By Chris Lane
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When performance artist Xavier Herrera and well-known spray-paint artist Skeez 181 rented studio space at Commerce Street Artists' Warehouse in 2004, the building, considered a home for the experimental and alternative, seemed like a good fit for them. Rent was cheap. The other tenants were artists making it happen. And the environment was "party-friendly." Despite CSAW's financial struggles as an organization, things went well. Calling themselves the "Mexican Arsenal," along with artist and studio mate Mario Olvera, they made art, organized art shows and were happy at CSAW. But a couple months ago, things went south.
Herrera had organized "Chiahui Ome," a festival of indigenous Aztec art and dance, and had invited the local community, largely Hispanic, to attend on Saturday, August 4. "We went through the proper channels," says Herrera, "we talked to the curators about it and got permission. I wanted to make it a family thing and not serve alcohol. We had musicians and poets and vendors, and legally, we were all clear."
But property manager Maggi Battalino and a Harris County constable shut down the event at 9 p.m., something that has never happened in the history of CSAW. Skeez confronted Battalino. "I came up to her and I was like, 'What's up with this, why did it have to be our art show that got shut down?'" says Skeez. "And she's like, 'Don't you mess with me, sir, don't you mess with me, mister,' you know, threatening me in front of the cops."
Herrera believes Battalino made it her mission to disrupt the event. According to Skeez, that meant utilizing CSAW funds to hire the constable. "I asked one officer if he got paid to come and he said YES!," Skeez posted on a local blog.
It turned out to be the last event Mexican Arsenal hosted at CSAW. "Lo and behold, about a week later, we have an eviction paper on our door," says Skeez, "and the reason we were evicted was because we were three days late on rent."
If you walk into CSAW today, you will see laminated signs stating, "This is a professional artists' workspace. Zero drug tolerance." One local artist commented, "A sign like that doesn't belong anywhere outside a halfway house."
Jack Massing, one half of The Art Guys, witnessed the birth of CSAW in 1985. Like others in the art community, he's concerned about the historic building's future. "It seems to me that the people in charge are less concerned with really trying to make great art and be cutting edge and have a career than they are about saving their place," he says. "The collective doesn't seem to be celebrated there as it was, when the collective was saying, 'All right, how are we going to make this place great for artiststo make work?' Now it's like, 'How are we going to make this place safe and quiet at night?'"
The atmosphere at CSAW has been in flux for some time. Roughly a year ago, Mexican Arsenal received complaints from a new artist in the building. The neighbor, who requested that his name not be printed here, objected to the studio's loud music and spray-paint fumes and filed formal complaints with Battalino. Soon, Battalino posted notices on tenants' doors proclaiming spray-paint verboten on CSAW premises.
Former tenant Lisa Marie Godfrey, who moved out recently, partly in response to Battalino's behavior, remembers the episode well. "One day I show up and there's notes on all the doors that say, 'No spray paint is to be used on CSAW property, period,' and I'm thinking, okay, that's really strange," she says. "And hey, isn't this a community? Since when does she just get to decide that we don't get to use spray paint anymore?"
The tenants fought the ban and won, but the struggle between manager and tenants over control of the building had begun.
Maggi Battalino became the property manager at CSAW during a time of crisis. About two years ago, CSAW had incurred severe debt. The former building owner had died, and the warehouse slipped into limbo while new ownership was determined. A handful of tenants didn't pay rent for up to a year, and the finances were being incompetently handled. "It was a CSAW-lounge-around-take-your-time sort of thing," says former tenant Daniel Adame. "So we had a meeting, and everybody started getting gung ho about taking action, and Maggi Battalino steps in like a savior. She's got the administrative wits to kind of shut everybody up," he says.
Battalino, a successful artist who designed the artwork for Metro Light Rail's Museum District stop, volunteered to spearhead the debt recovery, and CSAW as a collective granted her the power. In the opinion of some, that decision is what landed the building in its current pickle. "There are no more checks and balances," says Adame. "Once she started communicating with the owners, she had a monopoly on CSAW as far as finances and the rights to CSAW's existence — a social monopoly that she took advantage of." According to Adame, that included handpicking new tenants.
Traditionally, CSAW artists reviewed prospective tenants' work and voted whether to allow that applicant to rent studio space. Admission, as stated in CSAW's 1999 bylaws, "is open to any artist in the community." However, several current and former tenants believe that Battalino is filtering applications, allowing only those she deems appropriate to go before a tenant review. "It's like voting for president," says Herrera. "It's the candidates she chooses." Several of the tenants note that almost all of the recent tenants have master's degrees.