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.
It seemed like tenants were ready to confront Battalino and her policies at a Sunday, September 9, tenant meeting, but Battalino, who had scheduled the meeting, canceled it only 15 minutes before it was set to start. She rationalized the cancellation, claiming that most of the meeting's agenda had been addressed through e-mails. Regardless, tenants held their own meeting without her.
The situation has left not a few artists disgruntled. For example, Godfrey is considering boycotting the space altogether. "Me and some friends are supposed to have a show there in December, and we're pretty much considering not doing the show. Why should we support that place? Why should we bring people there, especially with the possibility of HPD showing up at 9 p.m. and kicking everybody out? I feel like I got out in the nick of time. If I were still there I would leave," she says.
Dale Stewart, a longtime CSAW tenant and a member of the art collective I Love You Baby, believes the eviction of Herrera, Skeez and Olvera was excessive. "I Love You Baby always turned in rent late; there was all kinds of leeway," he says, "There's no precedent for anything like what happened to those guys."
When a tenant is late on rent, according to CSAW bylaws, "a $25 fine will be assessed on the tenant, which is payable by the fifth of the month following the month on which the tenant is notified of the assessment of the fine." The bylaws also state that CSAW tenants will determine whether a tenant is ultimately evicted from the property.
"We've actually been late before, including other artists here," says Skeez. "The routine was, we pay a late fee and that's that. That same day we got that eviction notice, I sent Maggi the money order for rent including our late fees. She rejected it. Sent it back. She just doesn't want us here."
The case went to court, and a judge ruled in favor of Battalino and the property owners, who had granted Battalino carte blanche authority to evict at her discretion. Herrera and Skeez moved out of the building during the first week of September. Olvera was also evicted. He has since moved to Colorado and was not reached for comment. Battalino was contacted for this article, and her only official statement is that the eviction was "due to late payment of rent."
Current tenant Teresa O'Connor attended the court hearing. "The judge didn't even look at the bylaws," says O'Connor, "[Battalino] has been given authority by the owners to do this. If we cause a lot of turmoil, the owners may just want to kick us all out because they don't want to deal with it. They don't want to deal with any of our internal problems; they just want their rent."
Current tenants want to resolve their issues in-house rather than involve the owners, who have been more than kind in allowing CSAW to get paid up and back on track. Many tenants were reluctant to weigh in on the controversy, afraid that doing so would invite Battalino's harassment as well as rankle the owners.
Mimi Quinn, who shares ownership of the CSAW building and other properties on Commerce Street with members of her family, says she supports Battalino "110 per cent." Quinn confirmed O'Connor's concerns about the tenuous relationship between tenants and owners. "It's a liability for the family, and we're not going to put up with it," she says. "Rather than deal with issues and have a problem, and this new mutiny that they've got going on down there, we will just shut the buildings down completely until we have them sold," she says.
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Which could happen sooner rather than later. As part of an initiative to install a permanent, multifaceted arts center on Commerce Street, the Commerce Street Arts Foundation is in talks with Quinn to buy the CSAW building. Clement Aldridge III, CSAF's executive director, is concerned about the controversy and hopes CSAW can talk it out. "I've been hearing a lot of rumblings," he says, "and we're trying to save the situation, the physical structure and the original driving spirit. To see all of this unrest that's going on, it's nothing too pleasing. I'm starting to hear about people leaving, and that's not good. As far as the foundation is concerned, we want CSAW like the original, the way it was in '88 and '89, when I got my first exposure to CSAW. Talk about diversity; talk about things happening."
Asked whether he would maintain Battalino in the role of CSAW property manager once CSAF owned the building, Aldridge wouldn't comment directly. "As far as organization is concerned," says Aldridge, "we're about to make an extremely large investment in the community; we don't have the luxury to count anybody out. Personally, I've never attended a meeting with CSAW artists; I have no idea whether [Battalino] will still be at CSAW once we purchase the building. It would be highly speculative of me to comment on that." Aldridge did confirm that Battalino sits on CSAF's advisory board.
Aldridge says that he wants CSAW to remain a collective. "I don't see how [CSAW] could exist and not be a collective; otherwise it's just another place for people to rent space. That would kill the spirit."