Between past and present 

Throughout its colorful history, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center has been under some degree of scrutiny, like most arts nonprofits, but in recent years it has been harshly criticized for its empty facilities, controversial job cuts, a drop in funding, educational failures, and bickering and bailing board members. Focus and controversy increased a year and a half ago when GCAC hired Patty Ortiz, a San Antonio-raised artist and museum professional who’d been out of town for 30 years. A fact that made some diehard hometown players suspicious about her background and motives.

Some of the front-loaded animosity — towards Ortiz and the Guadalupe in general — likely arose from a sort of institutional PTSD, the fallout of a long series of poorly-managed directorships starting in the late ‘90s.

A 2006 San Antonio Express-News story, “Guadalupe center in spotlight — for all the wrong reasons,” documented the Office of Cultural Affairs having to police the GCAC to ensure it provided the community services for which it had received City funding. And Bret Ruiz, GCAC Executive Director at the time, had also managed to rack up allegations of sexual harassment, staff complaints of racial discrimination and financial mismanagement, and a legal imbroglio wherein the Texas Workforce Commission overturned Ruiz’s motions to rescind a terminated worker’s unemployment benefits. The reign of Ruiz, peppered as it was by board intrigues and undersold events, left some observers — even GCAC supporters — wondering if the chaos-besieged organization even deserved to survive.

“It was a difficult time,” says former board member and artist Ethel Shipton. She credits then-interim director Dan Gonzales with “keeping `the GCAC` together, and it was great that he really stepped up.”

Aside from the directorial misbehavior, OCA monitoring and board frustration, members of city’s art scene, some of whom were children (or nonexistent) at the Guadalupe’s inception in 1980 derided what they perceived as a disorganized, preachy, and woefully entitled dinosaur, a remnant sticking to old criteria of cultural value and asthetics, ruled by elitists and no longer relevant. Ortiz seems to be reaching out to these folks when she tells the Current, “To me, you can’t have a historical cultural institution without being contemporary. And when I came to the Guadalupe, I was really clear with the board, saying ‘my expertise is contemporary and that’s how I have to think about this position.’ And they were fine with it.” Ortiz maintains that while “a traditional, more past-looking focus is narrow-minded” the institution’s history is also “very important.”

New blood on the GCAC board of directors includes Celina Peña, director of the South Texas Women’s Business Center, a nonprofit financial institution which aids entrepreneurial women- and minority-owned businesses through tech support, training, networking and one-on-one counseling. “There was an approach `to arts programming` by the board’s old guard that came out of love, but it was a carrot and a stick mentality,” she laughs. “Whereas the past was about guardedness, now it’s about openness — the new guard recognizes that artists are professionals and have to be allowed to create their own world … they’re really entrepreneurs. Patty is on the cusp of understanding the nuances of `local` history and context surrounding the Guadalupe, while bringing in this interesting political consciousness through art.”

Some Patty Ortiz skeptics pointed to her previous career as a contemporary art specialist and curator rather than a community organizer, and questioned her ability to steer a Westside institution whose aesthetic leans on traditional Xicano imagery and technique, and acts as an arm of barrio activism. As director of programs and education specialist at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and director of that city’s Museo de las Américas, Ortiz’s art-world bonafides seemed at odds with the stalwart GCAC, like appointing Karen Finley to head the League of American Women Voters.

It’s a conundrum: among young and emerging young artists in particular, there’s a growing interest in the Guadalupe as a contemporary art venue. But might its new emphasis on the “new guard” alienate those for whom the institution represented a concrete proof of the movimiento of the ‘70s? As an institution making its bid for inclusion in SA’s high art game, why throw your hat in the ring with Artpace and Blue Star Contemporary Art Center while the economy of the Westside is still underemployed, in a city where fully 25 percent of the population qualifies for food stamps?

Says Ortiz of the potentially-perceived shift from community organization to arts lab space, “Initially, all `Latino art` cultural institutions were created because of access; there were no Latino artists being shown in what I call mainstream arts organizations. That’s not true anymore … `and` unlike what some people think, the Guadalupe is not taking away anything we used to do `laughs`. We still have the traditional `events`, it’s still continuing, but we’re adding to it.”

Programming changes include Lupe’s Art Blend, a monthly multi-disciplinary performing arts series which has featured flamenco guitar, puppetry, spoken word, modern dance, and indie rock. Mixed Roots is a series of panel discussions with surprising speakers on unexpected themes. In March, the theme was “Masks,” and feminist thinker Genevieve Rodriguez, Dr. John Ayala, a plastic surgeon, and a liquor distiller James Hughes back-and-forthed about beauty culture, social contructs, and social lubrication. A previous Mixed Roots united Texas state Representative Mike Villareal, DJ JJ Lopez, and ghost hunter Guillermo Fuentes under the rubric “Voices.” Neither event has yet to play anywhere close to the theater’s full capacity, though. In an age of mixed-genre experimentation, not everything you throw at the wall sticks.

Some contemporary art showcases have successfully combined social consciousness and community flavor with a decidedly modern, whip-smart asthetic sensibility that’s both challenging and unafraid of fun.

One such exhibition in the Guadalupe Gallery was Operation Canis Familiaris, a group show of young Xicana artists who form the “Más Rudas” collective, curated by Cruz Ortiz as part of the GCAC’s Artists Curating Artists program. The collaborative gallery spectacle promises to: “Explore the dog: dogs of the Westside, stray dogs, the male-dominant/‘macho’ paradigms surrounding pit bulls, and the possible patterns in urban life.” The GCAC backed up the cause with a series of community events, including a dog show. Far from being a well-meaning clunker, Canis — as show and as concept — stimulated excitement and engagement.

Kristin Gamez is a video and multimedia artist, a member of Más Rudas, and currently a graduate student in Media Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She says of the Guadalupe, “Patty allowed for creative freedom and really worked with us … `Más Rudas` were totally a new group, and they were trusting and totally on board for what we wanted to do. But they also gave us pointers and advice, wanted to know about the concept of the show, what we were doing with `the space`, and how it would address the community. It was structured, in a good way.”

Of Canis Familiaris, Peña notes, “It’s interesting, particularly that `Ortiz` chose these young Latinas to take the initiative, and to address this issue that the Westside community is very conscious of … a `young City official` made plans to give cameras to neighbors and members of the community here, particularly to document the areas where it’s safe or unsafe to walk. And I asked him, ‘Did you see our dog-themed show? Because it addressed just that, with video and photography, it achieved something similar.’ What art can do is address issues, but rather than strategizing to handle them, art also plays with them.”

Ruben Luna, an artist, UTSA art history student, curator, and experienced museum exhibition designer (most recently at the troubled Alameda), is an intern of the GCAC. Of Ortiz and of Chris Davila, the Guadalupe’s new exhibition coordinator and recent McNay Art Museum transplant, he says, “they’re totally on it. They’re both complete professionals … Patty and Chris know what they’re after, big-picture, and they have a real plan, and they’re doing all the gradual stuff within their resources to become a stronger cultural institiution.”

The gradual stuff includes stabilizing the GCAC’s once-shaky budget. The Guadalupe Cultural Art Center has received several notable grants under Ortiz’s tenure, including $250,000 from the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation for “stepping up its programs and interactions with its many audiences and its youth arts programming.” (See sidebar, “You do the math,” on sacurrent.com/arts)

Davila announces that due in part to a stronger budget, “We haven’t done classes here, for instance, in the last two or three years …`but` we are bringing that back for the Fall, and developing further education projects.”

Fall class instructors for teens and adults include some heavy-hitting, new-guard art figures newly GCAC-connected: Vincent Valdez (drawing and painting), Cruz Ortiz (printmaking), Eric Fonseca (stop-motion animation) and Albert Alvarez (digital art), all for the cost of a $25 GCAC membership. Also, plans are in place to send art-education outreach to area schools, a potential godsend in an era where some San Antonio public-school art teachers have been alotted $100 for supplies … for the entire year.

Arts education can prove a powerful conduit to higher education of all kinds. Say Sí, a Southtown nonprofit providing no-cost classes to high school students since 1994, claims on its website that 100 percent of its alumni graduate high school and that, of those, 90 percent go on to earn college degrees.

On the Westside, institutional upstarts like San Anto Cultural Arts, founded by the late Manny Castillo, address the socioeconomic realities. Its mission statement decribes: the “community’s makeup is approximately 97% Mexican-American … where only 40% of the population has a high school diploma and just 3% of the community has a Bachelor’s degree (Census 2000 data) and the average annual income is $13,000 … the dropout rate one of the highest in the country and teen pregnancy is four times the national average.” SACA’s programs, which lean strongly towards public art murales which celebrate traditional Xicano iconography and history, conceptually links the present with the past, in hopes of affecting future change.

About the addition of the GCAC as a grassroots educational force, Davila says “more is more.” “It’s not just a matter of introducing contemporary art to the West Side, `but also` keeping the community involved in art as well.”

Which, again, isn’t easy if your bent is contemporary and your old board wasn’t. “`Ortiz` stands as a gatekeeper between past and present,” says Peña. “As `her directorship` relates to other Latino-serving institutions, there’s a constant struggle to maintain quality,” despite what can be conflicting personal politics in the board.

An important difference between GCAC and other local arts and culture orgs, notes Esperanza Peace and Justice Center executive director Graciela Sánchez, is that “a lot of our local `community arts centers` are kind of a boy’s club. Not that the Guadalupe wasn’t led by women before, but there have been several interim directors, whereas `Ortiz` seems to have plans to stick around … She’s achieved a real turnaround despite some pretty harsh criticism that I think has been misplaced.”

“The culture and community around the `Guadalupe` have changed profoundly,” Shipton muses, “so the mission has to change, too.”

Peña concludes that the mission of the GCAC dovetails conceptually with the issues of economic and social justice which concern the STWBC. “I think both speak to a tradition that my parents inculcated in me; to give back to the community, and to give well. Not just to be socially engaged, but to encourage real excellence.” •

Click here to download a PDF timeline of the Guadalupe's History.


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