BY ENRIQUE LOPETEGUI
“SAVE THE GCAC MEDIA ARTS PROGRAM TONIGHT! @ 6:30PM,” read the August 27 Facebook posting by Sandra Peña-Sarmiento, Media Arts coordinator for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. “The Executive Director of the [Guadalupe] has decided to dissolve their Media Arts Program effective immediately! Come out for tonight’s GCAC Board Meeting and let them know that you want Media Arts on the Westside to thrive.”
Minutes after the Current posted the essence of the message on Twitter (and roughly an hour after the Current’s calls to the Guadalupe’s executive director and Peña-Sarmiento went unreturned), Guadalupe Marketing and PR Director Lorraine Pulido-Ramírez called us to ask why we had posted “false information without consulting with [GCAC] first,” and proceeded to give us what she said was the real scoop:
“We’re not closing the Media Arts Program, but the position of Media Arts Coordinator has been dissolved,” she said, adding that Peña-Sarmiento’s last day of employment is August 31. “The program will continue with different teachers hired as independent contractors. We’re considering various people, including Sandra and Víctor [Payan, Sandra’s husband].”
The Current asked how you can effectively have a Media Arts Program without a Media Arts Coordinator, and Pulido-Ramírez offered the example of the Guadalupe’s music department.
“We don’t have a ‘music coordinator,’ but we do have a music program and music instructors teaching students. And once a year Juan Tejeda takes care of the Tejano Conjunto Festival.”
Tejeda, leader of Conjunto Aztlan, and instructor of Mexican American studies and director of the conjunto program at Palo Alto College, was the director of the Xicano Music Program at Guadalupe from 1980 to 1998.
“In my time, we had a director in every department, and turned the Guadalupe’s budget from hundreds of dollars to $2 million a year, with 25 full-time staffers,” Tejeda told the Current. “That’s the ideal situation. It was the golden age of Guadalupe. But these are different economic times, and I wouldn’t dare comment on the day-to-day activities of Guadalupe, because I’m not there and I don’t know.”
Eventually, Pulido-Ramírez passed the phone to Patty Ortiz, GCAC’s executive director since March.
“I evaluated the workload of every employee and evaluated the program, and what I am doing is dissolving that position temporarily and focusing on fundraising and marketing,” Ortiz said. “I want to make sure people come to our programs and that there are funds to support them. It would be irresponsible for me to do otherwise. We’re still doing CineFestival, and we’re talking to Sandra and Víctor about still directing that festival. We’re still going to do the program, but we’re doing it item-by-item and focusing on their success.”
But Peña-Sarmiento and Payan insist that Ortiz told them she is “eliminating the program” and that the program “is not a priority” for Guadalupe –– charges Ortiz denies.
“Attendance at GCAC Media Arts programs is on the rise, Texas has just passed a major film incentive program, the coastal studios and major players are finally heading to SA, and affordable equipment is making indie-productions accessible for our youth and community media artists,” read the Facebook message.
“Is this the best time to get rid of a Media Arts program?” Payan asked the Current.
Although Peña’s Facebook message announced a “Rally to save the Media Arts
Program” at 6:30, what actually took place at the Guadalupe Thursday night was a regular board meeting, which started minutes after six and mainly dealt with fundraising and budgetary issues. When the meeting began, the board asked if there were any “citizens to be heard,” but none of the six persons (including the Current and a couple of GCAC employees) sitting in the audience volunteered. Around 6:30 p.m., three more people showed up.
Peña and Payan, who are members of the National Association of Independent Latino Producers, entered the meeting at 6:44 p.m., and about 20 minutes later the board again asked if anybody in the community wanted to speak. At that point, Payan said he wanted to discuss “the closing of the Media Arts Program” and said he had a letter from NALIP San Antonio in which its president, Verónica R. Hernández, expressed NALIP’s “sadness” about the fact that the program is going to be “dissolved.”
“You are taking away a gift,” wrote Hernández in the letter, which praises Peña’s and Payan’s help when NALIP hosted the Adelante Film Forum at the Guadalupe in 2008. “Great job… We were received with no reservations,’” wrote Hernández in the letter [which was not read to the board members]. “I haven’t contacted anyone since I found out I needed to work with [theater manager] Pedro [Ramírez]. Pedro is the best, but Pedro books the theater, I needed to speak to someone who had experience in media arts. I wanted to collaborate with the Guadalupe to fundraise for both NALIP and the GCAC theatre but I got a call from Pedro who was disinterested in what I had to say.” (Ramírez didn’t reply to an email from the Current). Payan added that NALIP had offered to mediate the dispute in order to help the Guadalupe “continue serving our community.”
When Payan mentioned that the Media Arts Program had been dissolved, several board members seemed surprised, while Patty and others smiled.
“Is this a statement based on fact?” asked vice chairman Arturo Madrid.
“Yes, sir, it’s based on conversations we’ve had with the executive director,” replied Payan.
“That’s not true,” said Ortiz. “Someone’s been spreading rumors, and you know that.” “No, I don’t know that,” Payan said.
Ortiz insisted that the program would continue, and that only the position of program coordinator had been eliminated.
“Are you here on behalf of NALIP or on behalf of your wife?” asked board member Celina Peña.
“I’m here on behalf of NALIP,” replied Payan, “but, obviously, I care about whatever happens to my wife.”
The Current asked if any of the board members knew that either the Media Arts program or the position of media arts coordinator had been terminated. “If so, please raise your hand.”
Not a single hand was raised, and Ortiz said "I will report it tonight." But the following day, Ortiz argued that “They didn’t say they didn’t know … they just didn’t respond.”
So, they did know?
“I never work in isolation,” Ortiz said. “I also use the board as my consultants to assist me in making major decisions.”
But at the meeting, Payan had a different impression.
“It seems [eliminating the Media Arts Coordinator position] came from the executive director and not from the board, which is comforting,” he said.
“I just want to know what’s going on at Guadalupe,” said Deborah Kuetzpalin Vásquez,who also attended the meeting. Vásquez is the Guadalupe’s former visual-arts coordinator, who resigned two weeks ago. “I don’t say that, for example, the dance or theater programs should be eliminated –– they’re great, but you can’t have them at the expense of the Media Arts Program. What’s going on?”
“I can talk to you about that, I can talk to you about that,” repeated Ortiz, seemingly implying that the topic should be dealt with in private.
But on Friday, Ortiz told the Current that’s not what she meant. “I just didn’t know she had issues, and I wanted to talk to her about it.”
The Current asked Ortiz about Payan’s specific allegations.
“I never said I’m ‘eliminating’ the program,” Ortiz said. “I never would say that.”
What about the Media Arts department “not being “a priority” for Guadalupe?
“No, I would never say that, either.”
While the Current was asking her another question, Ortiz returned to the previous one.
“It depends; a priority to what?”
“I mean: the Media Arts Department is not one of your priorities … ”
“But we do have a media arts program.”
That seems to be the essence of the dispute: In Ortiz’s mind, the only change has been the elimination of one part-time position. According to Payan and Peña, it’s the end of the program for all practical purposes.
The night of the board meeting, Peña submitted a formal grievance to the board, which has seven days to respond. Which is why, says Payan, he’s been doing all the talking.
“[Peña-Sarmiento] wants to respect the process of the grievance,” said Payan. “All she wants is for Ortiz to respect Guadalupe’s 30-day notice for termination, instead of claiming that under Texas law she can fire [Peña] anytime she wants.”
“There isn’t a 30-day notice policy at Guadalupe,” Ortiz told the Current Monday night. “And this isn’t a firing issue. She wasn’t fired. It’s about the elimination of a position.” The Guadalupe Employee Handbook states that “whenever possible, employees to be laid off will be given thirty days notice.” Peña-Sarmiento was a part-time staffer.
On Monday, the Current received an mp3 with two parts of a recorded conversation between Peña and Ortiz at the latter’s office at the Guadalupe on August 26. In the conversation, Ortiz says, “Yeah, I’m eliminating the program, and I think I mentioned in there that it would end in September.”
In the second clip, Peña asks whether “the media arts program is done for,” to which Ortiz replies, “I wouldn’t call it ‘done for…’ I’m just saying right now we are suspending it.”
“Suspending it?” asks Peña.
“Yeah, suspending it.”
At the end of the second sound clip, Ortiz says, “It doesn’t mean we won’t be doing something or another with one of the program people over that, but it’s not going to be a full-fledged media program, no.”
When told about the taped conversation, Ortiz at first seemed surprised and wanted to discuss legal issues.
“Did I say that the media arts program was being eliminated?” Ortiz finally asked, emphasizing “media arts.” Yes, she did say there will no longer be a “full-fledged media arts program.”
“Yes, but what’s your definition of ‘full-fledged media arts program’ ?” Ortiz asked. “I imagine a lot [more] going on, and right now it’s just the classes and CineFestival.”
Ortiz is smart, charming, with a great sense of humor, and an unparalleled ability to find hidden meanings in simple words like “program eliminated” or “full-fledged,” or to parse why her own board members were (or weren’t) clueless about a major decision made by her.
Semantics aside, whether the Guadalupe’s media-arts program is dead or just sleeping, the Current still has a lot of questions. And it’s looking forward to a veggie dinner with Ortiz on September 14.
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