Cultural Center migrating locally

| 27 Jul 2015 | 04:20

El Taller Latino Americano, the language school and cultural center that for two decades has been located on the Upper West Side, is moving in August to East Harlem. After searching for over a year for a new location, the center will open in September in the basement of Artspace P.S. 109, an affordable housing enclave for artists and their families.

The move follows many months of uncertainty after El Taller lost their home of 19 years on West 104th Street to a steep rent hike last summer. For the past year, El Taller has been running Spanish language classes out of St. Michael’s Church at 99th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

But that uncertainty plays into the immigrant narrative familiar to many who find their way to El Taller, said Bernardo Palombo, the organization’s founder and artistic director.

“For me, it’s going back to where I started in 1969,” said Palombo, who is originally from Argentina. “I’m an immigrant. But my first approach of connection to the Spanish-speaking world (in New York) was in El Barrio.”

El Taller (pronounced el tie-year), in addition to offering Spanish language classes, also functions as an art gallery, music venue and community center. For more than 35 years the organization has been located in a half-dozen different locations in several Manhattan neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side, Chelsea and the Upper West Side.

“In some ways it’s the history of gentrification,” said Palombo.

Artspace, based in Minnesota, is a 35-year-old nonprofit whose mission is to create, develop and maintain permanently affordable housing for artists and their families. According to vice president of asset management Bill Mague, the organization has 38 projects in 14 states, which each have, on average, 50 units of affordable housing and 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of arts related space.

Artspace P.S. 109 is a converted public school with 90 affordable apartments, for which the organization received over 53,000 applications from artists, according to Mague. Competition was also fierce for the arts-related space that the organization set aside in the basement of P.S. 109, which is located on 99th Street between Second Avenue and Third Avenue. Why did El Taller make the cut?

“From an anchor-tenant perspective, El Taller was one of the only organizations that presented a need to move, they wanted to remain geographically relevant, and they had a 30-year track record of activity in a space of comparable size,” said Mague.

Palombo said in addition to similar artistic visions, El Taller is an attractive tenant simply because they’re able to pay rent.

“A lot of organizations applied, but when they came to the interview they said they basically depend on grants,” said Palombo, who noted El Taller earns the vast majority of its funds from tuition fees for their language classes. “For the last two years we were on a list of many organizations waiting for the space. Then they called us and said we got it.”

That call concluded a months-long search for a new home fraught with uncertainty.

“There have been so many emotions at the same time, from being scared about losing our space, to fear about moving to a new community, but we couldn’t believe how good this is,” Palombo said. “I think it’s incredibly exciting for us. We’re going to celebrate 37 years this March, it was time for us for a change that way.”

But will El Taller’s established West Side community trek across the park to the new location?

Palombo said his organization’s artistic model is built on diversity, attracting musicians and artists from a wide array of locales both foreign and domestic. And while West Siders may not cross the park for language classes, Palombo is confident they will for art showings and concerts.

“Well, remember, Taller is an open space. It’s made by the programming. We have musicians that come in from everywhere, the painters are the same,” Palombo said. “I think that they will cross the tracks — the park — for some activities we’re going to have there.”

And El Taller will still maintain a footprint on the Upper West Side as they’re continuing to offer language classes out of St. Michael’s.

“We were very lucky because we kept functioning in St. Michael’s church,” Palombo said of El Taller’s itinerant year. “It was amazing for us, the perfect refuge.”

The new digs, however, are certainly an upgrade. The new home will feature a recording studio, performance and workshop space, and a 120-person capacity theater, among other amenities. El Taller will also benefit from Artspace’s built-in public relations team, who help spread the word about events and expand the profile of their artists via social media and their network of arts patrons and organizations.

“We run a very empowered model,” said Mague, “we’re always seeking strong, local partners.”

Palombo added that El Taller events will have a built-in potential audience of 90 artists and their families living right upstairs.

“For me, it’s really exciting,” he said.

But not everyone is thrilled with the move. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who attempted to negotiate with El Taller’s old landlord to keep them in the neighborhood, said she’s sad to see them leave the Upper West Side yet pleased the organization will survive.

“Losing El Taller is a loss for the West Side, because it was an art space, a gathering space, and a unique space,” said Brewer, who lives on the Upper West Side and represented the neighborhood for many years on the city council. “It’s a loss. It was our version of historic. It was part of our history. I am glad (Palombo) found a space and his talent and creativity and the people that follow him have a place to go. He curates amazing things in music and art.”

Brewer does plan on visiting El Taller at Artspace P.S. 109, and has no doubt that the organization’s audience will follow wherever Palombo leads.

“He has a big following, high quality,” she said. “I think it’s great for them to stay in Manhattan. It’s not just West Siders that went to El Taller, they came from all over. People came from all over to go to El Taller.”