Margaret Soltis pauses midsentence to choke down a bubble of emotion and look distractedly at the young man playing the piano a couple of yards away. "Sorry," she apologizes. "America the Beautiful' always gets me."
The song catches Soltis at a vulnerable moment, just as she is describing the corporate travesty about to be visited upon the student-run art gallery at Florida International University. All this will be gone, Soltis grieves, indicating the grand piano and about two dozen works of art on the walls of the quiet, couch-filled lounge at the south end of the Graham Center, FIU's otherwise bustling student union. "And for what -- a Gap, a Mail Boxes Etc.?" the 59-year-old graduate art student asks rhetorically. "Miami is a giant mall. There's access to that stuff everywhere."
FIU is in the midst of constructing or planning more than $200 million in new buildings and renovations, mostly on its sprawling main campus in west Miami-Dade County. About $5 million has been set aside to renovate and expand the student union, home to the food court and a flea-market-style gauntlet of student clubs, cut-rate perfumes, jewelry, salsa lessons, and baked goods. University officials say the improvements are designed to provide more space for dining, shops, and a larger computer lab. Not included is any provision for a student exhibition space. (Soltis notes that the gallery has been run by students for more than five years. In that time it has hosted many student and faculty shows, plus occasional contributions from local high schools. The student says it's invaluable experience for young artists to learn the mechanics of installing a professional exhibition.)
Soltis, along with a small band of student artists and agitators, found out about FIU's intention to turn the current gallery into retail storefronts "almost by accident" last February. In April they organized a protest exhibition in the gallery -- all black curtains and dire predictions of the death of student art on campus -- that generated about 500 signatures on a petition urging FIU administrators to relocate the gallery to another, hopefully larger, space in the expanded student union after the renovations. They took their concerns to Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president of student affairs. The result was that instead of having to vacate the gallery space this past summer, the students were granted another year while they looked for an alternative arrangement. An FIU spokesman says that although renovations will begin this summer, the students will have the gallery until the end of 2002.
Yomarie Silva, past president of the Fine Arts Student Association, says the university was not about to give them a room of their own, but they did offer to let the artists hang paintings on walls upstairs in meeting rooms and suggested they might find a wall or two in the dorms, the library, or in the new art museum to be built on campus. "They were trying to get rid of us, not help us," a skeptical Silva asserts. "This is the best showcase for student work. It's a student union." Silva is particularly piqued because she says she tried for months to join the committee working on the layout of the renovated Graham Center but claims she was told there were no meetings. Then suddenly she was told the plans were finished and there was really nothing she could do about it.
Telles-Irvin declined to be interviewed by New Times, but she relayed information through university spokesman Todd Martinez-Padilla Simmons. According to Simmons the student gallery was never meant to be a permanent place for student art. "It was always intended to be retail," he reports. Simmons also says there are no plans for either a Gap or a Mail Boxes Etc. store. More likely, an existing hair salon and a credit union would expand into the space, and another store would be added according to student demand.
"I'm not going to call [Telles-Irvin] a liar, but I doubt that," Soltis snorts. "Yomarie and I were there when Telles-Irvin said to us they were going to put a Gap in and a Mail Boxes Etc. We were told it was a done deal. She drew out the plans on a piece of paper for us."
In attempting to pump up its bottom line through lucrative deals with commercial tenants, FIU is taking a page from the playbook of nearly every university in the nation. The FIU art students believe the university considers a student art gallery a waste of otherwise profitable space. Soltis recounts that when students asked Telles-Irvin why the visual-arts department never got a new building promised more than ten years ago, she replied simply: "If you had a million dollars, you'd have an art center."
Julianne Liberty, a 28-year-old international-relations major, learned about the closing of the student gallery through the protest exhibition last spring. Disheartened by the administration's apparent lack of response to the art students' petition, she's taking a different approach to saving the gallery. In the past couple of months, between classes, Liberty has collected about 200 signatures from students that she plans to send, along with a pleading letter, to the Gap's corporate headquarters.
Liberty says the gallery is one of the few quiet places at FIU that hasn't yet fallen to "the ongoing sterilization of the atmosphere on our campus. Students who shell out the fees to attend FIU deserve better than to be treated as a mere afterthought to the school's moneymaking schemes," she adds.
FIU is a young school actively seeking to build a reputation for excellence in many fields and to shake its image as Local Commuter U. Research programs are its priority, followed by splashy accouterments such as a new football program starting up next year and a newly opened fraternity house. But the university also has put considerable resources into the arts, such as its partnership with the Smithsonian to bring exhibitions to the campus art museum, its takeover of the Miami International Film Festival and the Wolfsonian Museum on South Beach, and its highly regarded sculpture park donated by the Martin Z. Margulies family.
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There is a certain irony in that. FIU nurtures the established arts yet neglects to nurture its own student artists? Art students at the research-oriented University of South Florida in Tampa, for instance, run the successful Centre Gallery, located in the student union. "This school has a completely different mindset," argues Soltis. "It's like telling theater majors they can pay to get the degree but we're not going to give you a stage on which to perform. It's important that our work is seen." There is further irony in the dispute over the student gallery because it comes at a time when Miami's home-grown art scene is becoming internationally recognized.
Darby Bannard, a professor of painting and former chairman of the art and art-history department at the University of Miami, says it's more common than not for universities to treat art and artists as stepchildren. "Generally speaking, college administrations make decisions based on money and power," he observes. "Students have to fight, organize, and make a lot of noise. I wish them luck."
Craig Wedderspoon, a 1997 FIU graduate who now teaches sculpture at the University of Alabama, remembers the thunderous din students had to generate six years ago to get even the current student exhibition space from a grudging university. Art students organized several dramatic demonstrations, in which Wedderspoon would build large metal sculptures and then noisily destroy them, in the center of campus. "For one, I built a 24-foot tower that hoisted an 80-pound weight on a pulley system and then dropped it onto a metal table until it was damaged," he recalls. "Soon after that we got a plea from the administration to please stop making so much noise and in exchange they would talk to us."
FIU spokesman Simmons says the administration has worked with the student artists to find new digs and that Telles-Irvin was under the impression things "were proceeding nicely." Simmons points out that the university, like every other public educational institution, is facing major budget shortfalls. (It recently approved $12 million in cuts while voting president Mitch Maidique an $83,000 raise.) It will mean a hiring freeze, dipping into cash reserves, and cutting course offerings in every college, mostly those taught by adjunct instructors. "These are very tough times for the university," he says. "Those are the choices you have to make."