UCLA Spotlight

Self-Help Graphics' Tomás Benitez (left), with Rita Gonzalez (Arts Project Coordinator), and Professor Chon Noriega (Director) of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. (spotlight.ucla.edu)
Self-Help Graphics' Tomás Benitez (left), with Rita Gonzalez (Arts Project Coordinator), and Professor Chon Noriega (Director) of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

Self-Help Graphics and UCLA Chicano Studies Center

  • By Sandy Siegel
  • Published Jan 1, 2004 8:00 AM

Two years ago, Self-Help Graphics & Art, a cultural institution in the heart of East L.A., had a close call: A fire in a new air conditioning system threatened to destroy 30 years of original artwork. The blaze was quickly contained, but it served as a wake-up call.

"It really drew attention to the fact that there was a need to safeguard the collections," says UCLA Professor Chon Noriega.

As director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC), Noriega had worked with Self-Help Graphics in various capacities over the last few years. Based on that relationship, Noriega obtained a grant from UCLA’s Center for Community Partnerships, which funds projects that strengthen partnerships between UCLA and Los Angeles community-based non-profit organizations.

The grant allows Noriega, working with a CSRC archivist and students from UCLA's Information Studies Department, to preserve and catalog the art center's on-site works, and initiate a UCLA student internship program for maintaining the collections. He'll also start keeping track of "who bought prints, where the prints have been exhibited and who's written about them, so Self-Help has a greater control over its own legacy. And that will help strengthen the organization," Noriega says.

The legacy of Self-Help Graphics is impressive. Founded as a collective of local artists in the early 1970s with the help of Sister Karen Boccalero, who studied art under Sister Corita Kent, Self-Help Graphics initially offered silkscreen workshops, following in the great Mexican tradition of printmaking. Over time, other community- and youth-based art programs were introduced. Eventually, the center reached out beyond the immediate area by organizing traveling exhibitions, as well as partnering with local museums and acting as a resource for Los Angeles schools and colleges.

The center's mainstay, though, has been the Printmaking Atelier Program, which invites artists to spend a week creating limited-edition silkscreen prints with a master printer. The result of these collaborations is the largest collection of Chicano art prints in the world. Now, thanks to the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, these important works — rich in history and cultural heritage — will be inventoried, catalogued in a computerized management system and protected in archival filing cabinets.

For that, Tomas Benitez, executive director of Self-Help Graphics, is extremely grateful. "We are a nonprofit center with a very limited budget," he admits. "It's not that we don't care, it's just that we haven't had the resources to address taking care of this. So it's now a matter of having a partner who has a professional decorum and can serve as a resource and really provide an academic affirmation that the work we do is important. It's a good partnership."

Noriega agrees. As part of the arrangement, UCLA will receive a suite of prints representing the best of three decades of work done at the art space. "That will increase our library holdings," says the CSRC director, "and our ability to allow students and researchers to come in and see this material."

That's right in line with Benitez's goals. "It wasn't so much a matter of how we can take care of our stuff," he says, "but how we can take care of our stuff so that it can be better used."