Everybody's a Critic

In Miami Beach, experts are enlisted to commission artworks for public spaces. Too bad city officials refuse to listen to them.

Deputy City Manager Sergio Rodriguez cuts a smart figure at Miami Beach City Commission meetings. A silver-haired architect who favors trim dark suits and speaks with a refined Cuban accent, he presents an elegant contrast to the flamboyant, bow-tied Mayor Seymour Gelber and the motley crew of commissioners with whom he shares the dais when he sits in for City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa. The deputy manager's panache has certainly not been lost on his boss. In fact, Garcia-Pedrosa has even asked Rodriguez to do double duty as an interior designer for city hall.

"The city manager said to me, 'Sergio, you're an architect, you can take a look at this and see how it's coming along,'" Rodriguez recalls. "That's how I started getting involved in the decorating of the city manager's office."

Rodriguez has a flair for recycling and a frugal spirit that would make Martha Stewart proud. For the city manager's conference room on the fourth floor of city hall, he framed some vintage pictures of Miami Beach and hung them alongside contemporary landscape photographs he'd found lying around. He gathered some paintings that had been given to city officials over the years and hung those in the offices. Then he added some recent gifts from ubiquitous local pop artist Romero Britto and other well-wishers.

"I think we have acquired good art from donations," Rodriguez proclaims, proudly characterizing the results of his decorating endeavor as "very subdued" and "not controversial."

Despite his talent for bargain-priced interior design, Rodriguez wasn't hired to spiff up public buildings. Ostensibly that's the job of the Miami Beach Art in Public Places Committee, a seven-member volunteer panel of arts professionals appointed by the city commission for their expertise and charged with recommending the purchase of artworks "of exceptional quality" for display on city property.

One artist whose work the committee deemed worthy is Rafael Salazar. Last June the committee asked the well-known local photographer to design a large photomontage for the city manager's conference room. "I was working on the piece, but I stopped," sighs Salazar, who had envisioned a four-by-ten-foot collage of images shot on Ocean Drive along one wall of the room. "It's taking a little bit too long."

Too long, he means, to get paid.
On March 10 the members of the Art in Public Places Committee sent a letter to the city manager, the mayor, and the commission. They too were complaining about money: specifically, $94,000 that by law should have been allotted to Art in Public Places from last year's construction of a new parking garage on Collins Avenue and Seventh Street, plus about $6000 that appeared to be left over from funds they had allocated to spruce up police headquarters on Washington Avenue. Though city officials had issued multiple assurances that the money had indeed been set aside, the committee members complained, their efforts to actually spend those dollars have been stymied. Since the city refused to release its grip on the purse strings, they wrote, they were ceasing to hold their monthly meetings.

"They're circumventing what the city set up," fumes committee co-chair Paula Harper, a professor of art history at the University of Miami. "In a way, I take it as a given that small cities are not going to be hospitable to giving money for art. I'm resigned to the fact that there's going to be a certain amount of opposition. But this is a blockade."

Adds former committee chairwoman Jane Goodman, who resigned in frustration last September: "We tried with memos and letters to get the city to give us the appropriate money. We tried to get them to tell us what was going on and to work with us. They were keeping us totally in the dark. If they want an Art in Public Places program, they should sit with the committee and work it out. If not, they should wipe it out."

The Miami Beach Art in Public Places program entered the city code in 1984, in accord with a countywide ordinance requiring that a minimum of 1.5 percent of the construction budget for any new public building be spent on art to be displayed in or around that building. The same goes for additions to existing public structures. It is up to the Metro-Dade Art in Public Places program to execute art projects in county buildings. But municipal construction projects are bound by the ordinance too. According to Vivian Donnell Rodriguez, director of the county program, there is no formal mechanism for enforcing the ordinance. Some cities, including the City of Miami, have requested assistance from the county program for their public art projects, while others have paid outside consultants to do the job. The City of Miami Beach, Rodriguez says, is unique in that it maintains its own program, with an appointed committee that submits plans to the city commission for final approval.

"The City of Miami Beach is one of the largest municipalities and it really has an ambitious capital program," Rodriguez comments. "There are really challenging opportunities in Miami Beach, and public art is right in line with the image the city has for itself now."

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