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An LA Art Space, with Roots in ‘70s Chicano Movement, Now Has a Permanent Home

Founded in 1973 in the East Los Angeles garage of a Franciscan nun and printmaker, Self Help Graphics & Art has finally purchased a permanent space in Boyle Heights.

Self Help Graphics & Art (all photos courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art)

Forty-five years after its founding, long-standing community arts space Self Help Graphics & Art has finally found a permanent home. In an announcement made last week, the organization said they have purchased their current Boyle Heights headquarters for $3.625 million. Self Help Graphics (also known as SHG) moved into the building on Anderson and 1st Street, the former Ocean Queen seafood packing plant, in 2011, after decades in unincorporated East Los Angeles.

“Securing a permanent hub for Self Help Graphics & Art in Boyle Heights protects the legacy of cultural arts in the Eastside for communities of color, with one-of-a-kind arts programming that supports decades of advocacy toward cultural arts equity,” Board President, Karen Mary Davalos said in the statement.

Emerging at the height of the Chicano Movement of the early ’70s, Self Help Graphics was founded in the East Los Angeles garage of Franciscan nun and printmaker Sister Karen Boccalero by a group of artists including Carlos Bueno, Antonio Ibáñez, and Frank Hernández, who were frustrated by the lack of opportunities for Latinx artists. Part gallery, artist residency, community center, and art school, workshops and classes have always been at the core of programming at Self Help Graphics, who even developed the Barrio Mobile Art Studio in 1974, a van that would drive to East Los Angeles elementary schools to offer children classes in “filmmaking, silkscreen, photography, sculpture, batik, painting, and puppetry.”

Barrio Mobile Art Studio, 1970s

By the end of the ’70s, they had moved into a building on Cesar Chavez and Gage Street in East Los Angeles, which would be their home for the next three decades. That mosaic-covered building was owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who charged them essentially no rent, until it was sold to a private investment firm in 2008, prompting Self Help Graphics to look for a new home. They then relocated to their present location in Boyle Heights with help from the City of Los Angeles’s Community Redevelopment Agency; however, with the statewide disbanding of Redevelopment Agencies, the building was put up for sale, putting the stability of Self Help Graphics once again in jeopardy.

With the building for sale, staff began the task of trying to buy the building themselves. “There were two pieces to that part: One was convincing the city that SHG being in this area was a benefit to the community, going beyond just a financial benefit,” Joel Garcia, Self Help Graphics Co-Director told Hyperallergic. “The second was whether we could pull our resources together to buy it.”

Four years ago, they began the capital campaign to raise the funds to buy the building, securing contributions from Councilman Jose Huizar’s Office, the County Board of Supervisors, the Weingart Foundation, and other donors.

Over the past few years, Self Help Graphics has been caught up in the gentrification struggles that have been raging across the city’s Eastside, but felt most profoundly in Boyle Heights. On the one hand, they felt the squeeze of rising real estate speculation, while on the other, anti-gentrification activists have targeted the space, accusing them of allying with pro-development forces.

“If you look at those investments they’re not tied to business retention. There’s no policy change there [for the better],” said Garcia of the flood of developers looking to turn a profit. “You need an entity that will be invested in the area long term. Us buying the building and acquiring it for the community allows us to do that.”

Artist Yreina Cervantes Teaching Printmaking, 1980s

Despite the changing demographics of the area, Garcia notes that other community-based organizations have also recently stabilized their locations. “Two to three years ago, the reality was that Legacy LA, Inner City Struggle, and Self Help were moving out of Boyle Heights,” he said of two other Eastside-based nonprofits. “Now Inner City Struggle has bought a building, and Legacy LA is renovating and having permanency.”

Self Help Graphics is only one of a handful of Latinx-serving arts organizations that own their own buildings, alongside El Museo del Barrio in New York, MACLA in San Jose, and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, according to Betty Avila, Self Help Graphics Co-Director.

“Now that we own the building, we can retrofit it in a way that better supports the community, that provides economic benefits,” said Avila. She mentioned the idea of creating a maker space with 3D printers, laser cutting machines, and CNC routers, which could teach micromanufacturing skills, offering not just arts education but vocational training. “The creative economy of LA is super robust, but it can be inaccessible for community members.”

“A recent study says that families that have an increased income of $5,000 a year, their decision-making changed to prioritize education and career, as opposed to just making ends meet,” Garcia said. “If we can help bridge that gap, that helps our community to stay in their homes.”

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