Culture Snob Alert

Miami Beach Commissioner Matti Bower seeks to inject some lowbrow into high art

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."

Yet when asked to elaborate on these "different ideas," Bower is frustratingly vague, declining to single out any particular arts group. Instead she cites a personal perception that performers such as Spanish comedians and light musical operas are deemed too unsophisticated for the Beach. "If I want to see one, I have to go over to Miami," she complains. "The group here has never been open to that."

At times Bower seems unsure of just who the CAC does fund. As Kulchur begins randomly reading from the list of 2003 grantees, Bower breaks in and strenuously argues that the Wolfsonian-FIU museum "doesn't receive a dollar" from the city. Kulchur has to remind her that he's reading the CAC's own records, which explain the Wolfsonian receives an average $25,000 each year. Somewhat flustered, Bower counters, "I don't care who gets the money, as long as they all agree." And if they can't all agree? "The people who I appointed are not going to ask me who I think should get money. That's irrelevant."

Ada Llerandi's own thoughts on the arts scene aren't exactly going to allay concerns that several small groups, already coping with slashed budgets, are about to be forced to pull their belts a notch tighter. "It's time the Cultural Arts Council focuses on trying to bring to the public what the public wants," Llerandi says. With the Beach now majority Hispanic, she feels its artistic offerings should reflect this new demographic. "I'd like to see us entice a lighter kind of theater in Spanish," she explains. "Why do I have to go to Coconut Grove or the Miracle Mile for that?" And don't suggest that lighter connotes schlock. "Who decides on the quality of a group?" she snaps. "If people like it, if people fill up the theater, it's quality for them! The fact that what you're doing may be liked by a little group doesn't make you the best."

To fellow CAC member and former Beach Commissioner Nancy Liebman, both Bower and Llerandi are being disingenuous. "[Bower] is putting her friends on the council," Liebman warns, adding that she intends to closely monitor this summer's grants process for any creeping political favoritism. Liebman is particularly suspicious of new appointee Lydia Resnick, known less for her arts acumen than for being the husband of developer Jimmy Resnick, whose late father Abe was for years a city commissioner and political operative.

Backroom cliques are indeed at work, agrees Bower, but it's Harvey Burstein and Nancy Liebman who need to be dragged out into the light. "These people have been fearful of me since I first came into office," she asserts. "Maybe because they think I don't know art. Maybe because I'm blunt and upfront. But when I first came in, I saw a board that perpetuated themselves, so I started to make a change.... They fought me, I became their enemy."

The Cultural Arts Council isn't the only board at which Bower is taking aim. She recalls a recent applicant to the city's Design Review Board, the body responsible for approving virtually all new development projects on Miami Beach. When Bower chose not to vote for the woman, she phoned Bower, distraught over the slight. "I told her she had to come see me before I'd consider voting for her," Bower recalls, chuckling at the woman's response: "Why do I have to meet with you? Beth Dunlop told me it was okay."

Dunlop may be the Miami Herald's respected architecture critic, but such credentials matter little to Bower. "I'm the one who votes, not Beth!" she fumes. "What the hell is this? She's a friend, but what does Beth have to do with the price of rice? Just because you know someone, you still have to work the process. That's why it's called politics."

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