The Long and Winding Road

Flush with valuable Lincoln Road real estate and saddled with major debts, the South Florida Art Center ponders its options, its future, and its purpose

The possibility of SFAC's liquidating some or all of its property has brought with it nagging doubts about the very structure of the organization and its perceived identity in the fast-developing Lincoln Road neighborhood. Does it make sense for SFAC to maintain artists' studios in its buildings, where artists and artisans can sell their work to strolling shoppers? Or should the group relocate the studios to roomier facilities in a cheaper, lower-visibility part of town? Is the character of the art center appropriate for an organization whose future could increasingly depend on grants, which most often go to groups with innovative or community-based programs? Is the center's eclectic population of 76 traditional painters, artisans, commercial artists, weekend dilettantes, and experimental artists in sync with Miami's effort to make itself into a cosmopolitan capital of contemporary art? Should the studios be available only on a temporary, merit basis to emerging artists in need of financial aid? And should putting on exhibitions take precedence on the art center's agenda over renting studio space as a way of attracting additional funding while better serving the greater community?

A fifteen-member planning committee -- organized by Gilbert and composed of several Miami-based artists, arts administrators, a real estate developer, a banker, a member of the center's board, and two artists representing those with studios at the art center -- is now studying issues such as these in a series of nine weekly meetings that began November 9. This committee will make recommendations to SFAC's board as to how the art center can best accomplish its multiple goals of making studio space available to artists, conducting innovative programming, and providing art-related community services.

The meetings represent Gilbert's effort to effect change while unraveling an administrative tangle that one former resident artist likened to life at Fawlty Towers, the rundown hotel that served as the setting for chaotic misadventures in the popular Seventies British sitcom of the same name.

"This is about making choices and reaffirming certain choices that we've already made," explains Tim O. Walker, an artist and furniture designer with a showroom on Lincoln Road who is acting as a pro bono consultant in the art center's self-examination process. Walker was similarly involved with arts groups in Durham, North Carolina, where he lived before coming to Miami four years ago. "Once in a while every organization has to look at itself and say, 'Why are we here?'"

The art center's identity crisis can be seen as just one more sign of an era in which government funding for the arts is dwindling, with many organizations re-evaluating their structure and purpose. "This is not an unusual challenge. Every organization is losing public support now, and we've got to find innovative ways to face that," says Rem Cabrera of the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council, which administers grants to arts organizations in the county and has awarded almost $400,000 to SFAC over the years, primarily for capital development. "It's just a case of making that proverbial lemon into lemonade."

In New York City, in Los Angeles, in Miami Beach, the artist has long served as a catalyst for urban renewal. Artists stake out a decrepit area. They move into cheap housing and slowly renovate buildings. Galleries follow. Then gallery-goers. Then merchants. Then new, wealthier residents. Rents go up. Artists move out, going on to reclaim a new neighborhood. The process begins again. In many ways, the art center's current dilemma follows this typical pattern of gentrification.

Coral Gables potter Ellie Schneiderman and a group of Dade artists formulated the idea for the South Florida Art Center in 1984. A New York City native, Schneiderman, 56 years old, already had earned a degree in research psychology when she moved to Miami in 1960. Once here, however, she decided to pursue a degree in art at the University of Miami, where her husband had been hired to teach in the psychology department. After she graduated from UM, Schneiderman starting making pottery in her garage, but she missed the camaraderie she had found on campus. At first she thought about forming a cooperative gallery and began holding weekly meetings with about a dozen area artists in her home. Out of those get-togethers came the notion of starting some kind of artists' colony.

"I decided Miami really needed something," Schneiderman recalls, sitting on a white couch in the living room of her airy Coral Gables house, which she has decorated with her own hand-thrown pottery, sculptures from Africa and Mexico, and works by art center artists.

She researched nonprofit organizations and visited several alternative exhibition spaces and artists' colonies around the nation, ultimately modeling her plan for a local group on Alexandria, Virginia's Torpedo Factory, a suburban Washington, D.C., factory building converted into artisans' workshops and galleries that, to this day, caters to that area's tourist trade. Schneiderman managed to recruit 125 artists who said they would be interested in having a studio at some manner of art center. By late 1984 she had collected $100 from each of them, and she started looking for real estate.

"I really liked South Beach," Schneiderman remembers. "There was nothing there. I mean, Sammy Davis, Jr., at the Fontainebleau was considered art."

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