The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, housed in a city-owned building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was founded in 1996 to preserve and promote Puerto Rican and Latinx art and culture. But for nearly two decades, control over the building’s 42 subsidized artist studios, four theaters, and two galleries has been “contested between its original Latino founders and a group of predominantly white artists who hold leases to the studios,” claims a recent open letter by the advocacy group Free The Clemente.
For the first time in its history, the center has voted to dissolve a membership structure established in 2006 that gave every entity in the building at the time — organization or individual artist — the right to nominate board members. But according to Libertad Guerra, who was appointed the center’s Executive Director in February of this year, there are 38 non-member artists currently occupying the building, and other non-members who also benefit from the affordable spaces for short-term projects.
Guerra said this divide “translated into a disconnected membership,” but “did not flesh out duties and responsibilities to the shared infrastructure of the organization.”
“The affordability we offer is between 80-50% lower than the market rate per square foot. It’s an invaluable resource for working artists,” she added. “My aim is to modernize the great program to open it up to more diversity and shed a light to all the projects that happen within that don’t give the Clemente its proper credit.”
The vote, open solely to members of the center, was held last Thursday, September 24, following an order by the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) to abandon the membership system or stand to lose over $350,000 in city funding. The city intervened after a number of artists in the building raised concerns over conflicts of interest between members and the board.
The referendum passed by a vote of 31 to 19, Guerra shared with Hyperallergic. “There is much to be done to follow through on so many good ideas and plans for The Clemente’s collective future and the important role it plays to provide a platform to artists and independent producers of color,” she said.
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, DCLA’s Director of External Affairs Ryan Max sent the following statement from the agency: “The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center is an important cultural institution for the Lower East Side and all of New York City. We look forward to continuing our work with the organization to foster a vibrant, accessible cultural space for generations of New Yorkers to come.”
But the vote was marked by polarities that have long plagued the center: Clemente members in favor of the dissolution argued that it would shift power back to the Clemente’s administration, free up vital funding for the center, and put an end to an outdated system; members voting against it feared that it would lead to rent hikes, lack of affordability, and a top-down management.
“The Clemente has been governed by an unrepresentative body of members,” wrote FreeTheClemente. “The nearly 50 members who hold leases with the administration, and the minority faction that have benefitted from taking advantage of its board governance have been plagued by conflicts of interests and a lack of accountability and transparency to the LES’ artist communities and tax payer dollars.”
However, some members of the institution say the process leading up to the vote has been fraught. They feel that they were given insufficient time to address their outstanding concerns before the September 30 deadline imposed by the city to end membership before losing funding.
In interviews with Hyperallergic, stakeholders on both sides acknowledged that distrust in the administration is deep-seated and reflective of issues with past leadership.
“In my view, this was actually a real chance to bring people together, strengthen the community within the Clemente and resolve some of the problems that have plagued the center forever, but it would have taken more time,” Tine Kindermann, a member artist, told Hyperallergic. “Hopefully, now that the vote on the bylaws has passed, we can finish this work together in the future.”
The members, she explained, fell into two camps: those who trusted that the new administration would address the remaining issues after the vote, and those who deemed the negotiations inadequate and felt that they couldn’t vote on faith alone.
The current bylaws that determine the membership structure were born out of a longstanding schism between the visual and performing artists in the building. In the words of Flavia Souza, a member artist who has worked in the building since 1996 and voted in favor of the dissolution, the visual artists initially felt like a “cash cow” for the theaters to renovate and function while little funds were funneled to repair their studios. They organized in the form of Artists Alliance Inc., which continues to this day, and went to court to fight for control of the building. The two parties reached an out-of-court settlement that resulted in the creation of the membership system.
As a result of these and other historical grievances, Souza explained, “everything the Clemente does is seen to be corrupt.”
“The difference between me and the people that voted ‘no’ is that I believe we can work with the people who disagree with us and come with agreement,” she added.
Others, like Natalia de Campos, a member since 2001, said getting the membership implemented was a “long-fought necessity.” The artist, who recently organized an event with the center’s support, agreed that the bylaws needed to be adjusted, but advocated for a different way forward.
“Membership was clearly not at the heart of the problems that the Department of Cultural Affairs wanted us to solve internally,” she told Hyperallergic. “The main problem we face is to solve past corruption and self-dealing from past Board members over the years, with conflicts of interest at the heart. This led to a deep financial crisis. Membership did not. Membership means voting rights.”
She also opposes some characterizations of the conflict as a standoff between white and Latinx artists.
“The center currently has many Latinx artists as resident and member artists, myself included, and a majority of Latinx organizations, amongst the member organizations,” said De Campos, who is Brazilian. “Whoever sold that narrative over the years to become the mainstream narrative does not have diversity in their minds, but simple dominance. That’s unacceptable.”
A member artist in opposition of the dissolution, who spoke to Hyperallergic on the condition of anonymity, shared, “The director put out a statement that we reached consensus, when 19 of 50 votes were against the outcome. When rents go up and artists can no longer afford their studios or leave an affordable studio to the next generation, they may remember that they once had a guaranteed voice and mechanisms of oversight, and that they voted their rights away. I hope I am wrong, but I don’t regret voting against.”
In a phone call with Hyperallergic, Patricia Parker, who serves on the Clemente’s board, said that doing away with membership entirely would allow for “a clean slate with a respected administrator.” Guerra believes the center is at an unprecedented crossroads that could lead to fruitful collaboration between the two sides.
“I am not nostalgic for those unproductive fights from the past. In this vote process, I engaged with lots of people — folks that had genuine concerns and that have already helped this place feel more true. There is overwhelming agreement that we cannot waste any time doing the past over and over again,” Guerra told Hyperallergic.
The new director’s goals for the coming years include achieving an efficient governance board without conflicts of interest and appointing diverse individuals to serve as ambassadors. She also hopes to develop a lasting affordability model for the Long Term Studio Program, opening up new opportunities for Latinx/BIPOC inclusion, and raise the public profile of the Clemente.
Esther Robinson, of the affordable artist space nonprofit Artbuilt, who was brought in as an advisor prior to the vote, believes the conflict is at its core an issue of trust. Ultimately, she wrote a letter advocating for the membership’s dissolution.
“Places like Clemente are really really special and very important to the neighborhoods where they came into existence,” Robinson told Hyperallergic. “They also function as spaces of radical possibility in the imagination of all New Yorkers. And they are living links to artists like Edgardo Vega Yunqué and Ornette Colman.”
“I believe all these things are worth fighting for … Not in a way that overemphasizes the past, but in a way that can pay tribute to the possibilities that were fought for, and to make space for that possibility to be given to more and more artists.”