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The Culture War

Showdown at a Lower East Side arts center: cheap art studios or condos and concert hall?

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Stepping out of his airy studio into the dark, dusty third-floor hallway of the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, painter Miguel Trelles shakes his head. "This place could be the jewel of the Lower East Side," he sighs. If Trelles runs into the center's president, Edgardo Vega Yunqué, whose office is also on the third floor, he won't be able to discuss these lofty aspirations: The two men haven't spoken in more than three months.

The Vélez Center, a city-owned former public school at the corner of Suffolk and Rivington Streets, houses four theater companies, several arts organizations, a film-production company, and studio space for 65 artists like Trelles. In May, for the fifth time in four years, the center narrowly avoided the auction block, and tenants began grumbling about Vega, who has run the center for six years at the pleasure of a board they say rarely meets. "He hasn't gotten the center off a month-to-month lease with the city in five years of trying," complains Shelly McGuinness, a mixed-media artist with a studio in the neo-Gothic building.

Fed up with Vega's inability to negotiate a long-term solution with the city, suspicious of his accounting, and nervous about the survival of their $500-a-month studios, McGuinness and Trelles founded the Artists Alliance and called for a rent strike the day after CSV's eleventh-hour reprieve. Thirty-six of the building's artists have joined the strike.

"Millions of dollars have passed through here," charges McGuinness. "But there's been no accounting to the board, the tenants, or the city." She points out that by Vega's own reckoning -- made available in a brief "financial overview" submitted to the city -- CSV this year expects to take in $923,000; according to the Alliance, the center pays the city $31,000 a year in rent and provides tenants little in the way of heat, electricity, and maintenance. Even with other costs factored in, the artists claim, the numbers don't add up.

Vega and the Alliance have submitted competing proposals to the city to buy the building. The Alliance's budget focuses on mundane details like boiler replacement and gutter repair and seeks to portray its authors as fiscally cautious arts administrators; Vega's more ambitious vision calls for selling off the studios as condominium units, a three-story vertical expansion, and construction of a 1,200-seat concert hall. "How can you build an enormous concert hall," McGuinness wonders, "when you can't even fix the toilets?"

The Alliance pitch also calls for renaming the building Public Space 160 -- an attempt to establish it as a cultural mecca like P.S.'s 122 and 1 -- and for a series of community-arts programs. "All of a sudden, Trelles and McGuinness have become community-oriented?" asks Vega. "After they've been here all this time and not given a shit? We are an arts center, not a community center. We don't do arts for children."

Vega sees his proposal as a new paradigm for arts management, whereby for-profit endeavors like graphics studios and restaurants -- both of which he wants to include in the upgraded CSV -- subsidize traditional artistic pursuits. "My idea is to create solid, moneymaking projects," he says, "to fund fine arts without looking for handouts. So naturally, they're calling me a capitalist son of a bitch."


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