Volume 73, Number 44 | March 3 - 9, 2004

Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert

The writing on Rafael Tufinyo’s studio wall tells Artists Alliance, Inc., to “go away.”

An arts center divided

By David Jonathan Epstein

Creativity abounds on a typical night at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center on the Lower East Side. The entrance to the building at 107 Suffolk St. is thronged with signs and fliers welcoming patrons, in English and Spanish, to enjoy a host of visual and performing arts. Inside, a passerby might find visual artists discussing colors and hues in a studio, or actors rehearsing a scene of “Troilus and Cressida.” The hulking, neo-gothic structure on the quiet corner of Suffolk and Rivington Sts. used to be a schoolhouse. But, because of internal tensions, the place has come to feel more like a fortress. Within its now-decrepit walls, two groups of artists have been fighting for over a decade, and Armageddon may come next week. The two feuding sides will meet for an attempt at mediation next Thurs., March 4, hoping to bury the hatchet once and for all. If they cannot reconcile, the building could be lost to the arts community entirely.

“I’m crossing my fingers, praying, doing everything,” said Manuel Moran, the chairperson of the board for the Clemente Soto Velez Center. “I hope the mediation day will be a peaceful day. I just want this to be over.” Moran is part of the group of mostly performing artists, as well as a smaller number of visual artists, who hold the building lease. For years, the Clemente Soto Velez Center has accused Artists Alliance, Inc., a group of about 40 visual artists in the building, of continually refusing to pay the rent that is due.

Artists Alliance, Inc., however, does not see it that way. “Every month I’ve written a rent check,” said Mark Powers of Artists Alliance. Powers’ rent, like that of his colleagues in Artists Alliance, goes each month to the Alliance itself, not to the board of the Clemente Soto Velez Center, whose members see the center as the rightful landlord. The visual artists began paying rent to the Alliance about five years ago in response to what they claimed was negligent management. Thus, the members of Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center, Inc., or CSVCECI, call it a rent strike, while the visual artists claim to be paying rent.

The Department of Citywide Administrative Services ordered the two bickering factions to form a joint corporation to run the building two-and-a-half years ago, but the vision was never realized. If the Artists Alliance and the Clemente Soto Velez Center do not reach an agreement next week, the city, the owner of the building, may auction the building off to the highest bidder. If that happens, the artists, who currently pay about $1 a square foot in rent, are likely to lose one of the last affordable spaces for arts in the Lower East Side.

The problems that might find resoluiton next week began over a decade ago. In December of 1993, Puerto Rican novelist Ed Vega acquired the building and founded the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center. Vega himself invited some of the visual artists to share the space with his group of performing artists. Before long, however, the visual artists had a falling out with Vega over the condition of the building. Artists complained of lack of heat, water leaking into their studios and bathrooms in such disrepair that they became unusable.

Meanwhile, in an effort to get city-owned properties “back on the tax rolls,” under former Mayor Giuliani, the building was put up for auction each year between 1994 and 1999. Every time, Vega, the board and artists managed to persuade the city to take the building off the auction block, and it has not been up for sale since 1999.

But tensions with the artists escalated, and Vega was eventually forced to resign as head of the center. That was the year when the Artists Alliance stopped paying rent to Clemente Soto Velez, and started giving the money to the Artists Alliance leaders instead to be used for maintenance. Needless to say, the cessation of rent checks did not endear the Alliance to Clemente Soto Velez any further. To top it off, the Artists Alliance presented a proposal to the city to take over management of the building. Some members of the Clemente Soto Velez Center saw a rent strike and takeover proposal as a coordinated plot to seize control of the building.

It got so ugly that a few members of Clemente Soto Velez, a primarily Latino group, accused the mostly white Artists Alliance of trying to force Hispanic art out of the building altogether. Divisive verbal exchanges became the norm in the halls of a building that just a few years earlier heralded a vision for a permanent stronghold of multicultural arts on the Lower East Side.

The city stepped in two-and-a-half years ago and forced the first mediation meeting between the Artists Alliance and the Clemente Soto Velez Center. The outcome of the meeting was an order to form a joint corporation to run the building. Yet, the corporation was never realized, and the volatile situation was not defused. The meeting next Thursday will be a final attempt to force the birth of a joint corporation. Accusations of misconduct still fly from both groups of artists like splatter-paint, but leaders of each party are hopeful that some means to avoid losing the building can be found.

If the building is auctioned off, there is little chance that the artists will be able to maintain a strong Lower East Side presence. More likely, they will simply lose their studios.

Like many of the disillusioned artists on both sides of the feud, Miguel Trelles of Clemente Soto Velez seemed bewildered at how a place that was originally founded, “as a breeding ground for ideas and inspiration,” as he said, became a breeding ground for hate. No one seems quite sure how the building turned into a place where a single studio space can be shared by artists from feuding factions who address their rent checks differently.

The only thing all of the artists agree on is that losing the building as a place for art would be devastating. “If I lost my studio, it would be terrible. It would be a huge setback,” Trelles said.

Perhaps, before the mediation meeting, artists of each party will consider the message on the door of Shelly McGuinness, executive director of the Artists Alliance: “Where are we going and why are we in this hand basket?”


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