Battling artists craft new agreement for building

By Lincoln Anderson

In a unanimous vote, representatives of the feuding artists groups in the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center on Suffolk St. recently decided to bury the hatchet and form a new nonprofit corporation with a new board of directors and management structure to operate the building as an artists’ co-op.

The Sept. 23 vote saw about two-thirds of the members of Clemente Soto Velez and Artists Alliance Inc. cast ballots. The new bylaws for the center in the city-owned former school building were created through the efforts of Councilmember Alan Gerson and legal mediators. The bylaws go next to the Department of Consumer Affairs for approval.

Luis Cancel, C.S.V.’s executive director, called the vote and approval of the new bylaws “a victory for the center — for the whole building — saying this is the path everyone should follow.” Cancel said the most important aspects of the agreement are that C.S.V. will be recognized as the sole leaseholder for the building and that the board of directors will be appointed by a vote of all the members from both groups. In addition, he said, once the building is unified, it will be eligible for government funding for repairs, so that, for example, the scaffolding around the exterior can finally be removed. He’s hoping for money from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

“Now that the Freedom Center is not going to be down there [at Ground Zero], they may have more money,” he said. “Millions of dollars will be freed up.”

However, Shelly McGuinness, executive director of A.A.I., the breakaway visual artists group that occupies the building’s top floors, was less enthusiastic about the agreement and expressed dissatisfaction about how the process concluded.

“Unfortunately, the document that Councilmember Gerson distributed at the meeting was a completely different document — one that we never saw before,” she said. “Gerson’s office has been, frankly, duplicitous during this entire thing. Who would expect a councilmember to do this? But there is Gerson — that is what he does.

“I will be very happy if the building is in the Department of Consumer Affairs’s hands and out of Gerson’s hands,” McGuinness added. “A.A.I. looks forward to equity and a situation where all are paying their rent equally. If no one gets special deals, if people pay their rent, the building will benefit.”

C.S.V. charges that A.A.I. members have been underpaying their rent, while A.A.I. — which was on a rent strike for two years several years ago — charges that some C.S.V. members are, in fact, not paying their rent at all.

Calling the agreement “a consensus document,” Gerson shrugged off McGuinness’s complaints, noting that it’s typical for last-minute changes to be made as negotiations go down to the wire and that A.A.I. had their lawyer present at the vote to vet the changes. Only “minor clarifications and improvements” were added, anyway, he noted.

“This is a major step forward in a feud that rivals the Hatfields and McCoys, to say the least,” Gerson said. “And it will insure that the building will remain a community arts center and that the art continues. This is a feud that has been going on so long and intensely that there are some people that are not ready to make peace, unfortunately. Not everyone got everything — that’s the nature of compromise.

“The city made it clear they would not tolerate a divided building,” Gerson stressed.

After the agreement goes into effect, independent outside arbitrators will handle unresolved monetary and space claims. The next step will be to elect a new board of directors to replace the current appointed board. Providing equal representation, eight board members will be elected by C.S.V. members and eight by A.A.I. members. Another three board members will be appointed by elected officials. The board of directors itself will vote for up to an additional nine art experts to join them on the board.

Under a section on the board’s duties and responsibilities, the agreement states: “The Board has the duty to preserve the Building’s identity as a Puerto Rican and Latino presence in the Lower East Side and as a center for the advancement and promotion of Latin American heritage through theater, dance, music, film and visual arts, within the context of an inclusive multicultural center…. The Board will provide that Artists Alliance, Inc. (‘AAI’) and Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, Inc. (‘CSV’) are able to continue their programmatic and advocacy work, within current space (subject to arbitration), with reasonable access to common space in the Building. The Board shall, at any event, rent space to AAI for its administrative offices and rotating studio program for as long as AAI fulfills obligations of residency set forth herein.”

Flavia Souza, an A.A.I. member who used to be a C.S.V. member and who voted for the agreement, said it’s time to bring the building together.

“The artists in the building would love to see the conflict resolved,” she said. “It’s very difficult with these two parties trying to make the other side look bad…. It’s true that it’s questionable how well C.S.V. manages the building and that A.A.I. is a bit difficult to deal with, let’s just say, a little rigid. But in the end we need to work things out so we can stay here.”