto Cultural de Mexico and the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG). The Board of Directors were presented by Noriega, and each had an opportunity to introduce themselves and describe their professional backgrounds. Board President Olivia Montes read an official statement that explained the crisis from the board’s perspective, and that document was handed out to all those gathered. The declaration stated Self-Help was closed “for financial reasons” and that “the organization had been incurring debt for at least six months. Funds were insufficient for payroll and other basic operating necessities. The action was also taken to curtail incurring additional debt.” Board members went on to explain how there were no funds available to provide liability insurance for the premises of Self-Help; how the building was in violation of city building codes because of a lack of emergency fire alarms and lighting; how the roof had sustained severe water damage from the last heavy rain; and that the institution had incurred around $100,000 of debt. Board members insisted it was for these basic reasons they decided to take the drastic measure of shutting down the institution they were empowered to oversee ( the board can be reached, at: selfhelpboard@earthlink.net ).

Judy Baca from SPARC makes a statement to the board
The encounter began to heat up once the board finished their presentation and artists and community members were allotted time to ask questions, make statements and express opinions. People wanted to know why the board had allowed the situation to develop into such a catastrophe. While Board President Olivia Montes acknowledged the board was in part responsible for the crisis, little in the way of specifics were offered. Some board members seemed to be blaming the calamity upon former Executive Director, Tomas Benitez, who was not present at the meeting. This attempt at finger pointing was met with loud jeers, and one irate member of the audience jumped to her feet to berate the board for speaking against a man who was not present to defend himself. Another contentious moment came when an audience member insisted on an answer as to why the board did not inform artists and the community about the closing of Self-Help. Board member Oralia Michel answered by saying the board “did not have the resources” to inform the people. That patently ridiculous assertion was met with laughter and taunts. More than any other comment made that evening, Michel’s remark indicates the fundamental problem with the Board of Directors - a lack of creative thinking. A single mass e-mailing from the board could easily have informed artists and the wider community of the impending crisis. This web log provides ample proof of the effectiveness of internet communications… my posts on the emergency at Self-Help have reached tens of thousands of readers, mobilizing many into action. The board should have immediately posted an explanation of their actions on the Self-Help website, instead they remained silent - taking nearly a month to upload such a statement.

Linda Gamboa reads an open letter to the board from the Coalition of Concerned Citizens
During the meeting, a new action group presented itself, the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for SHG. Comprised of artists and community members, the group hopes to revitalize Self-Help and bring it back to its original mission of being a grass roots community arts center. Co-chair of the group, artist Linda Gamboa, read an open letter to the board that was prepared in advance by the coalition. The open letter asked fifteen questions of the board, each designed to help make the operations of the board transparent to the community. The open letter was also printed out and circulated by coalition co-chair, artist Richard Duffy. The coalition requested that the board answer their questions within 48 hours… and since then a primary demand, that the board upload a statement to the Self-Help website, has been met. The coalition also asked the board to hand over all tax records, board minutes, and relevant financial data in order to best determine how to govern Self-Help in the near future. For those interested, the coalition can be reached at: Coalition of Concerned Citizens for SHG. P.O. Box 861868. Los Angeles, CA 90086.

A group of active professional artists and their supporters have organized themselves as the Coalition of Concerned Artists/Citizens for Self-Help Graphics & Art. They will be holding a meeting on Saturday, July 2nd, 2005, at 3:00 pm. The gathering will take place at the East LA Civic Center Amphitheatre, which is on the lake and next to the library (at 3rd. & Mednik). Everyone is invited to participate in this meeting. In order to facilitate the ongoing discussion between artists, activists, community members and Self-Help’s Board of Directors, all are encouraged to join the online message board set up to help resolve the crisis. Sign up at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/selfhelpartistcommunity

The mass meeting at Ave. 50 Studio on June 28th, 2005, represents a pivotal moment in Los Angeles history. It signifies the possible beginnings of an artistic/political re-engagement for artists… especially for Chicano artists. What at first seemed a terrible defeat may turn out to be the flowering of a new renaissance, and seeing so many concerned individuals attending the emergency meeting - its hard to think otherwise. Artists passed the hat and raised over $800 for Self-Help during the proceedings, others stepped forward to offer free services in an effort to give new life to the debilitated institution. Clearly, a great number of Los Angelinos are interested in the future of Self-Help. But the issue isn’t simply to get Self-Help reopened and functioning again - the matter has more to do with what direction the resurrected cultural center will take once it is revived. The answer can’t come solely from corporate patronage or politicians - those forces didn’t give birth to Self-Help in the first place. It was the artists, community members, and grass roots activists that brought Self-Help into existence, and it is those very people, those same forces… that will bring Self-Help Graphics back to life.

Comments are closed.