Allete Simmons-Jimenez sounds a bit like Aretha Franklin when discussing her reasons for opening Artformz Alternative, her artist-run space in the Design District, four years ago.
"My idea for starting this whole thing was to get a little respect," the 55-year-old dynamo explains.
Not that the artist felt she wasn't getting any R-E-S-P-E-C-T when it came to her own work she says she was part of the Americas Collection stable in Coral Gables for fifteen years. It's just that she felt that the commercial gallery scene had become too stifling, and she wanted to open a space where she could push herself while offering others the same opportunity as well.
"I had been working as an artist for 30 years, and like many other artists who need to be constantly challenged, I found myself frustrated and humbled making work that sat in my studio and that the gallery representing me didn't support. I decided to strike out on my own and give the work the exposure I believed it deserved."
She notes that running her own space has been a daunting task but bristles at notions that Artformz is little more than a "vanity gallery" devoted to showcasing her own work.
"I have included my work in most of our shows but I also exhibit the works of many other artists here. I don't get caught up with what people think. What's important to me is that we have established an incredible support system for artists, which is our primary mission," she says, beaming.
Artformz functions as a joint venture, a membership space where artists pay $200 a month to exhibit their works during rotating two-month shows. If participant artists can't foot the bill, Simmons-Jimenez arranges for them to man the gallery, distribute flyers, work on the Website, or input data on the computer instead.
The space covers promotional costs and takes a 30-percent commission on all sales. Yet to date Simmons-Jimenez admits Artformz has fallen short of covering operational costs, which exceed a staggering $10,000 each show.
"When we first came to the Design District we had a three-year plan, but we have never broken even and realize to succeed in this business one needs more of a ten-year plan. It's definitely a tough row to hoe," she says.
To her credit the artist has navigated the steep incline with a steely resolve, confronting challenges that might have left art impresarios half her age coughing dust. More impressively she has put her money where her mouth is, financing Artformz from her own purse. Simmons-Jimenez remains encouraged, because 2006 was a banner year for her business: $80,000 in sales, she claims.
"I feel empowered running this space and even though some local artists and collectors haven't supported us, I am amazed by how the general public and many artists from outside Miami do."
In an effort to elevate the gallery's profile, Simmons-Jimenez recently inaugurated "Deviant Behavior," Artformz's first-ever national juried show. The 27 artists selected were chosen by Simmons-Jimenez based on "dedication to experimentation and the quality of their work," she explains.
Unlike serious juried exhibits, in which a panel of art professionals sift through submissions with a fine-tooth comb and where prize money can be at stake, this exhibit lacks a coherent curatorial eye and seems geared more toward banking the $30 entry fees from the 70 artists who applied, with an eye toward covering some of Artformz's $4500 monthly rent.
Also, considering the show's title and the fact that the works are on display in what claims to be an "alternative" space, some of the pieces pack the bite of a stale cracker, while few veer toward the truly fresh.
One can't help but wonder how Priscilla Ferguson's bland black and white photographs made the cut. Very Bad Dog (Roxxy) depicts a Labrador retriever in a kitchen, looking as if it were punished for swiping a T-bone off a table during its master's evening meal. In Decadent Dog the animal makes a repeat appearance, snoozing on satin sheets.
For a picture packing more mustard check out Alejandro Guzman's Mayordomo, a medium-size black and white photo of a young Palero sitting next to a pair of menacing cauldrons spilling over with goat horns, tridents, machetes, and other ritual implements associated with the powerful Afro-Cuban religion.
Across from it, Nashville's Barbara Yontz offers an equally potent statement with her installation You Are There Like My Skin. The artist has fashioned a quilt out of hog entrails and marinated its entire surface with wax. The piece swallows an entire wall in front of an old-fangled amplifier through which a cacophony of voices can be heard professing their love for each other. Situated next to a window, the crackled pig innards refract the sunlight peeking in, casting a beautiful bronze hue through the room.
In an alcove nearby, New York's Yeon Jin Kim's quirky mixed media video installation, Untitled # 1, evokes a sense of a seed-sowing wanderer hung over with technological gloom. A palm-size video monitor, split open to reveal its circuit-board guts, is wedged in a gallery corner at eye level while a thicket of weeds is seen rustling in the wind eerily on the screen. The broken monitor is connected to yet another small monitor inside a green plastic shopping bag on the floor. Inside, a tangle of hair and dust harvested from a vacuum cleaner bag mats the tiny screen. On it a fertile field of flowers stutters rhythmically as if to ensnare the viewer in a trap underneath.
Walking through Artformz, your eyes are drawn to works suspended from the ceiling, haphazardly installed on a column in the center of the room, taking up large areas of the floor, or hung on nearly every conceivable wall surface in the space.
Simmons-Jimenez would have benefited from tighter editing to give some of the more compelling works on exhibit more breathing room and encourage visitors to linger in front of the standouts without feeling yoked.
One of my favorite pieces was a haunting painting by Jamie Treadwell titled Exile II, depicting a pink-helmeted moppet wearing a camouflage shawl and clutching a swaddled baby to her chest while adrift in a life raft at sea, surrounded by bobbing rubber ducks.
It's hard to envision the crowds Artformz typically draws to its openings having the opportunity to catch more than a fleeting glance at this work, which seems crammed on a wall to increase the chance of sales.
For her part, Simmons-Jimenez seems determined to continue searching for a balance between providing as many artists as possible an opportunity to show in her space as she is to promoting her own career, and finding an effective formula to cover the bills.
"It's been back-breaking work," she readily admits, quickly adding "as far as respect goes, I feel like I'm getting it now." Given her moxie, one can't help but tip the chapeau.
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