Ellie Schneiderman surveys her sanctuary, which sprawls across the third floor of one of South Florida's most aberrantly designed malls and proclaims that "architecture is the mother of all art." In this scenario it should be added that paradox is the mother of all human endeavor.
The black-clad, black-haired artist and art advocate, who pioneered the South Florida Art Center (which played the key role in the revitalization of Lincoln Road Mall), didn't choose the onetime home of the Miami Youth Museum in the former Miracle Center for aesthetics. The building, now called Paseos Shopping and Entertainment, is near her art-packed, Addams Family-inspired Coral Gables house and is also the site of her gym and now next-door neighbor, Bally's.
After establishing the SFAC (now known as ArtCenter/South Florida) and making it rich by using grant money to buy several buildings on nascent Lincoln Road, Schneiderman left that cultural hub in mid-1992. She returned to her craft -- hand-thrown pottery that features fine textures and, in the pieces at her new space, jungle-cat inlays -- but soon got the itch to reclaim her mavenly role as a self-described benevolent dictator of a diverse and spirited artistic enclave. Just under a year ago she set up shop as Miami ArtWorks, Inc. (MAW) on the first floor of Paseos with six studios that also offered lessons and gallery sales.
"Things were going good downstairs," she remarks, "but the artists wanted more privacy." They also got more space: The unit is a two-story affair with dozens of rooms, nooks, crannies, and niches. Walking upstairs to where she plans to open a cafe for members, she offers a pleasantry to a man installing theatrical lighting from the high ceiling and stops by a backroom where a jeweler named Senufa Salley (one of twenty tenant artists) is tucked away, plying her craft.
From this perch one can see the entirety of Schneiderman's latest vision: the soon-to-be wood-and-metal sculpture shop (soundproof), the kiln room, the offices, the not-yet partitioned studios and galleries, all of it wrapped around a vast floor space already enlivened by pottery, statues, triptychs, oils, and acrylics ranging from wall-size to miniature. The striking original stuff decorating the space-in-progress bodes well for Schneiderman's multifaceted aspiration. "Malls are being so overbuilt," she says. "I'd like to make this a cultural destination. I'd like to see ballet and theater in this one. And here I want to host meetings for more nonprofit cultural groups. We've already had the Watercolor Society, the Wood Turners Guild, and the Enamel Guild, and I want more of that. It's an evolving space. I don't plan to advertise for at least three months because who knows how it's all going to come together?"
And there's the paradox: Already the media is sniffing around, eager to messenger the New Thing in Miami's art scene. "Yeah," Schneiderman says, "but it's been the Wall Street Journal, the South Florida Business Journal ... not arts writers. We have to work with the private sector. When I was at SFAC there were, what, 120 nonprofits in Miami? Now there are about 750, so the money's tight. Artists struggle to pay rent."
As the new ArtWorks evolves, Schneiderman plans to offer part-time jobs to her resident artists to help subsidize their more vital pursuits. "The priority is the artists," she says, "teaching, working, selling."
Monthly art parties for members (it costs fifteen dollars per year to join, and that includes a cool black T-shirt) are one way Schneiderman hopes to involve the public, the people for whom art is created, in ArtWorks. "That's one thing about malls," she adds. "It's a way to reach the not-so-elite. To reach a broader audience." Art not for poseurs and pseudo-intellectuals, but for everyone. Pretty paradoxical.