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Art Narc: Battalino over Commerce Street

So, um, what happened to the money, Maggi?…Image by Scott Gilbert, www.apeshot.com

It was Sunday, January 6, 2008, at 11:09 p.m. I was looking forward to sleeping hard that night. I’d been moving for the past four days, and I was tired. My Monday would begin at 6 a.m. with my two daughters, ages one and three. Then the phone rang. It was my friend Nick Meriwether calling from Commerce Street Artists’ Warehouse, where I’d had a studio for more than five years.

“Dale, you need to come to the warehouse,” he said. Maggi Battalino had called the police, who were headed to the building. He added, “I think it’s about the guys who are helping you move.”

Driving away from CSAW earlier that evening with a load in my truck that looked like something out of “Sanford and Son,” I’d thought I was leaving the building for the last time. I should have known there would be one more scene. There were a number of events leading up to that weekend when I, along with 12 other CSAW artists, moved out. We’d been forced from the building by former CSAW “President and Treasurer” Maggi Battalino.

This story has been told in a number of venues around Houston. Some of you have probably heard someone’s version. I had a studio there for over five years, was on the board at CSAW, attended most of the general tenant meetings, and many of my former neighbors in the building are also my friends.  From my point of view, Maggi Battalino made a series of moves that led to the breakdown of CSAW as the community had known it, among them:

  1. Evicting two CSAW artists, presumably for being two days late paying rent;
  2. Threatening to evict me for letting a friend work in my studio;
  3. Without consulting the board, decreeing her own series of rules, such as no smoking and no spray-painting, that undermined the culture of the building;
  4. Refusing to hand over the CSAW books when requested by board members;
  5. Hiring a lawyer with CSAW funds to fight against CSAW artists;
  6. Refusing to recognize that the CSAW board voted her out;
  7. Refusing to recognize the CSAW board itself, and demanding that artists pay rent to a new entity instead of CSAW;
  8. Giving “Notices to Vacate” to the 13 artists who paid their rent to the original entity;
  9. Writing numerous checks to “cash” amounting to over $26,000.  Some examples from July 31- August 31, 2007, according to records obtained from our bank:
  • July 31- $3,800
  • August 1- $500
  • August 2- $500
  • August 7- $1,000
  • August 13- $1,000
  • August 14- $3,200
  • August 17- $2,500
  • August 22- $1,800
  • August 31- $1,200

Her questionable actions were becoming commonplace. But because she refused to communicate with the tenants or board members, we had no knowledge of our financial situation, and specifically of all of these checks written to “cash,” until recently. It had seemed easier to humor her, biding our time and hoping that the building would change hands from an owner who communicated only with Maggi to an owner with an understanding of the building’s history, who would listen to the organization that leased it. There were people in the community who were working towards this end. But that didn’t happen, and our time ran out. Soon we were all looking for new workspaces.

What none of us understood was why Maggi was doing this. As a friend of mine put it, “The Houston art community is pretty small. What is she thinking?” No one knew. For months, Maggi had almost exclusively communicated with her fellow tenants through her attorney, Franklin Holcomb.

 


Commerce Street in happier days…Image courtesy of Sean Carroll’s…BS Houston ArtBlog

 

When I moved my studio into 2315 Commerce Street in November of 2002, it was owned by a woman I knew only as Mrs. Dumas and leased to CSAW, an organization of artists who ran the building much like a co-op. In general, CSAW has always been known for being a little out there. It’s been operating as artists’ studios for over 20 years, and stories from the early days are almost as crazy as this one. Because it was run by the artists and the artists decided who could get a studio there, we had a lot of freedom and could take a lot of chances. This didn’t always work out, and we can probably all remember at least one really crappy show that happened at CSAW – I remember plenty. But every now and then something really great would happen.  One good example of this was the art collective “I Love You Baby.” I was a part of that collective and every Wednesday we met for an evening of crazy antics in the name of Art. We worked hard to see that our process included having fun, and our studio became known as a place where artists from all over could get together, meet one another, exchange ideas and have a blast doing it. If you didn’t see Rodney Elliot, one of the members of ILYB, take his pants off or dump a bucket of paint on his head, then you left too early.

The bottom line with Commerce Street was that it was a great deal. Mrs. Dumas charged us very little rent for a lot of studio space, and we were allowed to do pretty much whatever we wanted. And we did.

But Mrs. Dumas was getting pretty old – like, over 100. Then one day she died. After that, her estate went into probate; because of this, the entity that had been cashing CSAW’s rent checks stopped cashing them. At the time, the structure of our organization included an accountant, to whom we paid a monthly fee, and an accounts liaison. The liaison was an artist in the building who reported to us any news from our accountant. Neither of these people was doing a very good job. During this period, several of the tenants got behind on their rent payments to CSAW, including the accounts liaison. The tenants who were paying rent continued to have their checks cashed and deposited into the CSAW account, but the checks written from CSAW to the building owner weren’t being cashed. Because the accountant and liaison weren’t paying attention, this continued for a while. Eventually, the family sorted out the estate, and one day several family members came to the building, I guess to check out what they had inherited. Maggi was there and was able to determine from family members that they had a bunch of our checks that they were about to cash. They wanted to make sure that was going to be okay.

Well, guess what? It wasn’t. We found ourselves around $10,000 in the hole. Maggi became our contact with the family. This was happening in the early months of 2006. We had a meeting in March and agreed to increase our individual studio rents in order to pay back our debt by the first of the year. It was at this meeting that Maggi was given the title “Adjunct President and Treasurer.” We also agreed that this position was temporary. We were supposed to reassess the situation when the debt was paid. It was believed at the time that our five-year lease with the owners was to expire at the end of 2006, but that there was a clause in the lease that authorized us to renew it for another five years if we were in good standing. So the idea was, be in good standing at the end of 2006. I’m not sure what happened to all that.

One day, “No Smoking” signs started going up in the hallways. Then a memorandum went around that said no spray paint in the building. This is in a building that had been notorious for hosting all kinds of crazy stuff. No spray paint? Wasn’t it at CSAW that Jack Massing emptied an entire can of spray paint on a single spot on the gallery wall during an opening? What do you think that smelled like? At the time, we all just kind of scratched our heads, called a meeting, took a vote and undid the messed-up things Maggi was doing. It was all just kind of laughable.

That changed when she hired a lawyer and had an eviction notice put on the door of tenants Skeez and Xavier from studio D, presumably for being two days late on rent. But the artists in the building didn’t think it was about that at all. For starters, Skeez and Xavier liked to use spray paint.

For Maggi, this move was a big step. She went to court with the family’s blessing and won. After that, a lot of tenants were afraid that if you crossed her, she’d find reason to evict you.

And she tried. This past summer, I opened my studio to a friend, Michael Andrews, so that he could work on a big project he had going. He’d just come home after getting his MFA and landed a large commission that required a big space for a short time. I talked with the artists on either side of me about him and his project, and they assured me he was no bother. Then one day, I got a call from Michael. Maggi had just knocked on the door,and when he opened it she wouldn’t let him say a word.

“This is Dale’s studio and you need to leave,” she said and turned to walk away.

“Ma’am?” was all he was able to get out.

“If I have to come back, I won’t be alone,” she replied. I drove straight to the building. Michael had already left, so I went straight to Maggi’s door. I knocked, and when she opened it, she said, “I want him out of the building!”

In what would become a pattern, I received a letter from attorney Holcomb shortly thereafter. It advised me that my “illegal subletting” of my studio was in violation of my lease, and that if Michael wasn’t out of my studio I would face eviction. He cleared out his things and left.


Around this time, the CSAW board started asking Maggi to see the books. She refused. A general meeting was held on November 25, 2007, and new officers were elected.

The next morning, a Monday, our new president, vice president and treasurer all went to our bank to obtain records and have Maggi removed from the account. They found that Maggi had gotten there first that morning and written a check to “cash” in the amount of $3,800. We soon discovered that this wasn’t her first big check written to cash. In fact, she had written one the previous Friday for $3,000 and many others, stretching back months.

Copy of the CSAW account check written to cash by Maggi Battalino the day AFTER she was voted out as President and Treasurer

A few days later, another letter from attorney Franklin Holcomb arrived. It informed us that the ousting of Maggi had “no legal effect whatsoever,” that CSAW the organization was defunct due to nonpayment of taxes, that “the family whose members own the building have no contractual relationship with the defunct corporation,” that they’d appointed Maggi their agent to collect rent and that heretofore we were to pay rent not to CSAW but to Commerce Street Artists Management Fund, LLC.  This is the same Franklin Holcomb who had accepted as payment CSAW checks amounting to over $1600.

With what we’d learned at the bank and a letter telling us to change who we gave our money to, it had become clear, we thought, that she planned to push us all out. E-mails were flying among the tenants; some, not wanting to lose their studios, seemed to be considering writing a check to Maggi’s new baby: CSAMF.  I had never been very proactive around CSAW. But I’d been there a while, and I felt like I knew the people there and they knew me. On November 28, in response to the e-mail chatter, I wrote to the group:

I think we should continue on the course decided on at our meeting. Maggi is using correspondence from her lawyer as a means to intimidate us. We might lose in court and we might lose our studios, but if we all fight and have to leave the building at least we go with a little dignity. Also, if we go as a group, the impact on Maggi and those who remain will be greater. People will be talking about this for a while after the chips fall. Even if we do lose in court, our peers in the community will be judging the actions of everyone involved. The community will know what Maggi has done, as well as what you and I did, or didn’t do, to stop her. I want people to know that I tried to do something in favor of CSAW. I would expect that’s true for most of you.I interviewed for a studio at CSAW in October of 2002. I was very excited when I learned that I had been voted in. I have seen a lot of great things come out of this building. I’ve also seen some low times. But I have never seen anyone set out so purposefully to disrupt and/or destroy the community that exists here. What is worse is that this is happening at a time when the quality of the people here is so high (higher by far than I’ve ever seen). I struggle to imagine what has motivated Maggi to attack this group of tenants, and all I can determine is that we questioned her when she departed from the procedures set forth in our bylaws. It was this move that preceded a chain of events that has brought us here. Consider this when you decide who to give your money to and where you want to make your art. I like it here, but there are other places I can make my work in this town.

-Dale

In December, 13 CSAW artists wrote their rent checks to CSAW, not CSAMF. Those 13 artists received “Notices to Vacate” from attorney Holcomb shortly thereafter. The people who paid CSAMF are still in the building.

Moving out…Image courtesy of Sean Carroll’s…BS Houston ArtBlog

Now that we’re all out of the building, it’s much easier to talk about the kind of absurd drama that played out there. Imagine 13 artists, frantic to find new studios, rushing to pack up all their crap, in a building that had experienced a recent 180-degree political turn from what these artists agreed to when they joined CSAW. Some managed to see the humor despite the situation. I can still see Nick walking into my studio and referring to the mound of stuff being discarded in the performance area.

“Hey,” he said, “have you seen my new show back in the big space? It’s called ‘Shit Even Artists Don’t Want.’” Thanks, Nick.

A group of CSAW artists have decided to stick together and maintain an organization with a structure similar to that set forth in the original CSAW bylaws. They’ve already found a new building, and I hope they do well there. I ended up finding space in a nearby warehouse that’s hosting a collaboration between artists and architects. The guys who run the space busted ass to help me move, and that Sunday night, when I was completely spent and felt I could leave the rest to them, I gave them the keys and asked if they could finish up without me. We were close to being done, and they assured me it wouldn’t be a problem. These guys were doing me a huge favor. It was the presence of this group of guys that apparently worried Maggi so much that she felt like she needed to call the police to come to the building.

On the final day of moving out of a studio I’d worked in for over five years, in the final hour of that day, I had to stand on the steps of CSAW and answer to a police officer that Maggi Battalino called. I have no idea what she told him, but I’m pretty sure he was on her side when he approached me. I like to think that before he walked away though, he suspected that this woman had called him at eleven on a Sunday night simply to harass a guy who was trying his best to get out of the building.

That night, it wasn’t clear to everyone what time we needed to be out of our studios. Some were under the impression that our 30 days was up that Sunday, the 6th. We had received a letter just days before from Holcomb stating that we were to be out by the 7th. Some took this to mean we had Monday to move. To make clear exactly when we needed to be out, as Maggi walked past me to leave, I attempted to talk to her.

“Maggi?” I said. She walked right past me without even looking up. I left that night, and I haven’t been back.

________________

Dale Stewart is an artist living in Houston. 

 

 

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4 Responses

  1. Jacklit

    Wow! I hope that Maggie has an honest reason for all those checks written to “cash”. If she does not we (meaning this entire art community) have an honest reason to evict her from the city, better yet, the State. I hope the community holds interest in this situation, I surely do. CSAW is a very important part of our collective artscape.

  2. deborito

    This story is so depresseing to me. I was one of the original five founders of CSAW (along with Rick Lowe, Wes Hicks, Kevin Cunningham, and Robert Campbell). I was the manager there for the first seven years, and it was my position always to prevent arbitrary rules from being passed.

    And incredibly, someone proposed a “bad” rule at almost every single group meeting we ever had!!

    We were not without our problems, including artists who took advantage of our then-lenient rent rules, but my position – – to block stupid rules whenever they were proposed at our group meetings – – helped keep the place free so artists could express themselves in whatever way wanted.

    The lack of rules did cause some conflicts, but we were always able to work out the disagreements… most of them, anyway!

    Back then, the “books” were always public, everyone knew what everyone else paid in rent, and yes — I know it’s hard to believe — but sometimes you could hear the music playing late into the night on the weekend! (“the HORROR!!!”)

    But it was the atmosphere that we created that attracted the artists, and back in the early years, many now-famous Houston artists had studios at CSAW. It was an amazing place to work. Most studios had no doors, much less locks, and none of the external doors at CSAW were ever locked. You could drop by any night and you’d never know what kind of cool scene you’d find.

    Nor could you predict what kind of amazing art your neighbor was making while you were away…. We became motivated by each other’s work, and every artist in residence at that time (1985-1992) found their work evolve in exciting ways from just being at CSAW.

    It just breaks my heart to read that one person has done what should never have been done: using personal rules to exercise control simply for the sake of “feeling the power.”

    This is not a sign of good leadership. Good leaders never have to rule as “dictators.”
    If a “rule” is meant to be in place, then the group should all agree — in a group vote — that the rule is good.

    It sounds like the “group meetings’ of the old days ended many years ago at CSAW.

    I wish you luck Dale, and hope that you remember that CSAW was not always the “artistic mausoleum” that is now. Hopefully you were there during one of the many “golden” periods CSAW has enjoyed in its long history.

    I’ve heard that CSAW has enjoyed several periods of real creativity there since I left – but sadly, I think it’s far to say, “the ax has fallen.”

    The only thing that can save CSAW is a return to its roots: the artists must once again seize control and find someone who can provide the insightful yet restrained leadership that CSAW needs.

    I’ve heard that the clock is ticking for CSAW — with the building slated for sale in the next year — so this fiasco could not have come at a worse time.

    It’s truly sad, for if every artists who ever worked at CSAW banded together and contributed just one piece of art to a well-publicized art auction “to save CSAW”, I bet the results could be stunning.

    Deborah Moore
    NYC

  3. tmerrick

    This version of the story I have heard from multiple other artists and one which had not been a long time at CSAW but also was shocked at the events. The story in the press for me didn’t cover the artist’s viewpoint or history of the building. I wish you would get this in their hands and ask for fair air time. I also remember something about another collective seeking non-profit that Maggie was involved with in one of the Press articles and I can’t help but wonder if what took place isn’t tied to this other thing. I just didn’t really understand the description because it was vague in the article. But it was the only motivation I could decipher for her actions. On a better note..getting away from that bad Karma can only be a good thing.

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