Our lady of perpetual sorrow

What’s wrong

at Guadalupe?

The 29-year-old struggling Westside cultural arts center has been the butt of off-the-record jokes and the subject of on-the-record controversies for years. As soon as something good seems to be happening there, it is invariably stopped in its tracks by yet another accusation, another pointing finger, another grievance.

“I love them, but I hate them,” said a local artist who, as most people who bitch about Guadalupe do, asked to remain anonymous. “They’re employers, and people don’t want to be on the record against Guadalupe, because they feel, ‘Will they ever invite me again to show my work? Will they ever let me show my film? Will I ever be able to teach there again?’ But they should be doing more for Chicano art, which is what they’re supposed to be doing.”

“It’ll be hard to name a Chicano artist who doesn’t have some sort of connection with Guadalupe,” said another anonymous source, “either for having worked there, or for having exhibited there, or on an emotional level. That’s why people get pissed off so much when someone screws up over there.”

“Guadalupe? Forget it,” said a former board member. “I wish them the best and they seem to be coming back from the dead, but for many years there was nothing but bad news coming from there.”

The departure of acclaimed former Director Pedro Rodríguez in 1998 was followed by the controversial reign of María Elena Torralva-Alonso, who was succeeded by a string of short-lived and, in the case of Bret Ruiz, troublesome, leaders.

“Now, as the 25th Tejano Conjunto Festival winds down, the Guadalupe again is in upheaval,” reported a 2006 Express-News article titled “Guadalupe Center in spotlight — for wrong reasons.” “Student and class numbers are down. Major events such as the Guadalupe Bookfair and the Latina Letters Conference have been scratched for this year. One of two remaining department heads has resigned. Funding is shrinking.”

In May 2006, when the Guadalupe board warned people who wanted to speak at a board meeting that “Disruptive people, and those making specific, negative statements about the Guadalupe or its staff, would be found out of order and their presentations terminated,” the Current’s Susan Pagani described the situation as “A paranoid welcome at best from a board that has been under continued attack for the GCAC’s steady loss of funding, cancelled programming, increased tuition, and decreased attendance.”

In 2007, former employee Dolores Zapata Murff filed an employment-discrimination suit against the Guadalupe, which settled earlier this year, a legacy of Bret Ruiz’s short stint.

“When Pedro `Rodríguez` and Juan `Tejeda` left `in 1998`, the whole thing fell apart,” said another name on the endless list of anonymous sources.

The board’s hiring late last year of San Antonio native Patty Ortiz, who returned to SA from a successful visual-arts career in Denver, is supposed to mark a rebirth for the Guadalupe, the opportunity to return to the local and national prominence it held under Rodríguez. But early this fall, a staff member charged Ortiz with eliminating a program and then lying to the press and public about her intentions. `See the QueQue, September 2, and QueBlog: La Lupita Strikes Again, September 1.` Echoes of the past so soon?

Maybe there are spirits who conspire to make life miserable for whoever is unlucky enough to land Guadalupe’s executive directorship. Driving through the intersection of Guadalupe and Brazos is like driving through a ghost town, a shining cultural spot of yesteryear — the huge veladora, the great marquee, the galleries. It looks as if someone dropped a neutron bomb: The buildings remain, but the people are gone.

Sure, there’s still stuff happening at the Guadalupe. Year after year, its 18-member staff puts together the once-renowned CineFestival (“It used to be hot, and now it’s a small-potato festival `celebrities don’t want` to come to, unless you pay them to come”), the Tejano Conjunto Festival (which attracted “7,000-10,000 people in three days” in its last edition, according to festival director and former staffer Juan Tejeda), the new flamenco festival, and other classes and shows for the community. But the Guadalupe once boasted a staff of 24, and a $2-million annual budget, numbers that have declined to less than $1.5 million in 2008, $346,000 of which comes from City arts funds. At a recent board meeting, staff announced that the center would have a “$10,000-$11,000 deficit” this year, and Ortiz announced the “elimination of the Media Arts Coordinator position.” (Ortiz later explained to the Current in an email that “there were many scenarios made at that meeting and now `the projected deficit` depended on upcoming fundraising and program efforts.”)

The board offered Ortiz the director’s position in December 2008, and she started working full-time in March 2009. Prior to coming to the Guadalupe, she spent six years as executive director of Denver’s Museo de las Américas and before that five years as director of programs at Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Ortiz arrived with a spotless reputation. In January, Denver Westword’s Michael Paglia wrote that Ortiz’s departure was “shocking, and it even took the Museo’s staff by surprise.” After praising her work and calling her “a key figure in the Denver art world for almost 30 years,” the writer says her move back home to San Antonio is “a great opportunity for her, but she’ll sure be missed by her many fans here.”

In San Antonio, not everybody was so enthusiastic.

“When she came into town, I read about her, and thought, ‘Oh … She’s in trouble,’” a key player in the arts community told the Current. “She doesn’t have a multidisciplinary background. She ran a very small sort of exhibition space in Colorado and is more of a visual artist.”

Still another mala lengua (one who claims to know the truth but won’t be quoted saying it) questioned Ortiz’s motives, writing in an email that she “only wanted to run the GCAC so she could be closer to her aging parents,” a factor that Ortiz freely admitted when the Current asked why she accepted a job with so much baggage attached to it.

“The reason I did it is my parents, really. I left in 1980 and only see them once or twice a year,” she told the Current in a brief emotional moment over lunch.

But if it weren’t for aging family members, SA might never reclaim its many prodigal children. The Current suspects that some of the underground animosity toward Ortiz is based on the feeling that the board allowed Dan “Mr. Right” Gonzalez to slip through their fingers. Gonzalez, an architect, stepped in as interim director after Bret Ruiz’s publicly damaging term ended in 2007.

“Dan really believed in the organization, and he was able to stabilize the environment and work with `the Office of Cultural Affairs` and the funding community to restore the damage that happened during the days of Bret Ruiz,” said Félix Padrón, executive director of San Antonio’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which administers the City’s arts-funding program. “Another smart thing he did was to bring back Pedro Rodríguez, who was director when the Guadalupe was recognized for many, many years, as a leading Latino organization in this country.” (Rodríguez, according to Guadalupe controller Loretta Zevallos, remains a Guadalupe consultant on an “on-call basis,” but Ortiz said he no longer works at the center.)

“`Dan`’s a good guy who wanted the position and was very patient,” said an anonymous source. “When I heard he was ‘interim,’ I thought, ‘Here we go again,’ with `the board` not being smart about hiring the right person at the right time.”

González’s name kept coming up, no matter whom the Current talked to. By all accounts, he was a perfect fit for the job, and was eager to stay. But according to other sources, he tired of waiting for Guadalupe’s board to make a decision and accepted a position as a lecturer in the Department of Architecture at UTSA. (González could not be reached for comment.)

The board tells a different version of the

“We took our time,” said Arturo Madrid, chairman of the hiring committee. “One of the last four candidates withdrew, and, shortly before we were going to announce a decision, Dan González also withdrew. Not only did we have a unanimous vote for Patty, it was a very enthusiastic vote. It was clear we were going to vote for Patty, independent of who the other two candidates were. Our search was deliberate and marked by integrity, and we found an extraordinary person. We’re very happy, and she has our unconditional support.”

It took six months for the first Molotov cocktail to land on Ortiz’s desk. As previously reported by the Current, former Media Arts Coordinator Sandra Peña-Sarmiento accused Ortiz of “eliminating” the Media Arts Program, a discipline that was enthusiastically greeted by the community when the Media Center was inaugurated in 2005. Ortiz denied the accusation, and then a taped conversation between Peña-Sarmiento and Ortiz was sent to the Current in which the new executive director said that’s exatly what she was

At an August board meeting where the issue was discussed, the Current asked board members to raise their hands if they knew the program was on the chopping block before that evening’s meeting. No one moved, but the next day, Ortiz interpreted their response for us: “They didn’t say they didn’t know. … They just didn’t answer.”

Madrid has her back. “When you asked that question at the board meeting I should’ve told you right away that we don’t discuss personnel issues,” Madrid said.

So, Ortiz was right? You did know, but just didn’t answer?

“That would be falling into a trap,” he said. “We just do not discuss personnel issues publicly, by law.”

Ortiz insists she will continue the media arts program one way or another.

“You have to think outside the box, Enrique,” she said playfully minutes before the August board meeting. “People don’t even call it ‘Media Arts Program’ anymore.”

I had lunch with Ortiz on September 16 at a vegetarian restaurant near downtown. She seemed undeterred by the recent criticism and determined to show me her plan for a comprehensive Guadalupe face- and soul-lift. After lunch, and that brief tender moment over her parents, she pulled out her Mac and fired up a PowerPoint presentation. Ortiz — who seems much younger than her 54 years — explained every detail of her presentation with the enthusiasm of a teenager in front of her school science project. This was Patty at her best, and her plan looks like the most ambitious project the Guadalupe has seen since Rodríguez and Tejeda left the institution.

“To me this is the perfect opportunity to create a cultural corridor, a place for artists to gather and really kind of celebrate the culture of the West Side,” she said. “It should be a place for artists to show their work, a place for community to gather for free, and a place for the community to celebrate our traditions.”

Each of these three goals is divided into initiatives that include infrastructure, education, exhibitions, and festivals.

“The Guadalupe has no clear point of entry, the buildings are definitely rundown, our presentation standards are low right now, and our safety of workplace is not the best, so I want to improve these,” Ortiz said. “It won’t happen tomorrow, and I can’t tell you what the intricacies of the program are yet. But I can tell you this: I want a multidisciplinary approach.”

“I haven’t seen the plan yet,” said Padrón, “but the fact that she has one is very significant. Whenever you have a new executive director on board that engages the membership to rally behind a plan, that’s an indication that you have someone who really understands what needs to be done.”

But will Ortiz be able to pursue these ambitions while preserving the Guadalupe’s current community involvement? In August, PR and Marketing Director Lorraine Pulido-Ramírez told the Current that the music program is an example of how you can offer complete services with independent contractors instead of a full-time program coordinator, but since then the Current had learned that some of those music teachers frequently don’t show up for class.

“I’ve heard about that,” Ortiz said. “But Belinda Menchaca is now our education director, and we think that’s going to solve that problem. We want to have a more multidisciplinary approach rather than just have separate disciplines.”

Ortiz also admitted that she’s behind in planning CineFestival, which is scheduled for late January 2010. Until recently, it was run by former Media Arts Coordinator Peña-Sarmiento. Only a month ago Ortiz told the Current, “I would love for `Peña-Sarmiento` to continue doing it,” but Peña-Sarmiento filed a written grievance with Guadalupe’s Personnel Committee after Ortiz made her changes to the program, and may no longer be in the running.

“I’m considering a lot of people,” Ortiz said. “I think we should open it up. It’s only fair, right?

“As I said previously, I don’t work in isolation. I really try to get advice `from the board` and think about things and get assistance, you know? I do that all the time. So I’m still trying to work that out.”

Ortiz says Guadalupe will also continue offering the Cine en el Barrio classes, although those classes were also led by Peña-Sarmiento, who will not be returning as an instructor, the Current has been told. But despite these rough patches, Ortiz insists the Guadalupe is preserving its heritage while moving forward, and when she’s cornered on the details, she’s not above a little game of semantics.

“I can do both. Why can’t I do both?” she asks.

But you’re not doing it, the Current replies.

“What do you mean I’m not doing it?”

It’s September 16, and you still don’t know who’ll be doing CineFestival and Cine en el Barrio. When are the classes?

“I can’t remember right now. October or November. I get my months mixed up.”

Who’s going to give the classes?

“I don’t know yet.”

Are kids already registered for classes? Can you tell them who their teacher is going to be?

“Most organizations look to the day-to-day, but they have to look to the future,” she said. “And you have to have a strategic plan to go forward, you have to have a vision. The plan I’ve just showed you is only part of my job. So part of my job is to create a vision for the organization and have it move forward. The other half is look to the day-to-day and make sure we continue as we’re doing. I’m trying to do both.”

J. Oscar Ramírez, President and CEO of the Avenida Guadalupe Association, which sponsors the Cine en el Barrio classes, doesn’t seem worried.

“I don’t know who the teacher `for the remaining Cine en el Barrio workshops` will be,” he said. “`Guadalupe` gets the instructor. I just write a check when they send me the invoice. (laughs) But so far my dealings with with `Ortiz` have been positive.”

“Artists are very passionate and emotional, and sometimes when decisions are made … , ” said Padrón, referring to the hiring of Ortiz and González’s departure and the changes in Guadalupe’s programming. “Yes, decisions should be made in a transparent way, but this is not what is not happening at Guadalupe.”

Padrón’s perspective is not be shared by
everyone on the ground. At the August 27 board meeting where the Media Arts Program was discussed, former Visual Arts Coordinator Deborah Vásquez Ortiz also tried to raise concerns.

“I just want to know what’s going on at Guadalupe,” said Vásquez in the meeting. “I don’t say that, for example, the dance or theater programs should be eliminated — they’re great, but you can’t have them at the expense of the Media Arts Program. What’s going on?”

Ortiz repeated, “I can talk to you about that” twice, in what seemed like an attempt to shut Vásquez down at the meeting, but the next day Ortiz told the Current that was not her intention, and that she “didn’t know” that Vásquez “had issues” with the Guadalupe’s management.

“I don’t buy that,” said Vásquez, who told the Current she quit her position at Guadalupe to concentrate on teaching at Our Lady of the Lake University. “I have nothing against Patty, I just want to make sure the Guadalupe is OK. But of course she knew I had issues. When I was trying to get some things done … I didn’t feel supported, and she pretty much knew that. It wasn’t huge issues, I wasn’t treated the way `Peña-Sarmiento` was, but I still think no one should be treated in a manner that is not professional. She denied what `Peña-Sarmiento` was saying, but now we know by the tape that it’s true.”

But public dissatisfaction with Ortiz seems confined to a handful of now-former staff

“I had lunch with Patty, and I think she was a good choice,” said former board member Ethel Shipton. “Dan `González` would’ve been a good choice, too, but as long as the Guadalupe is moving forward in a positive manner, it’s great.”

“We have not had, in this office, an official complaint about anybody `from Guadalupe`,” Padrón told the Current. “What I hear is what I read in the paper or what somebody mentions at a party. And we can’t base action on rumors. ... But the community needs to give her time to adjust.”

The board, according to Madrid, is prepared to do so.

“The Guadalupe `Ortiz` inherited had a brand-new board, except for one or two carryovers from the previous administration,” Madrid said. “She inherited a very difficult situation related to the previous director, an organization that was not fully staffed, and the bad-mouthing of the Guadalupe by a variety of parties.”

Ortiz says all she wants is the benefit of the doubt.

“People are concerned that I’m eliminating programs or starting new programs from scratch, but that’s not what I’m doing,” said Ortiz in our first phone conversation in August. “What I’m doing is not necessarily ‘new programs’ but new methods of approach to a program. It may not be a new program or it may be a new program. I just want you to give it a chance.” •


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