Volume 75, Number 18 | September 21 - 27, 2005

Energy crisis averted, but arts center war rages on

By Ronda Kaysen

A Lower East Side arts center was granted a last-minute reprieve from Con Edison last week — preventing a catastrophic power outage that would have closed the center. But the internal strife that has threatened to destroy one of the last vestiges of affordable studio space for artists in the neighborhood for years is no closer to a resolution, despite a new management structure that will be unveiled this week.

Artists Alliance Inc., a visual arts organization housed in Clemente Soto Velez on Suffolk Street, cut Con Edison a $20,000 check last Thursday, paying part of the building’s $57,000 outstanding balance and keeping the energy company from shutting off power to the center.

The energy fiasco is the latest flare-up in an ongoing battle between C.S.V., the Latino umbrella organization for several performing arts groups that controls the city-owned building, and A.A.I., a coalition of mainly white visual artists that claims C.S.V. has grossly mismanaged the property and should cede at least some control of the building to A.A.I.

Luis Cancel, the new executive director of C.S.V. and a former commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs during the Dinkins administration, was “pleasantly surprised” that A.A.I. laid down $20,000 toward the payment, but largely blames A.A.I. for the cash flow shortage in the first place. C.S.V. paid $10,000 of the $30,000 minimum payment a week earlier.

“[A.A.I.] accompanied that payment with a basic misrepresentation of the facts,” Cancel said in a telephone interview with The Villager.

A.A.I. sends C.S.V. $3,750 a month in rent for the 40 artists it represents, although C.S.V. insists the organization should be paying $10,145 for the space it uses and that the budget shortfall is the cause of the building’s financial problems. C.S.V. stopped accepting rent from A.A.I. this June. “The continued diversion of rent money will eventually lead to the demise of the cultural center,” Cancel said.

C.S.V. controls the former schoolhouse under a rent-free month-to-month lease from the city, but the actual operating budget is $377,000 a year, said Cancel.

The recent financial debacle is another example of C.S.V.’s consistent mismanagement, said Shelly McGuinness, executive director of A.A.I. “[C.S.V.] simply failed to deposit checks and pay bills,” said McGuinness in a telephone interview, adding that she was unaware that C.S.V. had stopped accepting rent from her organization — she simply thought the organization neglected to collect their bills. “Had they cashed the checks that we sent to them, certainly there would have been sufficient funds to make the payments.”

As for the rent discrepancy, A.A.I. devised a formula to pay C.S.V. based on what it thinks its members owe according to C.S.V. operating costs, a calculation C.S.V. does not support.

Gerson has been working with the two groups for several years in an attempt to broker an agreement that shares power and diffuses the feud that has threatened to topple the center. The Con Ed crisis “just shows that this situation is untenable,” Gerson said in a telephone interview. “It’s been worse than the Wild West.”

On the evening of Wed., Sept. 21, Gerson will unveil a new management structure with a new board of directors elected by all the tenants. But there is a glitch in his plan: A.A.I. is threatening to boycott the event, insisting the new structure will undermine its artists-in-residence program. “The bylaws fundamentally will cause the eviction of all artists from the building,” said McGuiness, because a new structure — with each tenant guaranteed an individual vote — would weaken her nonprofit organization, leaving visual artists vulnerable to unreasonably high rents, she said.

Describing A.A.I.’s decision as “posturing,” Gerson is confident that many of the visual artists will attend anyway and the latest attempt to broker a peace agreement will work. Based on a direct democracy format, tenants who stay away from Wednesday night’s meeting will only be hurting themselves, he said. “If you don’t vote you don’t have any say in what happens,” he said.

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