A Light Goes Out in Latino Arts

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Moises Camacho stands by one of his paintings in his MC Gallery & Studio in downtown Santa Ana's Santora Building. The gallery, long considered a destination in the Latino arts scene, is closing. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

When acclaimed Mexican composer Arturo Marquez visited Artists Village in downtown Santa Ana last month, it wasn't for the trendy restaurants.

Marquez came for a gathering at MC Gallery & Studio, a gallery on the second floor of the historic Santora Building that has been a destination in Santa Ana's Latino art scene for three years. It is always on Marquez's must-see list when he travels to California from his native Mexico to celebrate and revere the work of modern Latino artists.

Among the exposed brick walls, the bronze nudes of Mexican women, the dark murals and the Chicano themes, Marquez sees his motherland.

"I feel like I am at home here," he says.

But this year Marquez will have to cross the MC Gallery & Studio off his list. The gallery is closing in late January — a tragic loss for Latino culture in the city, the gallery's patrons say,

"For those of us who are Latino, this is a major, major blow," said Omar Ávalos, a flamenco guitar player.

MC Gallery & Studio owner Moises Camacho says the closure of his gallery will mean the loss of a cultural marketplace where the ideas and philosophies of Mexico and other countries are showcased through art.

"The exchange of views and philosophies, I think that's really important. I think that's how the community becomes enriched," Camacho said.

The shuttering of MC Gallery & Studio wouldn't be the first studio closure at the Santora in recent memory. World-renowned theater designer Joseph Musil died in 2010,  and his imaginative studio, just steps away from MC Gallery, went with him. Musil's neighbor, a gallery run by local artist Gustavo Santana, vanished shortly afterward.

And in what the downtown arts community says is an alarming trend, these studios haven't been replaced by other artists.

Local artists blame the continuing disappearance of galleries in the area on gentrification, which is a common consequence of a flourishing arts scene. The artists moved into a downtrodden downtown because the rents were cheap. Their presence sparked interest. As more people flocked to the scene, restaurants opened to cater to the crowds.

Now the rents are skyrocketing, and the artists are being priced out.

The process is sometimes known as the "SoHo Syndrome," named for the district in New York City that in the 1950s and 1960s was a center for avant-garde art but now is known more for its high-end shopping.

"I feel I am a victim of gentrification," Camacho said.

Camacho said he is closing his gallery because he is behind in his rent and can't keep up. Mike Harrah, owner of the building, couldn't be reached for comment, but in the past he has expressed little sympathy for artists who can't pay their rent.

"I'd sure like to know what they've done for downtown Santa Ana other than not pay me rent," Harrah once said. "If it wasn't for me building the downtown, there wouldn't be an artists village today."

Failing to Organize

Santa Ana's downtown artists banded together in 2010 to fight for preserving Artists Village as an art sanctuary. They called themselves the Artists Village Alliance of Santa Ana (AVASA).

At first, it seemed they were making progress.

A pair of box-frame signs advertising Original Mike's, Harrah's restaurant, were taken off the Santora Building's facade. A city-backed valet parking service in front of the building infuriated the artists and was stopped. Leaders of Downtown Inc., the city's downtown booster organization, began brainstorming with the artists to help them sell more art.

But AVASA's leaders quarreled almost from the start, and its members couldn't gather for regular meetings. The organization quickly melted away, and so did the artists' momentum.

Camacho pins the blame squarely on the city government. He says that without city subsidies for art in the area, the art scene will die. The public should be willing to sponsor galleries like his, Camacho says, because of the public benefits of his cultural marketplace.

But not all his patron agree. Avalos says artists like Camacho should be more business minded.

"We always have to be self-critical too: What can we do better?" Ávalos said.

Unless something changes — the artists forming a new organization or the city stepping in to support them — the artists acknowledge that they are a dying breed in downtown Santa Ana.

And at least some of Camacho's patrons have vowed not to return once his gallery closes.

"When the art dies here, I won't come here," said George Marquez, the Mexican composer's younger brother. "It's that simple."

A previous version misspelled the name of Omar Ávalos. We regret the error.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

 

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