By Chuck Strouse
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Here on South Beach, folks tend to view current affairs through a slightly warped prism. Did presidential hopeful John Kerry smooth away his visible worries via a Botox treatment? Does Kerry, as one Bush administration aide famously quipped, "look French"? Those are questions this city's body politic is well prepared to address. Plumbing deeper matters of state, however, gets a bit more complicated.
Domestic tension? That's when the hostess at Barton G is unable to squeeze in your last-minute dinner reservation. And a full-blown international crisis? That's when your Belgian nanny can't get a green card.
So when Beach arts figures accuse city Commissioner Matti Herrera Bower of being, in the words of local philanthropist Harvey Burstein, a "dictator" hellbent on ushering in "a banana republic where personal agendas rule and democracy is a distant idea" -- well, rolling one's eyes is not exactly an unwarranted response.
Bower's shocking grab for power? Her successful championing of three candidates for the city's Cultural Arts Council (CAC), the board responsible for doling out upward of $600,000 in grants to local arts organizations, from the Miami City Ballet to the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Although two of these three candidates (Roymi Membiela and Lydia Resnick) had not been through the CAC's review process, and a third (Liliam Lopez) was originally deemed to have a conflict of interest, all were duly voted onto the eleven-member CAC by a majority of the city commission on January 14.
One then wonders why a bureaucratic kerfuffle exploded into a major constitutional crisis, complete with caustic phone calls, accusatory faxes, and dueling e-mails from many of the area's most prominent arts world figures. "I think people want to go to war over this," offers Beth Boone, head of the nonprofit arts group and CAC grant recipient Miami Light Project, "because oftentimes Miami Beach doesn't act like a big city. It acts like a small town. Why do we have processes in a democratic system if they're ignored?"
It's certainly heartwarming to imagine all this energy being expended over the sullied integrity of Miami Beach's charter. Yet conversations with staffers at a range of local arts organizations, as well as former and current CAC members, reveal much of the true animus behind this dispute. Bower, these individuals fear, is about to bring ethnic politics to bear on the world of arts and culture. And in South Florida, where ethnic sensitivities and artistic expression often find themselves at bitter odds, that's a collision many would desperately like to avoid.
Roland Kohen, a CAC member since its 1997 inception, recalls one board meeting from this past fall, just before his own six-year term ended. A list of eighteen recommended candidates had been drawn up so the city commission could fill six CAC seats about to be vacated by term limits. Hours had been spent sifting through the applicants in an attempt to create a qualified pool, one that included arts professionals such as Mario Cáder-Frech, who works with the Salvadoran embassy's cultural attaché, as well as Mellon United National Bank executive Alan Randolph, who had helped nurture the growth of local film, music, and fashion projects when many other area institutions had shied away.
Yet to CAC member Ada Llerandi, the bulk of these eighteen candidates lacked one glaring qualification. "Ada wondered if we had enough Latin members," remembers an exasperated Kohen. "I begged her not to go down that way." He could already envision this route's endgame: "You'll have to have two Latins, one Haitian, two Jews, one Anglo, two gays, one lesbian.... The standard shouldn't be who's Cuban, the standard should be excellence. I want people on the board who are passionate about our mission, passionate about culture. If you have those kind of people, they will automatically choose the best Latin art and music, the best Haitian art and music, the best African-American art and music."
Llerandi, widely viewed as Bower's "eyes and ears" on the CAC, let the matter rest at the time. Yet at the subsequent city commission meeting Kohen was surprised to see Bower suddenly introduce her previously unknown CAC picks. And given the barely five minutes within which they were approved (board appointments often involve a series of endless votes and revotes until majorities are reached on the dais), there would certainly seem to have been some advance planning.
Bower insists otherwise to Kulchur: "Ay please! They think this is a large conspiracy? I'd rather devote my time to affordable housing or something where people are really helped, not the cultural arts." Though she freely concedes Llerandi is her "best friend," she says the two never discuss the CAC, and that Lopez, Membiela, and Resnick lined up support from the other commissioners independently, without her coordination. Although another commissioner begs to differ, Bower scoffs at any alleged horsetrading with her fellow elected officials. "Please," she says dismissively, "if I was going to call my chips in, it's going to be for something important. And we don't do chips in Miami Beach. Our battles are very open. I have no hidden agenda."
While Bower does indeed hope to see more Hispanics on the CAC to counter its aesthetic "elitism," she's quick to downplay perceptions of a looming shift in funding priorities: "Probably the funding will continue to be the same, but these new members will bring some different ideas, and we need that."