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Living and Dying in L.A. - Part 1

A few weeks ago while attending a pleasant fund-raising event at a lovely Silver Lake garden party, a Latino candidate for a hotly contested California Senate seat stood ready to take questions from the Hispanic peanut gallery assembled. I quickly raised my hand and asked the pol to comment on a rash of closings plus disappointing troubles for two Latino arts organizations, Self Help Graphics and the Ricardo Montalbán Theater.

I suggested that our local institutional Latino arts leaders and organizations were not in step or reflecting the newfound political power and glory of, say, the new mayor and every position of power from the Assembly speaker to City Council president. At the very least, could the candidate — a proponent of Chicano arts — speak to the importance of culture and art in our daily lives as Angelenos?

A softball question, admittedly, but my intention was to spark a larger discussion among the afternoon’s guests, which included film producers, actors, directors, venture-capital Hispanic sharks, a smattering of Chicano/a intelligentsia and an all-Latino catering service from Pomona.

Before the candidate could even open his mouth to respond, I was instantly shut down, dressed down and accused of spreading vicious rumors that hurt La Raza and La Comunidad, and told that my reference to a recent L.A. Times article about the financial troubles at the Montalbán Theater and its likely broken promises to an arts-hungry community was meant to make certain people present at this garden party look bad.

What?

Conversation over. The candidate shook a few more hands, the catering folks wouldn’t serve me dessert, and I was cut off at the bar. Sheesh. I remember the salon gatherings at Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s loft in San Francisco’s Mission District, where intellectual debate was mandatory, a heady mix of parlor game and blood sport, where a good ol’ glass of Cabernet tossed in the direction of an opposing view was the norm.

Hey, I paid 75 green enchiladas to be here, what the fuck? What’s a backyard carne asada party in Silver Lake for, if we can’t have a little pedo?, I wondered.

“I’m sorry,” I yelled, “Jerry Velasco and all our Hispanic arts leaders are geniuses!”


The writer, satirist and provocateur Harry Gamboa Jr.
is causing quite a stir with his e-mails and Web postings, which reflect his sardonic humor and razor-sharp wit. Surely you know Harry Gamboa Jr.: his book Urban Exile, his play Jetter’s Jinx, a founding member of the seminal East L.A. visual and performance art group Asco. Ring a mission bell? With doses of dark humor and smarts, Gamboa is one of only a few artists openly discussing the current crisis at Self Help Graphics, in East L.A.:

PERSON S: What happened to all of the money?

PERSON T: I’m broke. I can’t afford to give you an answer. My consultation fee needs to be paid in cash. What was the question?...

PERSON S: Here is my list of a few complaints:

1. Artists were required to create new works and produce them as signed multiples, the artists were given half (or less) of the edition, then the multiples in possession of the organization were sold and exhibited by the organization without any funds being shared to the artists who obviously do not have the distribution nor sales mechanism to profit from their own works.

There are also rumors that additional works were produced beyond the agreed-up limit and sold under the table.

2. Artists were required to pay a fee or provide a donation in order to exhibit their works in the community gallery.

3. Numerous grants totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not more than a few million) were generated over the years in the name of helping artists, yet those dollars translated into few pennies for artists while the bulk was sucked into an untraceable void that passed through the hands of the board of directors, the executive director and staff.

PERSON T: All lies. You’re just a troublemaker. We love artists and our community. Something went wrong, that’s all. No conspiracy ...

PERSON S: It would be interesting to see the annual income and expenditures of artists compared to that of professional arts administrators, as well as those of members of the board of directors.

PERSON T: All slander and phony concern for those who can’t swim on a steady stream of capitalist hot water. Artists will either drown or cling to the slippery banks of nonconformity. You look like you are out of breath.

PERSON S: I’ll feel better after I vomit ...

Gamboa’s virtual dialogue accurately captures the outrage of many artists who struggle to survive in a city as they wait for support on the outskirts of Latino institutions. It provides a text that, along with critical questions, is not welcome in L.A.’s current fulminating Hispanic narrative still hung over from the wedding party of a new mayor. Artists are surely talking privately, but my experience at the garden party is happening all over: We as a community are expected to blindly support all Latino arts leaders because they are Latino. We must raise no questions. Porfirio Diaz would be proud.

Setting aside the needs of local artists and playwrights for a moment, what about the community and young generations that these institutions are supposed to serve? What of the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for that purpose? And do emergency board of directors fund-raisers count as activism?

I’m starting to get real pissed off about the institutional Latino arts scene here because the leaders are ducking and covering and offering lame excuses about missed filing deadlines while generations of young creative minds are left to fend for themselves.

And this is not an Eastside story of “us” versus the bullies on the Westside, whose arts groups thrive as they may. No, the ironic and silver-lining part of this story is that many of the younger generations of art makers are doing quite nicely and creating some of the city’s most exciting and important work. New arts leaders from this generation who never knew what a CETA program was are urgently needed to replace the bloated Hispanic arts admin folk who never met a CETA program they didn’t like.

New models are needed that recall and will allow for the progressive activism that spawned these institutions in the first place. If we could stop brownnosing the mayor long enough to perhaps suggest to his advisers that a commission or advisory panel on the Latino arts for Los Angeles is desperately needed, and if that group of folks could mostly be made up of working artists who live by their art, new blood, new ideas, a new crop of academics and body parts under 45 years of age, it would be very nice.

A quick survey of smaller galleries, shops and studios would show that while some still struggle to keep their doors open, many that are doing better would also benefit from some institutional largess: The great La Mano Press, Tropical Nopal (which provides international poetry and art happenings weekly), 33 1/3 Bookstore and Gallery Collective along with Anti Market have joined a phalanx of Echo Park joints that have long been consistently drawing West- and Eastside hipsters of all stripes. Francesco Siqueiros’ Mexico City–style atelier and print workshop on Fifth and Main publishes politically charged work, while Richard Duardo’s Modern Multiples is continuing to raise the bar in Chicano silk-screen. And if you really want your jaw to drop, go see what Mister Cartoon and Scandelos have done in their beautiful art/tattoo/car and design space downtown.

Culture Clash is starting a foundation and creative cell space for young playwrights of color and has never operated in the red in 21 years of existence. Avenue 50, Bent, Bedlam/Jim Fittipaldi and Overtones are thriving with a genuine intergenerational multiculturalism. And there are scores of after-hours speakeasies and art parties bursting all over the city not mentioned here.

Now how about some institutional support for them? These are successful models that combine activism, small business survival tactics, nonprofit ingenuity, multicultural collectives and exuberance to provide our audiences with challenging new work, an audience that has proven over and over that they are willing to pay for good shit.

When we saw 8,000 Angelenos samba dancing into the night with Ozomatli at the Cal Plaza fountains the other night, one could only marvel that this group of L.A. artists was truly connected to the city and its young people, the kids dancing alongside Robbie Conal, fists raised in defiance and solidarity. I could only think that some of the older, more established Hispanic arts institutions had grown terribly out of touch with a burgeoning generation hungry for, demanding and creating its own art.

Open and honest discussion on the Latino arts is needed at this very moment. Can funded institutions actually follow their mandate, and give some of our best artists a break? Does fiscal accountability have to be locked up somewhere in a cold storage unit near Pomona, waiting to be shouted down at the next Silver Lake garden fund-raiser?

Mr. Mayor, the next generation of culture makers is ready and willing; if this region is to become the world-class art center it is already claiming to be, then the city of Los Angeles should hear their call.

Richard Montoya is a founding member of Culture Clash. Read all of Harry Gamboa’s copyrighted Virtual Dialogues at www.HarryGamboaJr.com.