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 board] asks us over and over again what we want," says Jane Balavage-Harris, the center's director of artists' services. "It's as if they're waiting for a different answer A they're aware of what the original mission statement was. We bought the buildings as users so that we would be protected against what happens when a neighborhood is revitalized and the artists are booted out. I think there's a lot of resistance among the artists, and they may be archaic in their thinking, but there's a difference between revitalizing and reinventing. I think it's pretty successful as it is. What Ellie planned has worked very well. The suggestion that we can't afford to be on the Road any more and that now we have to go to some barbed-wire-enclosed compound in some rundown area to make art is reprehensible."

The SFAC's Lincoln Road neighbors generally support its desire to stay on the mall A with some reservations. "The South Florida Art Center has definitely been an anchor of the revitalization of Lincoln Road," asserts Lyle Stern, whose family's development group owns 730 Lincoln Rd. "Could there be better anchors now? Maybe. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be there A but they can do a better job of occupying the property." Stern suggests that the artists subscribe to a "good neighbor policy" by doing art demonstrations for the public: "If you're painting or throwing clay, why not do it in the middle of the road?"

Across from the art center's administrative building at 924 Lincoln, gallery owner Barbara Gillman recently adapted to the economic pressures she has been experiencing by renting out half her space to DISH, a housewares store. Gillman thinks that the art center should also change with the times. "They should be showing cutting-edge stuff," she notes. "To have a landscape in the window might help the artist, but it doesn't help the art center. Should they be getting public money for artists who are selling their things and being subsidized as galleries?"

Margarita Cortes shares a large space in the 810 building with her husband, George McClements; both are abstract painters. The couple has divided their room into two small studios and a gallery, where their work can be easily viewed by anyone entering the building. Cortes vehemently disagrees with Gillman. "Artists are always at the mercy of agents and galleries," she says. "Here's an opportunity to cut out the middleman. We've seen that artists can be managers, that they can sell their own work -- for that you're called commercial.

"I think because we own these buildings, it would be really stupid to go somewhere else. This is about being in a place where you don't have to explain that you're an artist, and knowing that your space is not going to be taken out from under you. This organization is only here because the artists hung around long enough. Why do they have to give it up?"

Inez Hollander, who gives watercolor classes in her studio in the 800 building, is also opposed to change. "Ideally, I would like it to stay exactly as it is," states Hollander, who has maintained a studio in the art center for seven years. "You can take any organization and turn it around and use it for something else. But that might not be what the art center was created for. The art center is necessary. Why else would the city have funded us in the first place? We were really responsible for the renovation of Lincoln Road, whether the merchants and the government recognize that at all."

But just as Hollander claims a sort of squatter's rights to her studio, others question the right of high-income artists such as her -- with residences on Fisher Island, Bay Harbor Islands, Key Biscayne, and in other tony areas -- to rent studio space at all.

"The idea was that the art center would provide subsidized space for artists, but there are more and more artists there with BMWs," complains one struggling artist who, unable to afford even art center rents, paints in her Miami Beach apartment. "Those people are complaining all the time. Because they want nicer and nicer spaces. They want showrooms."

"Where is it written that an artist has to work in a slum or a warehouse?" Hollander huffs. She explains that the center's higher-income artists have talked with Gilbert about initiating an emergency fund that would help other artists financially, enabling everyone to stay on the Road. And according to Gilbert, these wealthier artists also recently agreed to pay higher rents.

"I think we have a right to be here, because we're here, because this is ours," continues Hollander. "I believe in the art center. There are artists who really need it; there are people who live off it. Why am I going to stay here? Because it's mine."

But some members of the local art community who are not associated with the art center insist that the organization is ripe for change. Says one local artist who asked to remain anonymous, "The sidewalk art show mentality has been the albatross for that art center. It makes it really difficult to take it seriously."

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