Volume 75, Number 32 | Dec. 28 - Jan. 3, 2005

Matzo Files on verge of crumbling as artists clash

By Albert Amateau

The Matzo Files, an unusual gallery of work by local artists kept in file cabinets and shelves in an empty corner of the ground floor of Streit’s Matzoth Company on Rivington St., was closed in the middle of December after it became a no-man’s land in the Lower East Side culture wars.

From top to bottom: staff members and artists at the Matzo Files; the contents of one of the flat files; at an opening at the Matzo Files on Rivington St.

The cabinets and shelves contained flatwork and small figures — paintings, drawings, fabric, glasswork, sculpture and jewelry contributed by more than 200 artists and craftspeople from the Lower East Side. One of the artists had been acting as a curator of the Matzo Files at Streit’s, 150 Rivington St. at the corner of Suffolk St. The curator would show the work to the public, organize occasional public shows and give the artists access to their work. Contributing artists were supposed to take their works out after a year and allow a new group in for a year.

The hostilities between the Matzo Files Steering Committee, a group of artists who conceived the innovative idea, and Artists Alliance, Inc., a nonprofit arts organization that sponsored the gallery and assumed liability for it, erupted last fall when their leaders accused each other of “hijacking” the Matzo Files.

The steering committee, led by Isabel Bigelow, sent a letter to Artists Alliance, Inc., on Nov. 11 saying the committee intended to sever its connection with A.A.I. and run the Matzo Files without A.A.I.

The alliance, led by its director Shelly McGuinness, told Bigelow and others in the 21-member committee that the Matzo Files was an A.A.I. program, that the committee had no right to secede from A.A.I and that they were only a committee appointed by the A.A.I. board of directors.

Bigelow scoffed at the assertion. She said members of the committee conceived the program and recruited the artists. “We asked Streit’s to donate the space,” said Linda Griggs, an active member of the committee.

The issue came to a head on Dec. 11 when Bigelow and other members of the committee met with McGuinness and other alliance board members at the A.A.I. office on the fourth floor of the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Education Center building on Suffolk St. across from the matzoh factory. Neither side backed down and McGuinness presented a letter from the alliance’s attorney, Pamela A. Mann, asserting the alliance’s right to control and run the Matzo Files and ordering the committee to disband.

McGuinness said that after the meeting with Bigelow, she and a colleague went across the street to Streit’s at 4:45 p.m. and showed the attorney’s letter to John Walter, an artist member of the committee whom A.A.I. employed as the Matzo Files curator part time.

McGuinness said she told Walter, one of the signers of the Nov. 11 committee secession letter, that his employment was terminated. She went back to the alliance office after Walter closed the exhibit and turned over to her the key to the gate of the exhibit space, the key to the files and the inventory of artists and their work.

At 6:15 p.m., two policewomen arrived at McGuinness’s office with Luis Castro and Linda Byrne, both members of the committee. McGuinness said that Castro publicly accused her of stealing money. The police and McGuinness then went to Streit’s “where approximately 15 people were waiting, most of them former steering committee members, and about eight police,” McGuinness said.

After about half an hour, someone found the reportedly stolen cash box behind a counter at Streit’s. “After the allegedly stolen cash box was found, the police said there was no reason that they should have been called and I and my colleagues left the store,” McGuinness said.

Over the next week or so, contributing artists turned up at Streit’s to collect their work. Bigelow said she had been advised by the steering committee attorney at Skadden Arps not to comment about the conflict until the issues have been resolved.

Meanwhile, the Matzo Files are in limbo.

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