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

Edouard Duval-Carrie, a Haitian artist who lives in Miami Beach, recently left his studio at the art center for a much bigger -- and cheaper -- working space in the design district off Biscayne Boulevard at NE 40th Street. "A lot of these artists use their studios as retail space, which for me is not propitious to an art organization," Duval-Carrie points out. "I think the property on Lincoln Road should be converted into an alternative exhibition space. Artists should concentrate on producing and not be in this sort of boutique situation. They've had a lot of support from the city and they're served their purpose and it was assumed it would stop when the street got back on its feet. [The Center] should keep as much space as they can, but they should go elsewhere to serve their purpose, which is to provide affordable space for artists' studios. They should maintain space on Lincoln Road for exhibition."

Gary Moore, an artist who currently is involved in developing an artists' cooperative in Overtown and who also serves on SFAC's fifteen-member planning committee, agrees with Duval-Carrie. "I always imagined that the South Florida Art Center would be an alternative space -- something funky and rough, and easy," he explains. "But when I got there it was real slick. It was all about the commodity aspect and real estate."

Carol Brown, an artist who works in North Miami and is on the exhibitions committee for SFAC's Ground Level gallery, also had different expectations: "It has the potential to be something really wonderful. But there's so much emphasis on real estate and financial discussions. I've been waiting to get around to the art."

That process has begun. At Ground Level during the month of November, Steve Bollman, an artist with a studio at SFAC; Alfredo Triff, a musician and professor of cultural criticism at MDCC's Wolfson Campus; and Gene Ray, who teaches philosophy at the Wolfson campus, organized what they termed the Black Box project, a cafe-society hangout that presented a variety of concerts, lectures, panel discussions, video screenings, and open artist critiques (all free of charge) designed to stir locals from their cultural lethargy.

"The intention is to think about the process, and not so much about the product," observes Bollman. "To provide an alternative to thinking about art as just commerce." Adds Ray, "This is a friendly, bridge-building experience that is not business as usual in Miami."

The successful monthlong series attracted audiences that ranged from a handful of people to as many as 200. Black Box represented a move in the right direction for Conrad Hamather. A fiber and installation artist who recently relocated to Miami from Chicago, Hamather works in one of the studios the art center rents above Lyon Fräres, the gourmet grocery located on the corner of Lincoln Road and Pennsylvania Avenue. "The South Florida Art Center should take the opportunity to make its mark in Miami and gain a national reputation," Hamather says. "They definitely need to break out and start becoming more cutting-edge, a little more hard-core. They need to hit the community on the head a little more."

Margarita Cortes, who has been a resident artist since 1988 when she and her husband moved here from Baltimore, pooh-poohs such notions. "The art center is a place for artists to make the art and sell it," she contends. "You can't legislate people to take risks in their work. Everyone works at their own pace. If we had only young, cutting-edge artists here, they'd be gone by now."

Counters Hamather: "A lot of people think this has turned into a sort of communist regime, that they're going to be burned out of their studios and chased down the road with sticks or something. There's a tension between artists who are new to the art center and those who have been here for a long time who see it as a sort of artists' utopia. Maybe they don't want to acknowledge the fact that it's not the way it used to be."

If Ellie Schneiderman was considered the art center's omnipresent fairy godmother, then Pat Jones was seen as its wicked stepmother. At least that was how many of the resident artists viewed Jones when she became SFAC executive director in October 1992 and began to shake up the status quo.

Schneiderman had bolted from the post earlier that year. In the seven years since she'd founded the center, she had gained 25 pounds and had developed a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. Schneiderman now says she was ready "to get back to her life." Gary Feinberg, an artist and the art center's property manager, ran the art center until a new director could be found.

Jones, who grew up in Miami, had served thirteen years as director of the Alliance for the Arts in New York City, a nonprofit service agency affiliated with that city's Department of Cultural Affairs. Jones was chosen to head up SFAC because of her extensive experience with arts organizations and what board president Jan Cheezem calls "an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary art." Cheezem stresses that it was the artists on the search committee who most strongly supported Jones's candidacy. Jones was brought in on the premise that the SFAC was ripe for change, and that she was the person to impose it.

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