Volume 74, Number 37 | January 19 -25, 2005

Villager photo by Ramin Talaie

Councilmember Alan Gerson offered a “last chance” proposal for the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural & Educational Center on Suffolk St.

Divided arts center votes on unifying as last chance

By Sarah Ferguson

It was an unorthodox election in an orthodox setting. On Jan. 11, about 60 artists representing the two rival factions at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural & Educational Center gathered to vote on the latest proposal by Councilmember Alan Gerson to create a new governing structure to unify the embattled Lower East Side arts space.

Standing on the ornate stage of the Angel Orensanz Center, a former synagogue, and backed by a legal team from Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and the head of the Honest Balloting Association, Gerson did his best to preach the virtues of compromise before the skeptical factions, who sat on opposing sides of the aisle.

Also present were staff representing the Manhattan borough president and Councilmember Margarita Lopez, as well as Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Margaret Morton — underscoring just how concerned city officials are that a new, consensual management structure for the center be created.

C.S.V., a Latino arts group, has been managing the former public school building at 107 Suffolk St. on a month-to-month lease from the city for the last 11 years. But efforts to formalize that relationship have been mired in the ongoing turf war between the C.S.V. board and Artists Alliance, Inc., a group of about 40 artists who occupy studios on the fourth and fifth floors.

In 1999, A.A.I. members stopped paying rent to C.S.V. due to complaints of mismanagement, lack of heat and overflowing toilets, and have since been paying A.A.I. to manage their studio spaces. C.S.V., in turn, has accused A.A.I. of squatting spaces they are not entitled to and seeking to edge the Latino founders out.

While previous efforts to mediate the rift have proven unsuccessful, Gerson portrayed his new proposal — an elaboration of the plans he presented in July and September — as the last chance for both groups to come together or face losing the building altogether.

“Following the mayor’s State of the City speech, members of the Bloomberg administration reiterated to me that they are not going to take over management or bring in another entity to take over,” Gerson said, rejecting A.A.I.’s call for an independent nonprofit organization to manage the center.

“Our only assurance is if there is a management structure which both groups agree upon,” Gerson continued. “If not, the [Bloomberg] administration will not guarantee the future of the building… and there is a good possibility that your art and work would be in jeopardy.”

Tom Healy, president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, was even more emphatic. Healy said he’d been asked to attend by the heads of several city agencies, who he said have all but lost patience. “They are looking for an extraordinary show of good faith from both groups tonight,” Healy said. “If they don’t see that, you’ve lost the building.

“You can take that as a gun to your head if you want,” Healy added, “but it is not Alan who is putting it there.”

Gerson’s plan calls for the creation of a new 16-member board that gives equal representation to visual artists and performing arts groups, which currently occupy the building on a more or less 50/50 basis. In addition, two ex-officio board members would be appointed by the area’s elected officials, in recognition of the fact that the center remains public space.

The new board would, in turn, appoint an independent management company to collect rents and oversee maintenance and repairs. Competing claims over back rents due and spaces improperly seized would be subject to binding arbitration.

City officials had previously set June 30 as the deadline for the two groups to agree on an operating plan. Since then, Gerson said, the administration has become increasingly concerned about potential liabilities from the deteriorating building and its crumbling facade.

At stake are over $1 million in city funds already allocated for renovations, which the city will not release until a new management structure is in place. And millions more could be available from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which still has more than $800 million in federal funds to disperse from the monies it received following 9/11.

While most of that federal money has been targeted to the Ground Zero area, Gerson said he was confident that a “significant amount” could be tapped to support cultural projects elsewhere in the district — including C.S.V. Gerson has requested $2 million from L.M.D.C. for renovating the old school — but only, he says, if both sides can agree on how to run the building.

Indeed, Gerson noted that the city’s budget office is currently blocking funds earmarked for some nonprofit groups in the center because of the ongoing dispute.

“There is a serious risk of having another CHARAS situation,” said Gerson, pointing to the E. Ninth St. community center that was auctioned by the Giuliani administration in 1998. “We’re past the deadline with the city,” he added.

But the high stakes did not preclude both sides from objecting to Gerson’s proposal.

C.S.V. board member Carolina Grynbal read a statement on behalf of the group criticizing Gerson’s plan for “impugning” C.S.V.’s nonprofit status. In particular, Grynbal questioned why a whole new board had to be elected rather than just expanding the existing C.S.V. board to include representatives from A.A.I.

“How is Carmen Pietri-Diaz, the executive director of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, not a qualified board member?” Grynbal demanded. “How is Luis Cancel, the former director of the Department of Cultural Affairs, not a qualified board member?”

Her comments reflect longstanding allegations by C.S.V. that A.A.I. — and now the city — are seeking to undermine Latino control of the center.

Meanwhile, A.A.I. attempted to introduce a densely worded page of amendments drafted by its lawyer that would allow its studio artists to pay their rents through A.A.I. rather than directly to the new C.S.V. board.

“If we can’t lease the space for our rotating and long-term studio program, then we cannot effectively run it,” complained A.A.I. program director Paul Clay.

A.A.I. also objected to giving the new C.S.V. board the power to reject artists selected for its studio program, which recently received a $40,000 grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation. Currently, studio artists are selected by an independent panel of experts, including established museum curators — people who Clay said would not appreciate being asked to reconvene if the C.S.V. board rejects their choices.

But Gerson said the city would not accept a “bifurcated” management structure of the building.

Also objecting was Norma Ramirez, a former Democratic district leader, who complained the local community had been left out of the process. Gerson denied that, noting that his proposal requires the new board to work with local schools, including P.S. 20 and the Marta Valle High School, to develop educational programming for the community.

After four hours of back and forth, both sides cast their votes by stuffing slips of paper into the homemade ballot boxes that Gerson’s staff constructed using recycled shipping boxes cobbled together with scotch tape.

In addition, Gerson dispatched a staffer to the C.S.V. center the following day to collect votes from those who could not attend or who needed a “night to sleep on it.”

In the end, 39 voted for the proposal, with only one A.A.I. artist opposing and five other center artists not voting.

Gerson praised the result as “historic.” “It shows there is clear acceptance of the framework for a plan which will allow the lawyers to move forward,” he said.

In fact, most of the A.A.I. artists marked their ballots “Yes, with reservations…” while C.S.V. members wrote “Yes, but*” — indicating that while both sides were willing to move forward, they still have serious objections.

The devil will no doubt be in the details. Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts has recruited four lawyers from the law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis and Frankel LLP to fashion a new set of bylaws for the center, working in consultation with the lawyers for C.S.V. and A.A.I. Whether that means amending the existing corporate structure of C.S.V. or creating a whole new nonprofit entity remains to be seen.

“We are technicians. We are going to do our best to work with your principles,” lawyer Jeff Trachtman assured both groups. “Our role is to get the drama back onstage and out of the hallways.”

In order to ensure that the new board is chosen fairly, the election will be overseen by the Honest Ballot Association, a nonprofit founded by Theodore Roosevelt that has been monitoring the elections of unions and co-op and condo boards since 1909.

Until the new board is in place, all rents will be paid to the existing C.S.V. board, although A.A.I. members can choose to pay collectively.

To an outsider, the intricacies of this feud can seem maddeningly indulgent. The Giuliani administration never showed anything like patience with the old CHARAS/El Bohio community center on E. Ninth St., which it charged was poorly managed and in disrepair before it auctioned it in 1998. Nor for that matter did the Koch and Dinkins administrations attempt to broker a plan for the old Cuando community center on Second Ave. and Houston St., which fell apart because of a corrupt board and disputes between competing community groups.

But the fact that Gerson and others have been willing to invest so much time to find a resolution at C.S.V. reflects both the value of the arts programming there, and the recognition that in today’s real estate market, affordable cultural spaces are becoming increasingly rare. This is particularly true in the Lower East Side, where the Latino presence is being squeezed out.

For now, C.S.V. members say they’re pleased the agreement will force A.A.I. to pay rent to C.S.V. “We’re in a better place than we were last summer,” said Drew Figueroa, the center’s interim executive director. “In moving forward, it will be C.S.V. and its tenants, period. Anyone who owes back rent will be held responsible.” But Figuero said C.S.V. remains adamantly opposed to creating a whole new board. “Our board members are busting their ass to keep this building together,” he said. “They shouldn’t be asked to disband.”

A.A.I.’s Paul Clay said he too was anxious to move on and said his group would agree to pay rent to the current C.S.V. board in the interim, but not indefinitely. Clay argues that a new board or management entity must be created to standardize rents at the center and ensure that spaces are awarded fairly, and only to legitimate arts groups.

“We don’t want to co-manage the building,” Clay insisted. “We just want to lease our space so we can do our programming. If we can’t then it would dismantle our program.”

“We’re hopeful that the city commissioners will see the value in creating a legal and effective management structure and that they will preserve all of the valuable not-for-profit programs in the center,” Clay added.

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