Everybody's a Critic
Deputy City Manager Sergio Rodriguez cuts a smart figure at Miami Beach City Commission meetings. A silver-haired architect who favors trim dark suits and speaks with a refined Cuban accent, he presents an elegant contrast to the flamboyant, bow-tied Mayor Seymour Gelber and the motley crew of commissioners with whom he shares the dais when he sits in for City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa. The deputy manager's panache has certainly not been lost on his boss. In fact, Garcia-Pedrosa has even asked Rodriguez to do double duty as an interior designer for city hall.
"The city manager said to me, 'Sergio, you're an architect, you can take a look at this and see how it's coming along,'" Rodriguez recalls. "That's how I started getting involved in the decorating of the city manager's office."
Rodriguez has a flair for recycling and a frugal spirit that would make Martha Stewart proud. For the city manager's conference room on the fourth floor of city hall, he framed some vintage pictures of Miami Beach and hung them alongside contemporary landscape photographs he'd found lying around. He gathered some paintings that had been given to city officials over the years and hung those in the offices. Then he added some recent gifts from ubiquitous local pop artist Romero Britto and other well-wishers.
"I think we have acquired good art from donations," Rodriguez proclaims, proudly characterizing the results of his decorating endeavor as "very subdued" and "not controversial."
Despite his talent for bargain-priced interior design, Rodriguez wasn't hired to spiff up public buildings. Ostensibly that's the job of the Miami Beach Art in Public Places Committee, a seven-member volunteer panel of arts professionals appointed by the city commission for their expertise and charged with recommending the purchase of artworks "of exceptional quality" for display on city property.
One artist whose work the committee deemed worthy is Rafael Salazar. Last June the committee asked the well-known local photographer to design a large photomontage for the city manager's conference room. "I was working on the piece, but I stopped," sighs Salazar, who had envisioned a four-by-ten-foot collage of images shot on Ocean Drive along one wall of the room. "It's taking a little bit too long."
Too long, he means, to get paid.
On March 10 the members of the Art in Public Places Committee sent a letter to the city manager, the mayor, and the commission. They too were complaining about money: specifically, $94,000 that by law should have been allotted to Art in Public Places from last year's construction of a new parking garage on Collins Avenue and Seventh Street, plus about $6000 that appeared to be left over from funds they had allocated to spruce up police headquarters on Washington Avenue. Though city officials had issued multiple assurances that the money had indeed been set aside, the committee members complained, their efforts to actually spend those dollars have been stymied. Since the city refused to release its grip on the purse strings, they wrote, they were ceasing to hold their monthly meetings.
"They're circumventing what the city set up," fumes committee co-chair Paula Harper, a professor of art history at the University of Miami. "In a way, I take it as a given that small cities are not going to be hospitable to giving money for art. I'm resigned to the fact that there's going to be a certain amount of opposition. But this is a blockade."
Adds former committee chairwoman Jane Goodman, who resigned in frustration last September: "We tried with memos and letters to get the city to give us the appropriate money. We tried to get them to tell us what was going on and to work with us. They were keeping us totally in the dark. If they want an Art in Public Places program, they should sit with the committee and work it out. If not, they should wipe it out."
The Miami Beach Art in Public Places program entered the city code in 1984, in accord with a countywide ordinance requiring that a minimum of 1.5 percent of the construction budget for any new public building be spent on art to be displayed in or around that building. The same goes for additions to existing public structures. It is up to the Metro-Dade Art in Public Places program to execute art projects in county buildings. But municipal construction projects are bound by the ordinance too. According to Vivian Donnell Rodriguez, director of the county program, there is no formal mechanism for enforcing the ordinance. Some cities, including the City of Miami, have requested assistance from the county program for their public art projects, while others have paid outside consultants to do the job. The City of Miami Beach, Rodriguez says, is unique in that it maintains its own program, with an appointed committee that submits plans to the city commission for final approval.
"The City of Miami Beach is one of the largest municipalities and it really has an ambitious capital program," Rodriguez comments. "There are really challenging opportunities in Miami Beach, and public art is right in line with the image the city has for itself now."
Rodriguez believes that the committee's frustrations are due to its volunteer status. "It's always difficult when a volunteer committee doesn't have staff support," she observes. "I think the intent is probably there on the part of the city, but you need professional staff to lead things through. That's probably the missing link.
"I think it's a great committee," she adds. "They've got good, committed people who have the desire and the knowledge to do it."
On paper, at least, city officials would seem to agree. Two years ago they expanded the program "to further enrich the public environment of Miami Beach" when they passed a new ordinance that permits the Art in Public Places Committee to recommend that budgeted money be spent to beautify any site in the city, not just in or around the new building itself. (After Art in Public Places selects an artist and a proposal is submitted for a site, the plan must be approved by the city commission before work can begin.)
All of which has committee members wondering why they're having such a hard time getting things done. "The point is, if they want it, fine, we'll do it," says art collector Ruth Sackner, Harper's co-chair. "But if they don't want it, why are they dangling these carrots in front of people all the time?"
In fact, the Miami Beach Art in Public Places program has engendered only one major project: police headquarters, which was built in 1987. With about $165,000 that was set aside in the budget, the committee commissioned three works, by artists Judy Pfaff, Roberto Juarez, and Ellen Lanyon. Those were completed in 1994.
Since then, there hasn't been much to do. The committee should have been working on the selection of art for the recently completed Seventh Street parking garage (which was funded by both public and private dollars). But according to Raul Aguila, an assistant city attorney, no Art in Public Places allocation was made in the garage budget when construction began. "It might have been an oversight," Aguila reports. "Maybe no one thought of it." Last October the city commission allocated $94,000 to the Art in Public Places fund, but to date the committee has received only vague assurances from city officials that the money is available, and so they have held off contacting artists.
After the police station was completed, there was talk of requisitioning art for a marine patrol station on Purdy Avenue, for which about $2500 had been allotted for art. They went so far as to request proposals from artists, but as it turned out, the station's staff didn't warm to the idea of having art around. "They had maps and charts and stuffed fish on their walls," says Harper. "I see no reason to force on them something that they don't want." The committee ended up spending the $2500 on a color brochure about the artworks in the new police station.
One of the committee's duties is to ensure the maintenance of pieces they've commissioned. Last year the panel asked the city for $1800 from the $6000 they had left over from the police station to do some repairs on the Judy Pfaff piece. The city never issued a check. Undaunted, they tried to think of an alternative way to spend the money. "Because we have been feeling useless, in order to keep busy we offered our services to arrange for art to be put in city hall," Harper recalls. "We knew that Garcia-Pedrosa was redecorating his offices and needed art for the walls."
After communicating with the city manager, who seemed enthusiastic about the idea, the committee requested a proposal for the conference room from Salazar, whom they'd originally chosen for the aborted marine station mission. After the photographer sent the city a proposal in June, Garcia-Pedrosa decided that the conference room was not an appropriate place for a work of public art and that Salazar's piece would be better off elsewhere. But it was not until November, after repeated inquiries as to how they should proceed, that the committee received a letter from Sergio Rodriguez suggesting that the work be placed in the first floor lobby area of city hall, where it could be seen by more people as they entered the building.
The committee drew up a contract commissioning Salazar's work for $5670; the artist was to get half of the money up front, the other half when he finished the job. They submitted the paperwork to the city, assuming that since the work had already been welcomed by the administration, the project would be quickly approved by the city commission. But Salazar never got a check. Harper says she was told by Kaslyn Mohamed, the committee's city liaison, that Salazar had to make a new proposal because the work would be hung in a different spot than the one he'd originally planned. The artist did so in early March. At this point, the project is still stalled.
"It's too much paperwork, that kind of tones things down for me -- I'm an artist, not a contract writer," complains Salazar, who earns a living photographing artworks. "Deepak Chopra says every moment of your life you have to make a choice," he philosophizes. "I'm choosing not to be bothered by this. I'm just waiting."
Rodriguez claims he is unfamiliar with any plan to put art in the lobby -- despite the fact that his signature is on a letter suggesting that the committee put Salazar's piece there. "I know nothing about that," the deputy manager insists. "I only know what's going on with [the decorating of] our offices."
Harper is perplexed. "It's not like we had it engraved in granite," she admits, "but we assumed we had the money to go ahead with the project."
According to the Art in Public Places ordinance, all appropriations for art from city construction projects are to be placed in an autonomous Art in Public Places Fund. But Jose Cruz, a senior management analyst in Miami Beach's budget office, says there is no fund.
"The person who wrote the ordinance doesn't know anything about accounting," asserts Cruz. Rather than being extracted and commingled in a special fund, he explains, money allotted for public art is posted as a line item within each construction budget. Cruz says there is a balance of $6489 from the police headquarters' budget for art, but he refused to provide New Times with documentation to support his claim. ("I'm pretty sure that's what the numbers are," he added when asked to confirm the figure.) Nor was the City of Miami Beach able to comply with New Times's public records request for documentation of all appropriations and expenditures regarding Art in Public Places. (Cruz first said that the only public art money on the books was from the police department budget. Later he mentioned the parking garage, a situation he deemed "controversial," although he would not explain why.)
Garcia-Pedrosa, meanwhile, recalls that the leftover police headquarters money has already been spent -- on a different public art project: the conglomeration of neon rings that decorates the palm trees on the Miami Beach side of the Julia Tuttle Causeway.
Erected in December and turned on New Year's Eve, the work, Celebration of Light, consists of 46 colored neon circles hung like necklaces at the tops of tree trunks around the "Welcome to Miami Beach" sign at the foot of the causeway. The glowing rings, which lend the site an eerie, X-Filesish air, could be interpreted as evocative symbols of how overzealous development has strangled the natural landscape. But for Jim Morrison, their neon-loving creator, Celebration of Light is just what its name says. "I thought it was a cool statement for Miami Beach," explains the artist, who lives in Miami Shores.
Last summer Morrison had the idea of putting up his work temporarily over the Fourth of July weekend. He went to the Art in Public Places Committee and said he would install it free of charge if city officials would give him access to the property. "We knew that his work was really good and we pushed it through to the city commission," Harper remembers. The commissioners gave the go-ahead and Morrison rigged up Celebration using portable generators. He says the holiday project cost him about $10,000. "It was a gamble I took and it worked," he reflects. "It was well received."
The piece was so popular that citizens called the city and said they wanted to see the lights on all the time. Commissioners Susan Gottlieb and David Pearlson suggested to the city manager that the work be put up permanently. But when the Art in Public Places Committee discussed the idea at a meeting in August, they decided against the project.
"We decided that even if we did have money, we didn't feel we wanted to pay to have that up permanently," recalls Harper, who says the committee felt the cost of purchase and installation would be prohibitive. "We felt, even with our limited theoretical budget, we didn't want to fund it."
But the commissioners and Garcia-Pedrosa still supported the idea. And Morrison was thrilled at the thought that he'd get more exposure. Just as important, he would receive some compensation for the work he had spent so much money producing. He quoted the city a price of $15,000. Considering that materials alone had cost him two-thirds of that, he thought it was a bargain, even a charitable civic gesture. The city didn't see it that way.
"They balked," Morrison says incredulously. "They wanted me to donate it. I guess no matter what type of art you're doing, there's always the vision of an artist who doesn't have to make money off of his work." But Morrison stood his ground and was ultimately able to wrangle a fee of $12,500.
As director of the Recreation, Culture, and Parks Department, Kevin Smith oversaw the installation project, which he says didn't cost much. "It uses minimal electricity and was hooked up from existing power lines," Smith claims.
"By the time it was all said and done and put up again permanently, it cost about $30,000," counters Morrison, explaining that the causeway power lines weren't enough to support the neon. Trenches had to be dug and cables laid to bring in power from another source, for which the city picked up the tab. According to documentation supplied by the city's legal department, $24,000 in resort tax money was spent on something specified as "neon lights."
"We did tap the resort taxes," confirms Garcia-Pedrosa. And if Morrison's $30,000 figure for acquisition and installation is correct, the city would have needed a bit more money to complete the job. "We had a little left over from the police department, $6000 and change," recalls the city manager.
That's news to Paula Harper. "That's the money that was supposed to go to Rafael Salazar!" she exclaims. "If that's true, in addition to taking money that's supposed to be for the Art in Public Places Committee, he's been doing a great disservice to Rafael, who has been wasting his time on all those proposals. For me, it's one more example of how these projects just get blocked or lost, or whatever it is -- they just don't happen."
Garcia-Pedrosa is unsympathetic. "Art in Public Places is an advisory group, they don't make decisions," the city manager says dismissively. "I've never been elitist," he muses. "When it comes to art, I think everyone should have their say."
The democratic spirit voiced by Garcia-Pedrosa is nothing new in Miami Beach -- at least where art is concerned. Self-starters employed by the city frequently lend a helping hand to enhance the public landscape.
Take, for example, Roy Lichtenstein's Mermaid sculpture in front of the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts on Washington Avenue. The artwork was purchased in 1979 with private funds but is maintained by the city. Over the years enterprising members of Miami Beach's building maintenance staff took it upon themselves to keep the concrete sculpture looking nice, by touching it up with house paint. In 1994 an art restorer was finally brought in to repaint the statue in its original colors. Cost to the city: about $10,000.
A more recent example of creative maintenance is on display outside the Scott Rakow Youth Center on Sheridan Avenue. A large sculpture by an unknown artist has been freshly painted a pale yellow shade that matches the building's sign. "We tried to find out who the artist was so it could be properly restored," Harper says ruefully. "But someone just went ahead and painted it. Whoever is making these choices has the visual equivalent of a tin ear."
One art project with which the city manager recently got personally involved was the selection of artists' designs to decorate a new fleet of electric shuttle buses that will be deployed later this year in an attempt to alleviate South Beach's legendary parking problems.
Last fall Judy Evans, director of Miami Beach Transportation Management Association, Inc., a nonprofit public/private partnership that is administering the project, asked the Art in Public Places Committee to select artists to create designs for the so-called Electric Wave buses. Evans had a budget of $20,000 for the artworks, which would be transferred onto adhesive plastic sheets and wrapped around the vehicles. "She was delighted Art in Public Places wanted to be involved in the project," Harper remembers.
From the responses to its request for proposals, the committee chose four applicants to decorate the seven buses, reasoning that if fewer artists were involved each would get a bigger fee for what would be a time-consuming job. Even so, the artists would be working for much less than what their efforts usually command. The committee selected Miami-based Cuban artist Jose Bedia to put his design, featuring playful figures inspired by Afro-Cuban mythology, on two buses. Ellen Lanyon, who had painted a mural in the police station, would wrap two buses with elaborate images based on Art Deco architecture and Everglades wildlife. The husband-and-wife team of Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt, who last year completed an acclaimed public artwork for the county, were assigned two buses as well, which they would cover with their exquisite renderings of tropical foliage and ocean waves. Colorado artist Kenny Schneider would apply an expressive tropical fish motif to one bus.
In November the artists' proposals were brought before the city commission for approval. To the surprise of members of the Art in Public Places Committee who were at the commission meeting that day, one name had been added to the list of recommended artists. A proposal by a New York City-based artist named Crash, which featured crude, derivative images from Lichtenstein and Peter Max paintings, was now included. The panel had eliminated Crash in the first cut.
"The city manager and I chose that one," says Evans. "We liked the fact that he put the name 'Electric Wave' on the bus. None of the others did that." Garcia-Pedrosa didn't think Bedia should adorn two buses with the same design, Evans elaborates; rather than go back to the committee, he asked her to help him choose another candidate.
Committee member Carol K. Brown is incensed. "I was appalled that the city manager would make that kind of decision," says Brown, herself an artist. "I realized that in this case perhaps it wasn't appropriate to make an issue of it. But we'd like to think that it would not be a regular thing."
According to the Art in Public Places ordinance, the city commission can veto any recommendations made by the panel, but nowhere in the mandated process is the city manager mentioned. For Garcia-Pedrosa and Evans, that seems irrelevant. "[The committee] didn't like it," Evans reasons. "But we were the ones who paid for it."
A series of vintage drawings by Lincoln Road pioneer Morris Lapidus that show the architect's fanciful plan for his 1960s update of the mall are on exhibit at the South Florida Art Center's Art800 gallery. The renderings show Lapidus's curvy "zipper" and flat "tabletop" awnings and the amphitheater and other funky structures he created for the road, as well as the crowds of chic shoppers the architect envisioned coming to the mall once his designs were built.
The sketches are part of a show called "Lincoln Road: Past, Present, and Future," which also features current proposals for public art pieces on the mall, such as an inviting small chair ingeniously fashioned from new car tires. The seating unit, a prototype by Antoni Miralda for his Speed Love Seat, is a fanciful take on a park bench, conceived as a tribute to Lapidus's measure of keeping cars off the road to create a public space where people can commune.
"Don't even talk to me about that," the artist groans when the bench is
mentioned. Speed Love Seat was one of the public art projects selected for the road a year ago in a competition administered by the South Florida Art Center. It should have been fabricated to full scale and installed on the road by now, along with a sundial and two drinking fountains designed by other artists.
"The idea was that there were a number of items like seating elements and bike racks," says the art center's director Jane Gilbert, who inherited the project from her predecessor, Pat Jones, when she came to the center in June 1995. "[Boston-based Lincoln Road renovation architect] Ben Wood could look through a catalogue and pick out those items, or we could have artists design them and have signature pieces on the road."
The Lincoln Road Partnership, the now-defunct entity that was created to oversee the renovation, made sure $28,500 of the $16.3 million budget for the road was allotted for the pieces. (Wood intended to earmark an extra $22,500 from other budget sources, but that money was rescinded when construction costs rose.)
Gilbert sent out a request for proposals to more than 2000 artists and art organizations. Though the project was out of the jurisdiction of Art in Public Places -- the Lincoln Road renovation was not new construction -- to evaluate the proposals she appointed a panel that included Harper and fellow Miami Beach Art in Public Places Committee member Cathy Leff (who has since been named interim director of the Wolfsonian museum), and also Vivian Donnell Rodriguez, director of the county's public art program. Eleven artists were chosen to submit proposals. Three were eventually commissioned to create four items. By May of last year, everything had been approved. The city attorney issued contracts to the artists, who signed them and sent them back.
They never heard anything about the project from anyone at the city again.
Though the artists did not receive the $2000 each had been promised for the fabrication of prototypes, they paid for the models out of their own pockets, figuring they'd be reimbursed once the actual works were under way. Last month, however, the city manager classified the street furniture as a project that was still tentative. "I think it should be reviewed, because some of it is controversial," Garcia-Pedrosa warned in an interview for this story. "I think it's important that the merchants see it and review it. They may not want chairs made of rubber tires on the road."
After Garcia-Pedrosa said as much to Gilbert, she held a meeting with Lincoln Road merchants, who signed a letter supporting the project. Then, because Garcia-Pedrosa also told her the commissioners would need to see the proposed works, on two separate occasions she packed some of the models and drawings into a huge box and carried them over to city hall. At neither commission meeting was she given the floor, despite the fact that the issue of the street furniture was listed on the agenda.
Tired of lugging around the models, on March 10 Gilbert sent a letter to the mayor and commissioners in which she chronicled the history of the project and offered to give any one of them a tour of the Art800 exhibit. She also sent a note to Deputy City Manager Sergio Rodriguez, asking him to expedite the purchase order, have the artists' contracts signed, and issue a 30 percent payment to each.
While Gilbert was trying in vain to get a response to her inquiries, another Lincoln Road project was also at an impasse. Architect Carlos Zapata had designed a wing-shape aluminum-and-glass structure that was to stand at the Washington Avenue entrance, between a pair of pools. Water would also cascade down a glass wall, upon which artists' videos could be projected. Zapata referred to his design as an information booth; it was to have a desk inside where an attendant would give pedestrians information about stores and events on the mall. City employees had a different nickname for it: the cockroach.
"I never took that as a negative connotation," says Rodriguez, who admits to using that term in reference to the design. "Those kind of names are friendly names."
In any case, when the renovation of Lincoln Road was completed in December, Zapata's design had not come to fruition; because unexpected problems with the mall's underground infrastructure had delayed construction, the more decorative architectural structure had been left for last. All that had been completed were the two pools and the concrete foundations.
The information booth had been included in the Lincoln Road budget at a cost of $265,000 and had been approved by the commission along with the other mall renovations. But as time passed and Ben Wood and Zapata pressed Rodriguez to have the contractor start on the information booth, the question arose as to whether it would be built at all. After the Lincoln Road Partnership, which had been slated to run the booth, was dissolved at the end of last year, a controversy developed over who would staff the structure. Both the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce and the Miami Beach Hispanic Chamber of Commerce had expressed interest in running an information kiosk; once the administration of the booth became an issue, the city manager and others began to talk about building a more traditional booth instead. According to Rodriguez, city officials worried that Zapata's design couldn't be protected -- dogs were already using the pools as a toilet.
Zapata and Wood, who have become partners since the Lincoln Road project began, flew in from their Boston office for a commission meeting on March 5. The encounter was tense. While Wood attempted to show the commission a model of the structure, Commissioner Susan Gottlieb demanded to know how much the piece had already cost the city "in case we decide not to do it." Before the architects could state their case, Mayor Gelber abruptly dismissed the issue until the next meeting.
"I am not a yo-yo," a distressed Zapata said at the time. "This might be a game to them, but it is not one to me."
For the next two weeks, the architect called and visited with city officials and commissioners, attempting to convince them of the value of the project. He got most of the Lincoln Road property owners behind him as well. At a March 17 public hearing, art collector Mera Rubell vehemently gave her support to the plan. Even nonagenarian Morris Lapidus made an appearance. Rodriguez also gave the project the administration's support, and the commission finally gave the green light.
At the same meeting, the commissioners said the street furniture project should move ahead. But the city has still not issued the checks and signed the contracts. Gilbert, who has tried all along to reassure the artists that they'll see their work placed on Lincoln Road, says she doubts the city will deliver the money. "I'm afraid it's not going to get done at all," she laments.
As for Miralda, he's about ready to give up on the whole thing. He had arranged for a craftsman to custom-fabricate his Speed Love Seat, but now he doesn't know whether that person will be available if and when he gets the money. The artist himself is preparing to leave town for an extended period to prepare for an exhibition of his work that is set to open in Paris later in the year.
Last summer, after the city failed to supply funds for a full-scale prototype, Miralda built the half-size seat that's on display at Art800 on a trip to his native Spain, where he could save a few dollars on the labor. He recalls with a laugh that he sat the piece on his lap during the long flight back to Miami.
"It's not that this project is such a big deal," he says. "But with these people it's always the same thing. Nothing really works like they say it's going to. What a waste of time.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.