Arts & Entertainment

City of LA moves to evict two Latino-focused arts organizations

The Latino Museum exhibit in the lobby of the L.A. Theater Center.
The Latino Museum exhibit in the lobby of the L.A. Theater Center.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

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This month six years ago, the Latino Theater Company won a 20-year lease to the city-owned Los Angeles Theater Center (LATC) in downtown L.A. The Latino Museum joined as a co-tenant soon after. That's when the trouble started and years of conflict have ensued.

But a recent city council meeting may have solved the problem.

The Latino Museum’s permanent collection includes over 2,000 pieces, including art by Judy Baca and Barbara Carrasco – two modern LA masters.

"It’s one of the most important Chicano-Latino art collections in the United States," said museum executive director Ana Pescador.

According to Pescador, the Latino Theater Company hasn’t allowed her institution to properly display these treasures in the historic bank building converted into a theater complex nearly 30 years ago.

"It’s unfortunately very sad that we have a teeny, tiny space down in the basement as the gallery. It’s kind of embarrassing to present a Latino Museum that can only showcase 30 pieces of art," she said.

Pescador said the relationship soured early on when the Latino Theater Company didn’t contribute its share of money to pay for maintenance and major renovation costs. The Latino Museum sued the Latino Theater Company. The theater company responded with a countersuit.

Nearly four years of mounting acrimony played out last Tuesday during an eviction hearing in the marble-walled chambers of the Los Angeles City Council.

The Latino Museum’s lawyer told city council members that the theater company was to blame. Evelina Fernandez, a Latino Theater Company co-founder and board member, answered by describing her group’s impact on the city’s cultural and financial health.

"We have created hundreds of jobs at the LATC," said Fernarndez. "We have a staff of 12 people, many of them are here today, year round, seasonal staff of hundreds of actors, musicians, directors, producers, designers, technicians."

Council members were considering an 18-page notice of default that listed dozens of lease violations – failing to put money into a maintenance and renovation fund to failing to turn in sales tax receipts or cash register tapes to the city. The city also faulted both parties – the museum more than the theater company – for failing to live up to their programming pledges.

Jose Luis Valenzuela, board president and artistic director of the Latino Theater Company, said he believes the organization is doing more than the LATC alleges.

"...and we have promised to create a world class cultural center and I must tell you that we have been doing that," Valenzuela said. "I must tell you that in the last six years the multicultural programming at the LATC has been critically acclaimed and has included local, national, and international theater and dance."

Valenzuela has a distinguished artistic career. He’s also played a role in L.A. politics as a fundraiser and contributor to the campaign of current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Latino Museum officials said the theater company’s political clout has kept the city bureaucracy from addressing its complaints.

One city council member said the matter was delicate; the entire L.A. city council recessed into closed session to discuss the eviction. After that, Councilman Tony Cardenas called for a vote, moving that they begin the eviction process and that it last for 45 days.

With the understanding, Cardenas said, the city could retract the eviction if the Latino Museum and the Latino Theater Company amicably separated from the LATC. Latino Museum Executive Director Ana Pescador said that will allow her organization to step up efforts toward finding another home.

"We went to UCLA, USC, Loyola," Pescador said. "I believe they do care about our collection ... we have a great treasure in our hands which we would like to share it with Angelenos."

The Latino Theater Company has a full plate as it hosts a five-day playwrights festival at the LATC starting Wednesday, in addition to preparing for its next season of plays.