Penelope as Arts Activist



Remember the Esperanza (lawsuit)


In San Antonio, 9/11 equals catastrophe in more ways than one: On September 11, 1997, then-Mayor Howard Peak presided over an official City Council vote disqualifying the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center from City arts funding on the grounds that the Center’s social-justice work was political and therefore not artistic. Throughout the loud public debate that preceded the council’s vote, Esperanza’s critics hammered at its vocal support of queer culture.

Three-and-a-half years later, federal judge Orlando L. Garcia would rule that the City’s actions were unconstitutional, resulting in a half-million-dollar award to Esperanza, and cementing a precedent articulated by the Supreme Court in the infamous 1998 National Endowment for the Arts v. Karen Finley, et al. ruling. It’s up to local governments to decide whether they want to use public monies for cultural purposes, but, Garcia wrote, “Once a governing body chooses to fund art, however, the Constitution requires that it be funded in a viewpoint-neutral manner, that is, without discriminating among recipients on the basis of their ideology.” The opinion’s language echoed the Finley ruling, in which the Supreme Court said the government is free to set content-based grant-making criteria, but that it must apply those guidelines equally among applicants.

While the sudden loss of more than $60,000 was a near-fatal blow to the Esperanza, which had been funded annually by the City, the council’s action sealed the fate of some of the grassroots arts initiatives that were umbrellaed by the social-justice and arts organization. I co-founded one of those programs in 1994 with self-identifying
“Chicano art fag” Michael Marínez. Called VaN (and pronounced “vain,” as in “vanity”; or “weather-vane”; as in “which way are the cultural arts blowing”; or “vein” as in “site of an injection”; or “ven,” Spanish for “they come.”), its mission was to bring artists who got as far as Texas to San Antonio by providing flexible funds for fees and transportation. VaN supported — pre-Artpace — controversial national and international artists at a point when outside artists were often derided locally.

The San Antonio Lesbian and Gay Media Project, helmed by artist-activist Dennis Poplin, produced the annual San Antonio Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, Out At The Movies, which also ceased operations in 1997 due to the council’s action. The Media Project promoted “political” activities, including protests against derogatory LGBT representations in the press. Out At The Movies screened some of the most progressive LGBT, two-spirited, queer films being produced anywhere.

VaN had previously received financial support from the Texas Commission on the Arts, but due to changes in TCA’s funding process in 1997, VaN had to apply to the City of San Antonio for state as well as local arts monies — which it did with Esperanza as its fiscal agent. The City’s Multi-Disciplinary Peer Review Panel recommended VaN for a grant, but after the City cut off Esperanza, VaN folded, and subsequently joined the suit against the City as a co-plaintiff.

In an excellent 2002 essay on Esperanza’s website, lead plaintiffs’ attorney Amy Kastely wrote that, “It now seems clear that Mayor Peak guided the defunding of the Esperanza, including encouraging the involvement of the right-wing (personally appearing on conservative radio talk shows to encourage opposition to the Esperanza), garnering support for the defunding from a network of conservative white gay men (most prominently Ted Switzer, a doctor and editor of the now-closed Marquise newspaper; Rob Blanchard, now-deceased professor of journalism at Trinity University; and Glenn Stelhe, wealthy telephone-company entrepreneur and libertarian activist), and securing the unanimous agreement of Council in a closed meeting at City Hall” before the public vote.

For me, it was a case of déjà vu.

Before I moved to San Antonio in 1993, I lived in Washington, D.C., where I worked at the National Endowment for the Arts on a long-gone funding category called Artist Projects: New Forms, which attempted to instigate, identify, and support new artistic experiments. The category was so out-there it fell below Senator Jesse Helms’ radar, but quietly self-imploded after two cycles along with the entire NEA Program it inhabited, Inter-Arts. Before the Artist Projects’ demise, I’d moved from the proverbial pan to the non-fictional fire, smuggling stuff from the Endowment to the National Association of Artists’ Organizations.

NAAO consisted of an intrepid young executive director, Charlotte R. Murphy, and a membership of nearly 200 artist-run organizations across the country. I served as the associate director. NAAO became a notorious voice, ensuring that artists’ perspectives reached the covers of the LA Times, The New York Times, and Time and Newsweek magazines in addition to congressional “critique.” Our own “offensive” rag, the “NAAO Bulletin,” was disseminated widely, setting the stage for the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, which mobilized to confront the Radical Right and Christian coalitions.

By the time I moved to San Antonio, the Culture Wars against the arts of the late ’80s and early ’90s had cooled, and social conservatives and Christians had a new cause in charter schools and vouchers. I thought I escaped my activist days by relocating to a city I characterized as a harbinger of progressive ethics and aesthetics despite (or because of) its military bases and teenage mothers. But then the unplanned event happened: Esperanza v. the City of San Antonio.

Just as VaN was coplaintiff on this local lawsuit, NAAO was co-plaintiff on the Finley suit, originally filed in 1990. “Karen Finley, et al” equalled the NEA 4: performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and John Fleck. On March 31, 1998, I was present during the Supreme Court of the United States oral arguments for the case. As Kastely wrote in her essay, “ … judges assumed that decisions regarding arts funding are inevitably subjective and therefore beyond rational review. This assumption was discredited by Finley v. NEA.”

“The Esperanza lawsuit was the first case filed after the Finley decision and it is the only case so far addressing issues of race and ethnicity in public arts funding,” wrote Kastely. “This is not because public arts funding does not impact artists and communities of color, but rather because prior to the Esperanza case, the law did not clearly recognize such claims and, perhaps, because lawyers have not pressed for recognition of such claims.”

But even though Esperanza won an important victory for all arts organizations, what is often forgotten are the permanent scars that these struggles left on entire communities and inviduals. VaN ultimately received its original $2,000 grant, but died nonetheless. Allocations to each City-funded San Antonio arts organization were cut 15-percent in 1997 as a slap on the wrist to an entire community. NAAO’s resources — human and financial — were drained by its lawsuit and it remains limited in its development. I ended up institutionalized partially as a result of the echoing trauma these cases caused. The courageous executive director of the Esperanza, Graciela Sanchez, suffered a debilitating case of shingles for several months. And this city no longer has Out At The Movies visionary Dennis Poplin, who has since coordinated community-level programs for Planned Parenthood in Washington, D.C. but who was subjected to death threats during Out At The Movies’ lifetime.

It’s been 10 years since 9/11/87, but some of us will never forget: “Todos Somos Esperanza.” •