Sept. 17 2014 01:06 PM

Volunteer-run nonprofit continues to hang on by threads despite persistent challenges

Centro Cultural de la Raza
Centro Cultural de la Raza
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

More than two-dozen concerned people showed up to the Centro Cultural de la Razas board of directors meeting on Sept. 3 to weigh in on a controversial installation by Silvio Nicholas Walters, a Los Angeles artist featured in the centers annual Matices de las Américas group exhibition celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month.

Most folks were in favor of asking the Centro board to remove the installation, a display of feathered, decorative costumes on mannequins that the artist and fashion designer describes as a mashup of indigenous culture and high-end fashion. Many were offended by the work and called the somewhat skimpy apparel cultural appropriation. They said the work was inappropriate for a center with a mission of preserving, promoting and educating the community about Chicano, Mexican, Latino and indigenous art and culture.

It was, like, Oh god, what is this? Not here, not this space, Ozzie Monge says of Walters installation. This sort of nonsense happens in Hollywood, but not here. To have a misrepresentation and hypersexualization of indigenous women like that—I say no way.

Monge is a longtime volunteer at the Centro and a member of the organizations Arts Advisory Committee (AAC), a group of roughly a dozen volunteers who coordinate the arts program at the Centro. He says the annual exhibition has been going on for years, which is why the other AAC members trusted curator Marisol De Las Casas, an AAC member herself, and didnt scrutinize her selections in advance.

Ultimately, the Centros board voted to remove Walters installation. A few of the AAC members and at least one vocal critic of the decision—one of Centros original founders, artist Mario Torero—argued that removing the piece amounted to censorship.

Hes just another guy playing with feathers and indigenous tradition, Torero says. Its not original, and Ive seen better, but its his own interpretation.

Walters is upset with the boards decision. Hes been busy contacting the board members, taking his complaints to social media and pitching his story to the press. Telemundo 52 Los Angeles aired a short segment on the controversy, and U-T San Diego broke the news last Friday that De Las Casas and another AAC member, Rogelio Casas, resigned over the matter, citing outrage at the boards decision to remove the work.

He says the Centro violated his constitutional right to freedom of speech (which reveals an inaccurate understanding of the Constitution) and is in breach of his contract guaranteeing that his work would be on view through the duration of the show.

I dont degrade anyone; I empower people, Walters says. And Im not the only artist who borrows ideas and inspiration from cultures from around the world.

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The Walters controversy is the latest in a long line of challenges the Centro Cultural de la Raza has faced over the years. One of the largest Chicano arts centers in the Southwest, the Centro, housed in a former water tank in Balboa Park, once attracted international attention for its edgy programming and enjoyed financial support from heavy hitters like the National Endowment for the Arts. Famed groups like The Taco Shop Poets and The Border Arts Workshop can trace their roots to the Centro, and artists and activists like James Luna, David Avalos and Lalo Alcaraz often credit the institution for helping foster their careers.

Yet while some people know about the seven-year boycott of the Centro that ended in 2007 and resulted in a major change in leadership, the organizations more recent fight for survival has been much quieter and less public.

During the past five years, the organization has been running solely on the support of volunteers, and while their efforts are valiant, the Centros reputation and cultural programming have suffered because of it. There hasnt been an executive director or any paid staff at the Centro since Stephanie de la Torre was let go in 2009. And aside from two modest grants from The Thursday Club Foundation and small donations collected at exhibitions and events, the Centro has had to piece together a budget without receiving any significant grant support or private donations for the last five years.

The organization recently applied for funding through the city of San Diegos Commission for Arts and Culture Organization Support Program, but was denied and given a low ranking by the review panel, which cited weak organizational management and a lack of quality programming.

The Centros also been saddled with debt, including thousands in back taxes owed to the county, $18,000 owed to Konica Minolta for a long-term lease on a printer and back wages owed to de la Torre, who went unpaid for a year.

Currently, the nonprofits main funding comes from renting out the facility to other groups, plus collecting rent for private uses like weddings and quincea eras.

All of this has prompted the city of San Diego, which owns the building and lets the nonprofit use the space free of charge, to send the Centro a letter notifying it of potential default on the lease.

Silvio Nicholas Walters installation before it was removed
Photo courtesy of Silvio Nicholas Walters

Theres been a lack of providing updated info regarding their insurance policy, rates and fees [charged to those renting out the space] and a concern about operating hours, says Bill Harris, spokesperson for the citys Park & Recreation Department. Theyll have to upgrade their act. Theyre going to have to provide everything that the city asks: confirmation of insurance, confirmation of operating hours, confirmation of financials and a better description of how theyre utilizing the space.

According to the Centros lease, which went from long-term to month-to-month years ago after similar issues arose, its required to be open from noon to 5 p.m. every day. Currently, its open from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and, until recently, sometimes had trouble finding a volunteer on Tuesdays. The lease also dictates the amount the Centros allowed to charge outside entities and includes restrictions on certain types of events—the purpose being that the subsidized space should be used mostly for public, cultural programming rather than private events like weddings. Harris says the city typically wants an organization to be able to get grant funding rather than relying on renting out the space for the majority of its income.

Depending on the Centros board response to the citys requests, the letter of default could result in the organization losing the space, but Harris says thats not the citys goal.

Thats not our intent, he says. Our intent is to bring people into conformance.

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Carmen Sandoval, the Centros board president, can be found volunteering in the space on Wednesdays, and she often fills in on weekends when other volunteers cant make it. On a recent Wednesday, she simultaneously fielded phone calls—mostly inquiries about private rentals—and greeted visitors at the door, telling them about the Centros murals and art exhibitions.

While CityBeat was unable to get Sandovals response to the citys letter—the existence of which came to our attention after the interview—she did indicate that things are improving. She says theyve paid of much of their debts, acquired insurance and otherwise brought the space back from near disaster, including getting the Centros nonprofit status reinstated—it was revoked in 2009. They still struggle with marketing and adding more programming, she says, but theyre solving that by seeking out new board members and volunteers, particularly those with grant-writing and marketing abilities. While the Centro still needs a lot more help and support from the community, she says, the biggest hurdles have been cleared.

We had a lot of challenges, which weve resolved with time, she says. Were almost to the point now where we can hire staff. Were looking forward to that probably within the next six months.

Volunteers like Monge and Bertha Birdie Gutierrez say that while things arent as bad as they could be, they believe the board is largely incompetent, citing issues like the phone and Internet being shut off when bills go unpaid, and a general lack of transparency. They say a change in leadership is needed.

Until we get competent people there, nothing is going to change, says Gutierrez, who was recently suspended by the board and told she needed to take a break from volunteering, partly because she forgot to make note of a booked event on the Centros shared calendar.

Theres another narrative, however, articulated by those whove seen the Centro struggle yet survive in recent years: They say theyre impressed by the current leaderships ability to keep things afloat.

I see continuous exhibitions, the doors are open and were one of the few Chicano centers in the nation left open, says Victor Ochoa, another Centro founder. The story really should be about how the Centro is alive and that everybody works in a volunteer capacity from their heart—from their spirit—and none of us are doing this for money.

The Centro is surviving, agrees Torero, who says the organization has received similar letters from the city in the past. While he thinks a change in the current leadership could help, hes not worried about the Centro closing anytime soon:

Well negotiate and submit whatever theyre asking for, and well continue struggling until a miracle comes about. Were not the only ones struggling; all arts organizations are right now. The Centro will survive this.


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