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 basis for which I was hired was that up to then the organization had focused on developing the [studio] spaces and serving the resident artists," Jones recalls over lunch at a quiet restaurant on lower Ocean Drive, far removed from the clamor of construction crews on Lincoln Road. "And that now with the changing nature of the Road and with a growing organization, they would have to raise outside funds. And if they wanted to raise outside funds, the only way to do that was to really serve the changing nature of South Beach, to serve two other audiences, in terms of programs, exhibitions, and education Athe broader arts community and artists who were not residents of the center."

To accomplish these goals, Jones hired Jenni Person, who had previously worked at the Loft Theater in Tampa, as SFAC program director. Person and artist Roly Chang came up with the idea for Ground Level, an alternative space first located in the 924 building, where Person began organizing poetry slams and other performance events. Meanwhile, Jones sought outside funding and implemented a curated exhibition program that included work by nonresident artists.

At an open SFAC meeting in May 1994, Jones, board members, resident artists, and members of the community met to discuss many of the same issues now on the agenda of the recently formed planning committee. Much of the meeting's transcript contains contentious dialogue: While Person advocates "placement of the organization in the field" through marketing, artist George McClements tersely responds with the comment that artists want to be in their studios selling. Cheezem talks about movie theater negotiations, while ClaySpace director Bonnie Berman cautions against selling the buildings and expresses her suspicions about the city's interests. The only thing all parties seemed to agree on was that they would have to work on better communication.

Among the biggest concerns of SFAC's administration during Jones's two-and-a-half year tenure was the quality of the artwork being produced at the center. Plans for periodically evaluating the output of each artist -- or perhaps limiting the amount of time each could remain in a studio -- went around the table at several board meetings. Jones questioned the propriety of allowing artisans and commercial artists who set up their studios as showrooms to remain in the subsidized spaces.

"Pat had a very elitist attitude," contends artist Margarita Cortes. "She didn't care about any of us. We felt there were schemes to get rid of a certain kind of artist and get better artists in there. That's like artist cleansing."

Jones waves this off as nonsense. "We were trying to get good artists in there," she allows. "If you want to consider that elitist, you can. But I think we were saying we are not there only to serve the resident artists; we are trying to serve the general community and the community of artists in South Florida. I think the problem here is trying to change things in midstream. It creates a broken population that feels threatened because they don't want to lose what is now very valuable real estate."

The former director managed to increase the scope of SFAC's programming, bring in some more experimental artists, and develop the Art Adventures program for Dade County schoolchildren (directed by artist Charo Oquet, the program brings inner-city kids to the art center for workshops with resident artists). But by all accounts, including her own, Jones had trouble communicating with the artists and lacked the skills to manage several properties successfully while simultaneously addressing art issues. After several bouts with the board over the center's priorities, she resigned last February.

."I think there was a lot of animosity on the part of some of the artists," says the 50-year-old Jones, who now serves as a consultant for the Miami City Ballet and other area arts organizations. "That's the trouble with Lincoln Road and South Beach A people have too much time to gossip. I still have good friends who are artists there, but there were a lot who saw me as a threat A I wanted to make change. I was getting very frustrated with both trying to educate the artists and the board.

"Many of the older, long-term artists were suspicious of my motives, and therefore I probably couldn't get the kind of changes implemented that were necessary," she adds. "Somebody new would have to come in and take it to the next step."

Jane Gilbert approaches the Van Dyke Cafe for breakfast, a tall slim woman dressed casually, her unpretentious attire downplaying the confident swing of her Seven Sisters stride. Raised in WASPy Darien, Connecticut, Gilbert studied environmental science at Barnard College, then went on to Harvard for a master's degree in public administration.

Having already worked as an environmental management consultant, made videos in Central American rain forests, and organized after-school programs for urban youth in Boston, Gilbert was consulting for several development programs in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut, one of the nation's poorest neighborhoods, when she came to Miami on vacation last year. She stopped into the South Florida Art Center to pick up information for one of her Bridgeport projects -- developing artists' studios in a derelict downtown area. Gilbert established an immediate rapport with Jenni Person, who referred her to Jan Cheezem and other members of the board. Before Gilbert knew it, Cheezem had offered her the open director's position. She accepted. (Person has since left the center and taken a development job at the Florida Philharmonic.)

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