After my last column on the Mexican Heritage Plaza (MHP) a few months ago, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had missed something and things didn’t add up to some of the conclusions I reached at the time. I spent what time I could spare over the summer searching and researching the matter over the Internet and my hunches were confirmed by what I found.
First of all, what I got wrong was my conviction that the day-to-day management of the MHP by the CEO and staff of the Mexican Heritage Corporation was a large part of the problem. This turns out not to be the case and I apologize for saying so. In fact, the truth is that the current management is very capable, a fact that is supported by the documentary evidence that I have studied (all links below). In studying the public materials available on the MHP website, particularly three years of financial statements and a very illuminating letter written by CEO Marcela Davison Avilés to City Manager Les White last year that contains an in-depth analysis of the situation at the MHP, it is quite obvious that the current CEO who arrived in 2004 inherited a situation that was already a terrible mess. A report of the audit of the MHP carried out by the city auditor’s office earlier this year confirms this conclusion.
Part of the problem can still be attributed to the MHP board that was in place from the opening of the MHP in 1999 until recently that consisted largely of community and political insiders (including, until she resigned, Santa Clara County Supervisor Blanca Alvarado). This board has now largely been replaced with a better mix of community arts activists drawn from the larger Bay Area with a wider field of connections inside and outside the city. The new board bodes well for the future and should improve the financial well-being of the MHP and reassure the city council that the management structure of the facility now in place is a sound one that can be depended on in the future.
On of the biggest problems at the MHP—gleaned from their financials, Avilés’s letter to Les White and her op-eds in the Mercury News, and the city auditor’s report—has been that the management has been saddled with and seriously constrained by a poorly considered contract with the city from 1999 that placed three resident arts groups in control of theater space and programming at the facility at a hugely discounted rate. The three groups—Los Lupeños, San Jose Multicultural Arts Guild and Teatro Visión—were handed control of the facility’s theaters between the most lucrative seasonal arts-calendar months of October through May. And, mysteriously, even though these three groups have used the theaters for only a very few weeks each year, they have effectively blocked the MHP management from programming other groups and performances in their own facility and thereby using it to generate much-needed income. In fact, since 1999, the evidence would suggest that the hegemony of the resident groups has cost the MHP as much as $3 million in lost revenue.
Of these three groups, Los Lupeños has been integrated into the MHP structure, but the other two are still given office space and control of the theaters for very little cost to them but at a huge cost to the MHP who are struggling to pay for the infrastructure. Of these, by far the largest and most powerful entity is Teatro Visión (TV). Without question, Teatro Visión certainly has artistic integrity and makes a valuable contribution to the artistic life of San Jose. That is not the issue. They receive an operational grant from the city of more than $50,000 per year as well as considerably more than $100,000 of indirect annual subsidy via their sweetheart deal at the MHP. Shouldn’t Teatro Visión pay their fair share of the bills at the MHP that are a direct result of their effective control of the facility?
Naturally, I have wondered how it was that Teatro Visión was selected to get such favorable treatment at the MHP. I was taken aback when I took a look at the Teatro Visión management on their website and discovered that they are very well connected politically. Two of the three top directors are a daughter-in-law and a son-in-law of Supervisor Blanca Alvarado. TV Artistic Director Elisa Alvarado is married to Jaime Alvarado, Executive Director of the Mayfair Improvement Initiative, and TV Operations Director Jess Morales is the husband of Teresa Alvarado, Executive Director of the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley. The third, TV Executive Director Raul Lozano, is also the Chairman of the Board of the Mayfair Improvement Initiative.
Is it right that the immediate family of Blanca Alvarado—a sitting county supervisor and, until recently, a MHP board member—and their associate should have so much political and financial power and influence over the MHP, an arts institution owned and funded by the city’s taxpayers? Is it right that a theater group controlled by the Alvarado family and their associate should have been accorded and continue to receive favorable treatment at the MHP per the 1999 contract?
I agree that a large part of the solution to the problems of the MHP lies in ending control of the facility by Teatro Visión and the San Jose Multicultural Arts Guild. If they remain at the MHP, then favorable treatment should end and they should pay the going rate for rent and theater space for their performances and rehearsals, which they must be made to compete for on an open basis. The MHP management should have full control of the theaters and complete power to program the facility as they see fit. This will go a long way to improving the financial stability of the MHP, lessening their dependence on the city’s taxpayers to keep the lights on.
The two consultants selected by the city council to advise them on this matter are currently conducting interviews and focus groups in advance of making a determination as to what they will advise should be done. They have certainly reviewed the documents and information that I have listed here and will take them into consideration in their final analysis. If they do their job correctly, we will understand much more about the MHP’s past and how we got to where we are today by reading their report. The future of this valuable arts and cultural institution and justification for the public’s huge investment in the MHP depends on their findings and what the council does in light of their report.
Mexican Heritage Plaza financial statements and Marcela Avilés’s letter to Les White can be downloaded here:
City auditor’s report on the MHP can be downloaded here:
Teatro Visión management:
Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley: