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

First she checked out Ocean Drive, which was then lined with abandoned hotels, but decided that parking there would be too limited. Then Bruce Singer, who now heads the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, took her to Lincoln Road, which since its golden period as "the Fifth Avenue of the South" in the 1930s had deteriorated into a depressing row of low-rent shops and empty storefronts. The mall was one-quarter vacant.

"Everyone thought Lincoln Road was ugly," Schneiderman laughs. "I guess I came from Greenwich Village so I had a different perspective. I saw it had that broad promenade where artists could go back and forth and talk to each other and hang out. Everyone thought I was nuts, and I am. I'm still an idealist and a dreamer. I didn't really think I could pull it off. I was not a nonprofit person -- the only organization I'd ever belonged to was the PTA."

In October 1984, Schneiderman went before the Miami Beach City Commission with her plan to establish an artists' collective on Lincoln Road. The commission okayed her proposal and awarded her $62,000 in CDBG seed money, with which she rented 21 derelict storefronts from five landlords at a rate of three to five dollars per square foot. Merchants were paying six to ten dollars per square foot at the time. Desperate landlords happily embraced Schneiderman's scheme.

The South Florida Art Center opened on Sunday, March 10, 1985, with sidewalk painting demonstrations and then-Miami Beach mayor Malcolm Fromberg cutting a paper mural hung over the facade of 942 Lincoln Rd. (now occupied by West End bar), where the art center established a cooperative gallery. About 60 artists immediately occupied studios; most of them commuted to South Beach from other parts of Miami.

"Artists hope the three-block colony on the west end of the mall eventually will attract sidewalk cafes, nighttime entertainment -- and people," read an article published in the Miami Herald the day of the opening. "The city is gushing over its good fortune. An arts district and tourist attraction has just fallen in its lap."

The organization's rather broad mission statement, written by Schneiderman, who took the title of executive director, was to "provide permanent, affordable space in the Lincoln Road Arts District area of Miami Beach for outstanding emerging, mid-career, and established visual artists in an environment which fosters individual artistic development, experimentation, and dialogue among artists and ongoing interaction with the general public."

The art center began offering classes conducted by resident artists, and in 1987 Miami-Dade Community College launched a satellite school there, with classes that included performance art, hat decoration, and tai chi. But the school's SFAC-based program was abolished after only nine months. According to Marilyn Gottlieb-Roberts, the MDCC art professor who coordinated the classes, renting the location from the art center was too expensive.

In 1988 Schneiderman started buying property with CDBG grant money. First was the building at 800 Lincoln Rd., at the corner of Meridian, the former home of Burdines department store; it was gutted and divided into small partitioned studios. Carlos Alves laid a mosaic floor, and another artist, Marina Fernandez, added stained glass accents to the stairway railings. The building, bought in 1988, cost $700,000. The purchase price of the art center's third property in the 924 building was $430,000. Outstanding mortgages held by SunTrust and a private owner were refinanced earlier this year.

"The plan was to purchase threebuildings," Schneiderman explains. "The original proposal was that the art center would be studios, showrooms, and crafts rooms in the storefront spaces, but as the leases on those storefronts came up, arts-related businesses would move into the stores we left and we would move into our own buildings."

Articles in the national press hailed Schneiderman's Lincoln Road renaissance. "The Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach's historic Art Deco area has become Miami's art district," Horizon magazine raved in April 1988, going on to cite the SFAC's Sokolsky Center for fine Crafts and Sculpture (later replaced by Ground Level) as "an ever-evolving network of galleries, art-to-wear boutiques, and other art-related businesses."

Encouraged by Schneiderman's success, other arts organizations moved into the area. "The South Florida Art Center was the first visionary on Lincoln Road," contends the Cultural Affairs Council's Rem Cabrera. "After the SFAC came in, some other organizations [Miami City Ballet, New World Symphony] came in. They were really the linchpin for the revival of Lincoln Road."

Schneiderman, a maternal figure who one artist characterizes as "a benevolent dictator," had delineated a ten-year plan that would make the organization self-sufficient by the end of 1995. In part, it stated: "Central to the ten years Facilities Development Goal Plan is the desire of SFAC to become self-sustaining and less dependent upon grants and donations for survival as to ensure that the Center will avoid the historical Arts District pattern of commercial development outpricing the initial settlers."

But Schneiderman's plan, which she spelled out in scrupulous detail, depended on a million-dollar capital-fund-raising campaign. "It never happened," says new director Gilbert, who explains that with administrative turnovers after Schneiderman's departure as director in mid-1992, immediate concerns took precedence over long-term goals. Thus the present situation, in which the art center will likely look to its real estate resources to gain self-sufficiency. It is an alternative that some artists seem unwilling to accept.

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