We are the United Artists of Santa Ana!
[The following article was published in the Santanero Zine on June 2, 2012. It appears here as it was published with minor updates]
In October of 2011, a contract known as the Rehabilitation Agreement for the Santora Building for the Arts expired. This agreement between the city of Santa Ana and current Santora owner Mike Harrah stipulated, among other things, that the Santora building be 80% occupied by artists. It was a contract that provided a substantial sum of money to Harrah so that the Santora building could thrive as an artistic hub. In the years that the contract was in effect, many of the residents of the Santora were ignorant of such an agreement. All the while, Mr. Harrah, unchecked, did not abide by the terms of the contract. While some artists of the Santora suspected that the document did exist, the denial of its existence during a community meeting last year by then Community Development Director, Cindy Nelson (who’s name is actually on the contract), coupled with the lack of willingness from anyone else involved with the contract to acknowledge it, kept the reality of such an agreement a mere rumor.
In January of 2012, however, local artist, Alicia Rojas, took it upon herself to find a copy of the elusive document. Alicia told Santanero:
“I finally said to myself, I’m going to get off my ass and go to City Hall and find this contract. I reached out to a couple of the local reporters and they gave me tips on how to find it. I got a lead from one of the reporters that found it because of my prompting and asking for it. Then I went out and got it for myself. I read it and saw that the contract had expired.”
This was not the first time that Alicia had been active for the benefit of the artist community. She along with a few other artists had been active with the now defunct organization known as AVASA (Artist Village Alliance of Santa Ana). This group had formed in 2011 to combat what the artists felt was negligence by owner, Mike Harrah, towards the Santora building and its residents. It was this group that initially attempted to oust the acknowledgment of the then rumored contract. Alicia continues:
“What pissed me off mostly was that, during AVASA, we wanted to ask the city about this contract because it was a rumor. Because of the yelling and screaming that we did, all of a sudden the city wanted to meet us. AVASA was in the center of all the news and blogs in the city. The city set up an arts forum for the first time in years because we prompted it. Cindy Nelson held it. They invited a bunch of the local organizations. Bowers Museum was there and we were there as AVASA. Matt Southgate [fellow artist of the Santora and former AVASA member], asked Cindy Nelson about the contract. She was with the redevelopment agency that signed the contract and she said that nothing existed. And this was when the contract was still legit! So when I actually found the contract for myself many months later and saw her name [Cindy Nelson’s] on it , I remembered that moment. I said to myself, ‘How can they do this to us?’ It spurred so much anger in me that they had lied to us. So I sat there and began to think about it all. I said to myself, ‘How can I turn this into a positive thing?’ I wanted to approach this in a new way from what was AVASA. I wanted to revive AVASA under a new name [by this time AVASA had disbanded].”
It was from this moment that spawned the creation of a new organization now known as the United Artists of Santa Ana (UASA). Alicia envisioned a new artists alliance fully organized, bringing together not just artists of the Santora or Artist Village district, but artists from all parts of the community.
Taking a more diplomatic approach, Alicia, with the support of a few community members that included Matt Southgate, Moises Camacho [former Santora artist, whose exit from the Santora, Alicia cites as her motivation to finally search for the rehabilitation agreement herself] and Claudia Lavini [Special projects and Art Walk Coordinator for Downtown Inc.], went to the City Council on February 6th 2012 to address the recent find of the Rehabilitation Agreement and to hopefully begin a new era of cooperation between the city and the artist community. Among the suggestions presented by Alicia to the city included the establishment of an Arts commissioner, a partnership to help fund public art, a new agreement to keep the Santora building arts focused, and the recognition of a new organization that would represent the artist community and serve as the main source of communication to the city. The council, although acknowledging the importance of the arts in Santa Ana, did very little to move forward on any of the suggestions Alicia put forth on that day. Despite this, a little group of artists that would later vote to call themselves the UASA had their first meeting on February 9th 2012.
Two months later, on April 23, 2012, Adam Elmahrek of the Voice of OC broke the news that an Irvine based church known as Newsong was close to buying the Santora building from Mike Harrah. The artist community of Downtown Santa Ana quickly went into a panic. The fear of censorship, intolerance, and discrimination surged through many of the local artists and important figures of the Artist Village. Most importantly, many residents feared that the Santora Building as a cultural and artistic hub was going to reach its end. The message that the church relayed to its congregation was that the Santora would serve as a place of worship and that plans of renovating the building to include a 300+ auditorium for services was in mind. [NewSong later retracted part of the plan via Facebook]
The UASA, at the time that the news of the sale broke, was quietly planning its coming out party: a celebration of the Anniversary of the Santora Building to be held on July 7th. The sense of urgency prevalent through out the Artist Village needed a uniting force. The UASA was pushed to the forefront as the representative body to the artist community. The group held a meeting on April 26, 2012 to discuss the plan of action. The meeting was attended by several key figures of the development of the Artist Village that included Don Cribb (who is credited for sparking the creation of the Artist Village), Tim Rush (a member of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society) and Lisa Bist (former Council member). Most importantly, it was a gathering that united artists and curators from across the downtown district that included the Grand Central Arts Center, and the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art. It was a gathering not yet accomplished by any other artist representative organization in Santa Ana.
The UASA went to work full steam. With their elected board in place and a steady group of regularly volunteering members, the UASA released an open letter to all local news publications, to the city council, and Newsong addressing the UASA’s concerns and urging all relevant parties to come together to negotiate a new agreement that would protect and preserve the arts in the Santora. The group issued a petition that to date has reached close to a thousand signatures. The UASA presented this petition to the city council on May 7th 2012. This time, Alicia (now president of the group), addressed the city council with at least fifty people supporting in attendance. Alicia did not speak alone either. Others in support of the group joined her in addressing the council, voicing their concerns for the future of the Santora and Downtown Santa Ana as whole.
The City Council had no choice but to listen. Mayor Miguel Pulido called for an ad hoc committee to reach out to the relevant parties of the sale so that options to preserve the Santora as an artist hub can be explored. As of the writing of this article, it was reported by the UASA that a meeting between the ad hoc committee and representatives of the church had taken place. Whether a written agreement will be reached to grant the protection many of the UASA hope for is still in the air. In fact, many of the UASA fear that the committee might not live up to its purpose. The inclusion of David Benavides (who is a Newsong church attendee) in the ad hoc committee has raised suspicion prompting many to feel that his inclusion constitutes a conflict of interest. Most importantly, the UASA has of yet not been invited to contribute in the discussions of the committee. [Update: the UASA did finally meet with the ad hoc committee on May 29, 2012 after this article was submitted for publication in Santanero]
Much is yet to be seen. However, as it was in February, when the City Council paid very little attention, the “not so little anymore” group of artists continues to meet every Thursday in the Santora building committed in their mission to nurture and preserve the arts in Santa Ana. As more artists from across the city, including artists from the Santiago Art District, continue to join the group, the UASA is set to establish itself as the premier organizing and representative body for artists in the city. A reality that Alicia Rojas could only dream about just a short four months ago.
The Elected Board of the UASA
Alicia Rojas (President)
Alicia was born in Bogota, Colombia. She moved to California in 1994. Coming from a family of artists, Alicia was interested in art since a young age. She began to focus specifically on painting at the age of 27 and began showing her art at the Santora in 2005. You can learn more about her on her website www.aliciarojas.com.
Sandra “Pocha” Pena Sarmiento (Vice-President)
Pocha, as she is known, is a Santa Ana native. She grew up in the Delhi area. A well decorated artist, her work spans three decades. She has received acclaim as a filmmaker and a writer. Her first work, at the young age of 17, was a music video for the seminal Orange County punk band The Vandals. A former resident of the Santora herself, her gallery, Pocharte, has exhibited work from such artists as Alma Lopez, Lola Alcaraz and Ruben Ortiz Torres. She currently runs the annual OC Film Fiesta held in Santa Ana, now in the works for its third installment. Her films, videos and other visual art has been exhibited in galleries and film festivals in Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, and San Antonio, TX. You can learn more about Pocha and all her many activities at www.pocharte.com and www.ocfilmfiesta.org.
Claudia Lavini (Secretary)
Born in Peru, Claudia moved with her family to California at the age of eight. She became linked with the city of Santa Ana when she began coordinating the Santa Ana College Gallery. Her involvement within the Santa Ana artistic community includes organizing events in Downtown such as the Summer Concert Series, and The Mexican Artisan Fair. She has been a vital networking channel for many local musicians, having booked local bands for Proof Bar, and the Second Street Promenade during Art Walk. She aspires to be an arts curator and is currently working on her degree in art history at Cal State Fullerton.
Ben Walker (Treasurer)
Ben is an Orange County native that grew up in Garden Grove. He moved to Santa Ana eight years ago. “My father’s family has been in Santa Ana since the 1930’s and I always felt like I had some sort of connection to the city,” Ben told Santanero. He began showing his work at Raven Studios and MC Gallery at the Santora until he was given the opportunity to start up his own gallery. Ben is now part of an arts cooperative that formed Gallery 207. The gallery exhibits in the space of Raven Studios in the upstairs area of the Santora. You can learn more about Ben on his website www.benwalker.com.