"If you interview the artists, especially from the English-speaking Caribbean and the nonpopular Latin-American countries, you will hear this vast cry of not being able to show their work," claims cultural crusader Rosie Gordon-Wallace of the local art scene. And it's a situation that's been going on for years, she says. That's why in 1998 she felt the need to remedy it by stepping into the fray and founding Diaspora Vibe Gallery at the Bakehouse Art Complex.
In the past four seasons, Gordon-Wallace has worked closely with nearly 50 emerging artists. From May to October, her Caribbean Crossroads program offers one or two a monthlong residency in the gallery to create art and work with underprivileged neighborhood kids. Each month culminates in a relaxed celebration dubbed Final Fridays, featuring a home-cooked Caribbean buffet dinner, jazz music by local band Mantra, open-mike poetry hosted by spoken-word dynamo Rashida Bartley, and an exhibition of the artists' work, of course. (Photographer Gregory Owens presents his travel images this Friday.)
Economically it's been a tough road. Gordon-Wallace, a former sales rep for drug company G.D. Searle, quit her job two years ago to devote herself solely to this project. At first financing largely came from Gordon-Wallace herself, plus kind family, friends, and volunteers. In the past few years, organizations such as Fifty Over Fifty and the Dade County Cultural Affairs Council have provided grants, and Union Planters Bank has thrown in some support too.
Less difficult a task is finding artists. Often they come to her. She puts the exhibitions together with the help of discerning friends like the Bass Museum's Wanda Texon. "When I see work that's real, it speaks to me," Gordon-Wallace notes. "And there's a lot of powerful work out there." So powerful that for the first time this past year Gordon-Wallace continued to throw shows on a low-key basis throughout the fall and winter, featuring more-established artists. Also she hasn't confined herself to Miami. For the third time, she's arranging a display for some of her artists in Paris. "It's such an awesome experience to be able to show there," she says. "The way the French treat art is almost indescribable."
What can be explained is the way many Miamians treat art: indifferently. That's one of the myriad reasons why Gordon-Wallace stays focused on her mission. "What I would like to see happen as a dream is for one of these artists' work to mature to the point that the community validates the work that they do and recognizes their substance," she explains. "The ultimate for any artist is to have a major show in a major museum. That's the pinnacle of validation." But sometimes the goals are more modest. "Once the artist can eat, can feed himself or herself from their chosen vocation, which is art, then that will be validation for me enough."