La Peña is an Austin-based interdisciplinary arts organization that sponsors art exhibitions, concerts, poetry readings, film series, and other cultural events. The group places a particular emphasis on presenting, developing, and promoting Latino cultural expression. The organization took its name from South American local gatherings, called peñas, where people socialize, exchange ideas, and appreciate music, poetry, and visual art. Cynthia Pérez, Lidia Pérez, and María Elena Martínez founded La Peña in 1982. Inspired by a restaurant-based art organization in Berkeley, California, also called La Peña, the Pérez sisters ran a taco stand near the University of Texas to raise capital to open a restaurant. In October 1981 they opened Las Manitas. The first peña, an evening of poetry, art, and music, celebrated International Workers' Day on May 1, 1982. La Peña subsequently incorporated in 1983, received nonprofit, tax-exempt status in 1985, and in 1986 was granted status as an arts umbrella organization from the city of Austin.
Since its inception La Peña has coordinated an exhibition program that mounts a new show each month at its restaurant gallery. In addition to organizing solo exhibitions for established artists and new talents, La Peña presents thematic group exhibitions such as the annual show devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe, originally organized in conjunction with a local chapter of the Sociedades Guadalupanas. La Peña also hosts poetry readings, theatrical and musical performances, and an annual film series. Every summer since 1988 La Peña has sponsored Ramón's Ice House Music Series in honor of deceased community activist Raymond T. Hernández. The series consists of weekly concerts of conjunto and Latin-American music and culminates each year in a large pachanga featuring dance, music, art, and literature. La Peña frequently networks with other organizations to present such special events as "Raza Si!" (1989), an exhibition cosponsored by several groups affiliated with the University of Texas, which featured the work of leading Hispanic artists Carmen Lomas Garza, Santa Barraza, César Martínez, Luis Jiménez, and many others. La Peña functions take place at Las Manitas, the Dougherty Arts Center Gallery, and many other venues around Austin.
Through its status as an umbrella organization La Peña sponsors smaller groups that do not have nonprofit status, such as Austin Mural Organization (AMOR) and El Taller de Arte Público. In addition to providing funds for these groups, La Peña offers workshops on such issues as effective communication with the media and obtaining funding from the city. It also helps individual artists to install and publicize exhibitions and obtain funding. La Peña's monthly exhibitions offer emerging artists an invaluable opportunity to acquaint the public with their work. Marsha Gómez, Sam Coronado, José Treviño, Luis Guerr, and Lilliana Wilson are among the successful artists who have exhibited their work at La Peña. Since 1985 La Peña has published a bimonthly newsletter that features poetry, biographical sketches of artists, political essays, book reviews, original artwork, and a calendar of art events around the state.
A board of no more than twelve members guides La Peña, with assistance from an advisory board that fluctuates in size. Since 1990 La Peña has employed a full-time administrator, Cynthia M. Sánchez, who is assisted in her work by a core group of fifty volunteers. The organization's 1992 operating budget of $126,000 was funded in part by the city of Austin, the Texas Commission on the Arts, foundations and corporations, and revenue from admissions, memberships, and concession sales. The National Endowment for the Arts also provides funds for special projects.