PAINTERS 1, THESPIANS 0 IN LOWER EAST SIDE CULTURE BRAWL

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The president of the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center stepped down the week before last, but Ed Vega’s resignation apparently did little to end the year-long battle between CSV and its disgruntled tenants, the nonprofit Artist’s Alliance. The artists are on rent strike, mediation has failed twice, and both sides are now separately pursuing their muses in the same Suffolk Street building–while suing each other in court.

The neo-Gothic building houses 11 theater companies, including a film group and a dance troupe, and about 60 artist’s studios. Outside, it looks like a classic bohemian cultural center, surrounded by bicycles and festooned with Christmas tree lights. Inside, though, a racially charged war is raging. In the suddenly high-stakes world of Lower East Side arts groups, small, scrappy nonprofits are the keepers not just of culture, but of incredibly valuable pieces of real estate.

The visual artists of the Artist’s Alliance say their rent money unfairly subsidizes CSV, an umbrella group consisting of 11 mostly Latino theater, dance and film groups. CSV’s leadership, including Vega, say the artists are gentrifying interlopers, trying to muscle in on the center’s management.

Last summer, the studio artists submitted a competing bid to take over the lease of the city-owned building. According to them, Vega was badly mismanaging the funds. “The city’s not in the business of coddling fiscally irresponsible nonprofits,” said Miguel Trelles, co-president of the Alliance.

Vega acknowledged that the studio artists were providing much of the building’s cash flow, but he defended this financial arrangement. “We had to develop the center as a not-for-profit, multi-cultural arts organization that was attempting to become self-sufficient. And I still cling to that.” Given that mission, said Vega, the studio artists, mostly white, were never supposed to be part of the nonprofit’s leadership. They were there for revenue. “If I had a million dollars, I’d fill the building up with indigent black and Latino artists,” he said.

CSV’s board backs Vega. “The Board’s position has been that the Artist’s Alliance is a front for a hostile real estate takeover,” said CSV’s spokesman, Charles Rice Gonzales.

According to Gonzales, what really hurt was that the studio artists also planned to rename the building from Clemente Soto Velez–a Puerto Rican poet and artist–to “Public Space 160.” Said Gonzales, “That was like a big slap in the face.”

City Councilmember Kathryn Freed said she had scheduled mediation for the warring artists for the week of May 4th. Trelles and co-executive director Shelly McGuinness say they would be willing to serve on a board comprised jointly of CSV and artists’ reps. But new CSV co-chair Nelson Landrieu called the idea “totally out of the question.”

For his part, Vega maintains that he feels betrayed. “You nurture a child, you send them to college, and then they grow up and sue you. That’s what this feels like,” he said.