By Michael E. Miller
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ArtCenter/South Florida has, by most accounts, been blessed by visionary leadership, talented artists, and good luck. But there has also been turmoil -- ArtCenter has burned through three executive directors in two years, and several board members have also abandoned ship. Some say chairman Richard Shack's commanding nature is causing trouble at one of the area's most visible art enclaves.
Founder Ellie Schneiderman came up with the idea of leasing low-cost space to artists in need of permanent, affordable work spaces. Schneiderman, inspired by the success of ventures like the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia, collected enough in donations and grant money to buy the four ArtCenter properties on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. At the time, the road was half-full of boarded-up storefronts, an unrecognizable, crime-plagued forebear of the crowded thoroughfare that now boasts South Beach's hottest real estate. (Schneiderman is now tending to ArtSouth in Homestead).
Schneiderman stayed on until 1997, when Richard Shack, husband of well-loved AIDS activist, former county commissioner, and arts patron Ruth Shack, became chairman. Shack seemed a natural choice because of his prominent position in the local art scene and his involvement as founding chairman of the board at the Museum of Contemporary Art. He immediately made some changes: dissuading the artists who were living in their work spaces from continuing to do so, and most remarkably, selling one of the Lincoln Road properties -- 1035, to be exact -- in order to rehabilitate and refurbish the other three.
The ensuing cash flow combined with various grants and endowments makes the ArtCenter one of the most fiscally stable arts institutions in Miami, with an annual budget in excess of $1.2 million. A quarter of ArtCenter's income comes from studio rentals; a quarter from tuition and camp fees; a quarter from state, county, and city arts grants; and a quarter from contributions and endowments, notably a $3 million endowment fund created from the sale of the 1035 property.
Despite financial health other arts organizations envy, feelings run strong about Shack.
"The problem is Richard Shack," says former board member Harvey Burstein. "He runs the show, he calls the shots, and I don't think it creates a healthy environment." A board member from 2000-2002, Burstein said Shack is domineering. "After a run-in with him over a simple little idea I had that he hated, I basically just started agreeing with everything he said. Everyone there winds up doing that."
The Shacks' connections have resulted in Neiman-Marcus, among others, buying several works from ArtCenter artists. Their private collection is well respected, their clout in Miami's competitive art circles undeniable.
Gavin Perry, who left ArtCenter two years ago, talks around Shack: "It was a good experience for me to be there, but at the same time, it was definitely time for me to go. I don't know that they're creating the best space for the best artists."
Some say Shack's personal preferences played a huge part in which artists were granted a second term after their initial three-year lease expired.
"I won't get personal, but I will say I've heard things from a lot of artists that are very negative, and that's so sad," says founder Schneiderman.
Shack doesn't apologize for anything. "I'm a volunteer here, and everything I do is in service of the artists," he says. The high turnover rate of executive directors is easily explained, according to Shack: "They come in here not expecting all the managerial duties associated with our education programs. ArtCenter is about more than just the space for artists; we also run a school. Not everyone can handle all that."
During an interview with New Times, he says this of an artist he suspects to be the source of our inquiries: "Some people have talent, some people have to use controversy to get by. He falls into the latter category. And he sure won't be back here after his lease is up, I'll tell you that."