The Long and Winding Road
Carlos Alves is talking on the phone in his studio, a high-ceiling storefront located in a building on Lincoln Road, just off Lenox Avenue. "You say you're waiting for your artwork?" he chuckles into the receiver, speaking loudly over the rumble of construction activity outside. "Well great, I'm waiting for my money."
A glass case and several wrought-iron patio tables with mosaic tops placed at the front of the room display funky ceramic flowers, colorful plaques in the shape of the sun, palm trees, and abstract faces, plus high-kitsch Christmas cräches adorned with flea-market spangles. Stacks of vintage household china that the artist will shatter into shards for future mosaic projects line the walls. Alves hangs up, grabs another phone A this one an unwieldy, rather antiquated portable model -- from his desk, steps outside, and grimaces. "How long is this going to go on?" he sighs, gesturing toward the menacing mounds of dirt on the sidewalk - dirt that, very likely, will blow under his door and into his studio by the end of the day. "It's been so bad for business."
Across the street, in front of the Colony Theater, a decorative fountain that Alves tiled with broken pottery in 1992 is surrounded by trenches. The fountain was Lincoln Road's first public art project sponsored by the South Florida Art Center. The nonprofit arts organization also owns the Sender Building, which houses the studios of Alves (at 1043 Lincoln Rd.) and other artists. The western end of Lincoln Road Mall has resembled a muddy war zone since July, when construction crews broke ground on the concrete esplanade to make way for the City of Miami Beach's $16 million capital improvement project, just in time for a particularly wet hurricane season.
On this sunny weekday morning in November, an idle bulldozer grazes near some of the mall's few surviving trees, while a group of hard-hat-wearing workers yell back and forth over the din of clanking sewage pipes. Nearby another work crew lays down the first squares of fresh cement for the redesigned pedestrian boulevard. Just down the block at the Lincoln Road Cafe -- which artists jokingly refer to as the Stinkin' Road Cafe -- Alves greets a waitress by name, orders breakfast in Spanish, and continues his griping. "It's been difficult to keep good faith at the art center with all of this crap going on," he says, waving his hand at the window. "We're on a roller-coaster ride with the city."
While renovations on the mall's outdoor spaces are certainly an inconvenience, Alves, who has had a studio on the Road for eight years and who sits on the South Florida Art Center's board of directors, is more concerned about other developments on Lincoln Road, developments that will directly affect his future. "I've been wanting to redo the studio for two and a half years, and I haven't been able to," he grumbles. "I just have to know if this building is going to stay as part of the art center."
At the beginning of 1994, the City of Miami Beach issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a ten-screen movie complex at the western end of the Road. In June of that same year, the Miami Beach City Commission approved a proposal (chosen by a citizens' selection committee) for a 63,000-square-foot cinema and retail center to be built on the site of the South Florida Art Center's Sender Building, which also contains SFAC's Ground Level and ClaySpace galleries, both at 1035 Lincoln Rd. City-owned land used for metered parking lots behind Lincoln Road was also earmarked for the entertainment/shopping complex and its accompanying parking facility. Jean-Jacques Murray, front man for the project's developer, Beach Cinema Group, later announced a Winn Dixie supermarket would be part of the proposal.
However, after a year and a half of negotiations, lapsed payments, false starts, and postponements of one sort or another, the Miami Beach City Commission voted down Beach Cinema's proposal this past November 21. The commissioners instead approved a bid for another supermarket in the area -- a Publix at West Avenue and Twentieth Street. At the well-attended commission meeting, Murray's counsel, Al Cardenas, suggested Beach Cinema be given two more weeks to create a new movie theater plan that would not include a supermarket. The commission swatted that idea aside, stating that the area's demographics had changed so much since the original RFP was issued that a new retail project might now be more appropriate for the mall. Commissioners decided to initiate a second RFP process for a Lincoln Road movie complex and to award a new contract to the winning bidder by January 10.
South Florida Art Center, which had already collected $145,000 in option payments from Murray's group, stood to benefit considerably more if the Beach Cinema deal had gone through: $2.25 million for the sale of the Sender Building (SFAC paid $650,000 for it in 1989), plus $25,000 to be donated by Beach Cinema to the arts group every year for five years.
As part of its option agreement with the art center, Beach Cinema still owes SFAC $15,000. But according to art center executive director Jane Gilbert, that money, due October 25, has never been paid, and the agreement between the two parties therefore has been voided. But a new movie theater proposal could still include the art center's building. In essence, SFAC finds itself right back where it started two years ago, before negotiations began with Murray's group.
"We're real estate rich and cash poor," admits Gilbert, the organization's third executive director in its ten-year history. A 32-year-old nonprofit management consultant and environmental activist, Gilbert moved to Miami from Connecticut last spring, officially taking the reins of SFAC in June. Currently the organization faces $900,000 in mortgage payments. All of its programs operated at a deficit last year; for example, the ClaySpace, a cooperative ceramics gallery, suffered a $20,000 loss.
Even more crucial is the fact that next year Gilbert expects the art center to lose its U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding. Since 1985, SFAC has received annual Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) ranging from $77,000 to $355,000, money used to acquire buildings on Lincoln Road and to subsidize the rents on 90 artists' studios.
CDBG funds, administered by the City of Miami Beach's Department of Development, Design, and Historic Preservation Services, are used to revitalize blighted urban areas by creating jobs, affordable housing, and park and recreation facilities. Along with the grant money comes the stipulation that at least 70 percent of the artists who rent studio space from SFAC be in the low-to-moderate-income bracket, a range based on family size and average area income. (In the greater Miami area, HUD considers "low-to-moderate income" for a two-person household to be $28,550 or less.)
Artists' rents are determined on a sliding scale -- right now $7 to $9.25 a square foot, as opposed to the $25 to $40 a square foot paid by many of the mall's commercial tenants. The rent money amounts to more than one-third of the art center's income, which, together with grants, gallery sales, art class tuitions, and membership fees, supports an annual operating budget of about $900,000.
According to Shirley Taylor-Prakelt, director of Housing and Community Development for the City of Miami Beach, the federal grant money for operation and rehabilitation of buildings was first given to the South Florida Art Center with the understanding that the organization would be self-sufficient by the end of fiscal year 1995-96. "Jane Gilbert will have the opportunity to have a dialogue with the city sometime before next August," notes Taylor-Prakelt, referring to the possibility of continued CDBG funding. "I wouldn't preclude the possibility [that the center will receive additional grants]. But there is evidence of a declining funding allocation to that facility. We've been looking at a more lean budget to make sure that they wean themselves eventually from federal funds." The art center, which received a hefty $355,000 in fiscal 1988-89, has been granted just $157,000 for the current fiscal year.
Gilbert is not particularly optimistic about future federal grants. "It was proposed to the [Community Development Block Grant committee] that the organization would be self-sufficient in ten years," she says. "And now ten years have passed."
Mitigating this darkening financial reality is the fact that the art center owns three valuable street-level properties on the trendy mall: the Sender Building; 800-810 Lincoln Road, which also has artists' studios; and most of 924 Lincoln, a condominium building in which SFAC has set up its administrative offices and houses yet more artists' studios.
"It's hot property," affirms Cathy Leff, who, among her other duties, helps oversee real estate affairs for Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.'s Wolfson Initiative, which recently put the nearby Sterling Building up for sale. "You're going to get a better profit on Lincoln Road real estate than at any time in recent history."
Christine Burdick, president of the Lincoln Road Partnership A a not-for-profit group that manages the mall and rents space in the art center's 924 building A notes that the real estate decisions gripping SFAC are representative of the hard choices facing Lincoln Road in general, which will undoubtedly assume a more commercial flavor when the proposed movie theater and the national retail outlets most merchants and city officials are seeking move in. "How to keep Lincoln Road a cultural center in light of escalating retail costs is a challenge we haven't been able to satisfy yet," Burdick says. "This is a unique district . . . the goal was to get it to a certain point that doesn't necessarily accommodate those that brought it where it is."
Last week's city commission decision regarding the Beach Cinema proposal reignites the question of whether South Florida Art Center should sell its Lincoln Road properties, which are badly in need of repair, or look for other solutions to alleviate its financial straits. Director Jane Gilbert and the center's 26-member board of directors have begun to study possibilities for dealing with the group's cash-flow problems; these include finding a new buyer for any of its three buildings and offering a national retailer a long-term lease on the Sender Building.
"The good news is that we're in a position in which we have assets, and the question is what to do with them," notes Jan Carson Cheezem, a real estate attorney who is the president of the SFAC board. "I think to call it a problem is to pretty much overstate it."
Gilbert is less cautious in her assessment of the situation. "The arts are in crisis in this country, and we are having our own crisis at the art center," she announced at an October 10 meeting to discuss the future of SFAC with members of Miami's arts community. "If we're going to continue to be here on Lincoln Road, we need to either find other funding sources or create a new sense of importance to keeping artists on the Road."
The possibility of SFAC's liquidating some or all of its property has brought with it nagging doubts about the very structure of the organization and its perceived identity in the fast-developing Lincoln Road neighborhood. Does it make sense for SFAC to maintain artists' studios in its buildings, where artists and artisans can sell their work to strolling shoppers? Or should the group relocate the studios to roomier facilities in a cheaper, lower-visibility part of town? Is the character of the art center appropriate for an organization whose future could increasingly depend on grants, which most often go to groups with innovative or community-based programs? Is the center's eclectic population of 76 traditional painters, artisans, commercial artists, weekend dilettantes, and experimental artists in sync with Miami's effort to make itself into a cosmopolitan capital of contemporary art? Should the studios be available only on a temporary, merit basis to emerging artists in need of financial aid? And should putting on exhibitions take precedence on the art center's agenda over renting studio space as a way of attracting additional funding while better serving the greater community?
A fifteen-member planning committee -- organized by Gilbert and composed of several Miami-based artists, arts administrators, a real estate developer, a banker, a member of the center's board, and two artists representing those with studios at the art center -- is now studying issues such as these in a series of nine weekly meetings that began November 9. This committee will make recommendations to SFAC's board as to how the art center can best accomplish its multiple goals of making studio space available to artists, conducting innovative programming, and providing art-related community services.
The meetings represent Gilbert's effort to effect change while unraveling an administrative tangle that one former resident artist likened to life at Fawlty Towers, the rundown hotel that served as the setting for chaotic misadventures in the popular Seventies British sitcom of the same name.
"This is about making choices and reaffirming certain choices that we've already made," explains Tim O. Walker, an artist and furniture designer with a showroom on Lincoln Road who is acting as a pro bono consultant in the art center's self-examination process. Walker was similarly involved with arts groups in Durham, North Carolina, where he lived before coming to Miami four years ago. "Once in a while every organization has to look at itself and say, 'Why are we here?'"
The art center's identity crisis can be seen as just one more sign of an era in which government funding for the arts is dwindling, with many organizations re-evaluating their structure and purpose. "This is not an unusual challenge. Every organization is losing public support now, and we've got to find innovative ways to face that," says Rem Cabrera of the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council, which administers grants to arts organizations in the county and has awarded almost $400,000 to SFAC over the years, primarily for capital development. "It's just a case of making that proverbial lemon into lemonade."
In New York City, in Los Angeles, in Miami Beach, the artist has long served as a catalyst for urban renewal. Artists stake out a decrepit area. They move into cheap housing and slowly renovate buildings. Galleries follow. Then gallery-goers. Then merchants. Then new, wealthier residents. Rents go up. Artists move out, going on to reclaim a new neighborhood. The process begins again. In many ways, the art center's current dilemma follows this typical pattern of gentrification.
Coral Gables potter Ellie Schneiderman and a group of Dade artists formulated the idea for the South Florida Art Center in 1984. A New York City native, Schneiderman, 56 years old, already had earned a degree in research psychology when she moved to Miami in 1960. Once here, however, she decided to pursue a degree in art at the University of Miami, where her husband had been hired to teach in the psychology department. After she graduated from UM, Schneiderman starting making pottery in her garage, but she missed the camaraderie she had found on campus. At first she thought about forming a cooperative gallery and began holding weekly meetings with about a dozen area artists in her home. Out of those get-togethers came the notion of starting some kind of artists' colony.
"I decided Miami really needed something," Schneiderman recalls, sitting on a white couch in the living room of her airy Coral Gables house, which she has decorated with her own hand-thrown pottery, sculptures from Africa and Mexico, and works by art center artists.
She researched nonprofit organizations and visited several alternative exhibition spaces and artists' colonies around the nation, ultimately modeling her plan for a local group on Alexandria, Virginia's Torpedo Factory, a suburban Washington, D.C., factory building converted into artisans' workshops and galleries that, to this day, caters to that area's tourist trade. Schneiderman managed to recruit 125 artists who said they would be interested in having a studio at some manner of art center. By late 1984 she had collected $100 from each of them, and she started looking for real estate.
"I really liked South Beach," Schneiderman remembers. "There was nothing there. I mean, Sammy Davis, Jr., at the Fontainebleau was considered art."
First she checked out Ocean Drive, which was then lined with abandoned hotels, but decided that parking there would be too limited. Then Bruce Singer, who now heads the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, took her to Lincoln Road, which since its golden period as "the Fifth Avenue of the South" in the 1930s had deteriorated into a depressing row of low-rent shops and empty storefronts. The mall was one-quarter vacant.
"Everyone thought Lincoln Road was ugly," Schneiderman laughs. "I guess I came from Greenwich Village so I had a different perspective. I saw it had that broad promenade where artists could go back and forth and talk to each other and hang out. Everyone thought I was nuts, and I am. I'm still an idealist and a dreamer. I didn't really think I could pull it off. I was not a nonprofit person -- the only organization I'd ever belonged to was the PTA."
In October 1984, Schneiderman went before the Miami Beach City Commission with her plan to establish an artists' collective on Lincoln Road. The commission okayed her proposal and awarded her $62,000 in CDBG seed money, with which she rented 21 derelict storefronts from five landlords at a rate of three to five dollars per square foot. Merchants were paying six to ten dollars per square foot at the time. Desperate landlords happily embraced Schneiderman's scheme.
The South Florida Art Center opened on Sunday, March 10, 1985, with sidewalk painting demonstrations and then-Miami Beach mayor Malcolm Fromberg cutting a paper mural hung over the facade of 942 Lincoln Rd. (now occupied by West End bar), where the art center established a cooperative gallery. About 60 artists immediately occupied studios; most of them commuted to South Beach from other parts of Miami.
"Artists hope the three-block colony on the west end of the mall eventually will attract sidewalk cafes, nighttime entertainment -- and people," read an article published in the Miami Herald the day of the opening. "The city is gushing over its good fortune. An arts district and tourist attraction has just fallen in its lap."
The organization's rather broad mission statement, written by Schneiderman, who took the title of executive director, was to "provide permanent, affordable space in the Lincoln Road Arts District area of Miami Beach for outstanding emerging, mid-career, and established visual artists in an environment which fosters individual artistic development, experimentation, and dialogue among artists and ongoing interaction with the general public."
The art center began offering classes conducted by resident artists, and in 1987 Miami-Dade Community College launched a satellite school there, with classes that included performance art, hat decoration, and tai chi. But the school's SFAC-based program was abolished after only nine months. According to Marilyn Gottlieb-Roberts, the MDCC art professor who coordinated the classes, renting the location from the art center was too expensive.
In 1988 Schneiderman started buying property with CDBG grant money. First was the building at 800 Lincoln Rd., at the corner of Meridian, the former home of Burdines department store; it was gutted and divided into small partitioned studios. Carlos Alves laid a mosaic floor, and another artist, Marina Fernandez, added stained glass accents to the stairway railings. The building, bought in 1988, cost $700,000. The purchase price of the art center's third property in the 924 building was $430,000. Outstanding mortgages held by SunTrust and a private owner were refinanced earlier this year.
"The plan was to purchase threebuildings," Schneiderman explains. "The original proposal was that the art center would be studios, showrooms, and crafts rooms in the storefront spaces, but as the leases on those storefronts came up, arts-related businesses would move into the stores we left and we would move into our own buildings."
Articles in the national press hailed Schneiderman's Lincoln Road renaissance. "The Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach's historic Art Deco area has become Miami's art district," Horizon magazine raved in April 1988, going on to cite the SFAC's Sokolsky Center for fine Crafts and Sculpture (later replaced by Ground Level) as "an ever-evolving network of galleries, art-to-wear boutiques, and other art-related businesses."
Encouraged by Schneiderman's success, other arts organizations moved into the area. "The South Florida Art Center was the first visionary on Lincoln Road," contends the Cultural Affairs Council's Rem Cabrera. "After the SFAC came in, some other organizations [Miami City Ballet, New World Symphony] came in. They were really the linchpin for the revival of Lincoln Road."
Schneiderman, a maternal figure who one artist characterizes as "a benevolent dictator," had delineated a ten-year plan that would make the organization self-sufficient by the end of 1995. In part, it stated: "Central to the ten years Facilities Development Goal Plan is the desire of SFAC to become self-sustaining and less dependent upon grants and donations for survival as to ensure that the Center will avoid the historical Arts District pattern of commercial development outpricing the initial settlers."
But Schneiderman's plan, which she spelled out in scrupulous detail, depended on a million-dollar capital-fund-raising campaign. "It never happened," says new director Gilbert, who explains that with administrative turnovers after Schneiderman's departure as director in mid-1992, immediate concerns took precedence over long-term goals. Thus the present situation, in which the art center will likely look to its real estate resources to gain self-sufficiency. It is an alternative that some artists seem unwilling to accept.
"[The board] asks us over and over again what we want," says Jane Balavage-Harris, the center's director of artists' services. "It's as if they're waiting for a different answer A they're aware of what the original mission statement was. We bought the buildings as users so that we would be protected against what happens when a neighborhood is revitalized and the artists are booted out. I think there's a lot of resistance among the artists, and they may be archaic in their thinking, but there's a difference between revitalizing and reinventing. I think it's pretty successful as it is. What Ellie planned has worked very well. The suggestion that we can't afford to be on the Road any more and that now we have to go to some barbed-wire-enclosed compound in some rundown area to make art is reprehensible."
The SFAC's Lincoln Road neighbors generally support its desire to stay on the mall A with some reservations. "The South Florida Art Center has definitely been an anchor of the revitalization of Lincoln Road," asserts Lyle Stern, whose family's development group owns 730 Lincoln Rd. "Could there be better anchors now? Maybe. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be there A but they can do a better job of occupying the property." Stern suggests that the artists subscribe to a "good neighbor policy" by doing art demonstrations for the public: "If you're painting or throwing clay, why not do it in the middle of the road?"
Across from the art center's administrative building at 924 Lincoln, gallery owner Barbara Gillman recently adapted to the economic pressures she has been experiencing by renting out half her space to DISH, a housewares store. Gillman thinks that the art center should also change with the times. "They should be showing cutting-edge stuff," she notes. "To have a landscape in the window might help the artist, but it doesn't help the art center. Should they be getting public money for artists who are selling their things and being subsidized as galleries?"
Margarita Cortes shares a large space in the 810 building with her husband, George McClements; both are abstract painters. The couple has divided their room into two small studios and a gallery, where their work can be easily viewed by anyone entering the building. Cortes vehemently disagrees with Gillman. "Artists are always at the mercy of agents and galleries," she says. "Here's an opportunity to cut out the middleman. We've seen that artists can be managers, that they can sell their own work -- for that you're called commercial.
"I think because we own these buildings, it would be really stupid to go somewhere else. This is about being in a place where you don't have to explain that you're an artist, and knowing that your space is not going to be taken out from under you. This organization is only here because the artists hung around long enough. Why do they have to give it up?"
Inez Hollander, who gives watercolor classes in her studio in the 800 building, is also opposed to change. "Ideally, I would like it to stay exactly as it is," states Hollander, who has maintained a studio in the art center for seven years. "You can take any organization and turn it around and use it for something else. But that might not be what the art center was created for. The art center is necessary. Why else would the city have funded us in the first place? We were really responsible for the renovation of Lincoln Road, whether the merchants and the government recognize that at all."
But just as Hollander claims a sort of squatter's rights to her studio, others question the right of high-income artists such as her -- with residences on Fisher Island, Bay Harbor Islands, Key Biscayne, and in other tony areas -- to rent studio space at all.
"The idea was that the art center would provide subsidized space for artists, but there are more and more artists there with BMWs," complains one struggling artist who, unable to afford even art center rents, paints in her Miami Beach apartment. "Those people are complaining all the time. Because they want nicer and nicer spaces. They want showrooms."
"Where is it written that an artist has to work in a slum or a warehouse?" Hollander huffs. She explains that the center's higher-income artists have talked with Gilbert about initiating an emergency fund that would help other artists financially, enabling everyone to stay on the Road. And according to Gilbert, these wealthier artists also recently agreed to pay higher rents.
"I think we have a right to be here, because we're here, because this is ours," continues Hollander. "I believe in the art center. There are artists who really need it; there are people who live off it. Why am I going to stay here? Because it's mine."
But some members of the local art community who are not associated with the art center insist that the organization is ripe for change. Says one local artist who asked to remain anonymous, "The sidewalk art show mentality has been the albatross for that art center. It makes it really difficult to take it seriously."
Edouard Duval-Carrie, a Haitian artist who lives in Miami Beach, recently left his studio at the art center for a much bigger -- and cheaper -- working space in the design district off Biscayne Boulevard at NE 40th Street. "A lot of these artists use their studios as retail space, which for me is not propitious to an art organization," Duval-Carrie points out. "I think the property on Lincoln Road should be converted into an alternative exhibition space. Artists should concentrate on producing and not be in this sort of boutique situation. They've had a lot of support from the city and they're served their purpose and it was assumed it would stop when the street got back on its feet. [The Center] should keep as much space as they can, but they should go elsewhere to serve their purpose, which is to provide affordable space for artists' studios. They should maintain space on Lincoln Road for exhibition."
Gary Moore, an artist who currently is involved in developing an artists' cooperative in Overtown and who also serves on SFAC's fifteen-member planning committee, agrees with Duval-Carrie. "I always imagined that the South Florida Art Center would be an alternative space -- something funky and rough, and easy," he explains. "But when I got there it was real slick. It was all about the commodity aspect and real estate."
Carol Brown, an artist who works in North Miami and is on the exhibitions committee for SFAC's Ground Level gallery, also had different expectations: "It has the potential to be something really wonderful. But there's so much emphasis on real estate and financial discussions. I've been waiting to get around to the art."
That process has begun. At Ground Level during the month of November, Steve Bollman, an artist with a studio at SFAC; Alfredo Triff, a musician and professor of cultural criticism at MDCC's Wolfson Campus; and Gene Ray, who teaches philosophy at the Wolfson campus, organized what they termed the Black Box project, a cafe-society hangout that presented a variety of concerts, lectures, panel discussions, video screenings, and open artist critiques (all free of charge) designed to stir locals from their cultural lethargy.
"The intention is to think about the process, and not so much about the product," observes Bollman. "To provide an alternative to thinking about art as just commerce." Adds Ray, "This is a friendly, bridge-building experience that is not business as usual in Miami."
The successful monthlong series attracted audiences that ranged from a handful of people to as many as 200. Black Box represented a move in the right direction for Conrad Hamather. A fiber and installation artist who recently relocated to Miami from Chicago, Hamather works in one of the studios the art center rents above Lyon Fräres, the gourmet grocery located on the corner of Lincoln Road and Pennsylvania Avenue. "The South Florida Art Center should take the opportunity to make its mark in Miami and gain a national reputation," Hamather says. "They definitely need to break out and start becoming more cutting-edge, a little more hard-core. They need to hit the community on the head a little more."
Margarita Cortes, who has been a resident artist since 1988 when she and her husband moved here from Baltimore, pooh-poohs such notions. "The art center is a place for artists to make the art and sell it," she contends. "You can't legislate people to take risks in their work. Everyone works at their own pace. If we had only young, cutting-edge artists here, they'd be gone by now."
Counters Hamather: "A lot of people think this has turned into a sort of communist regime, that they're going to be burned out of their studios and chased down the road with sticks or something. There's a tension between artists who are new to the art center and those who have been here for a long time who see it as a sort of artists' utopia. Maybe they don't want to acknowledge the fact that it's not the way it used to be."
If Ellie Schneiderman was considered the art center's omnipresent fairy godmother, then Pat Jones was seen as its wicked stepmother. At least that was how many of the resident artists viewed Jones when she became SFAC executive director in October 1992 and began to shake up the status quo.
Schneiderman had bolted from the post earlier that year. In the seven years since she'd founded the center, she had gained 25 pounds and had developed a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. Schneiderman now says she was ready "to get back to her life." Gary Feinberg, an artist and the art center's property manager, ran the art center until a new director could be found.
Jones, who grew up in Miami, had served thirteen years as director of the Alliance for the Arts in New York City, a nonprofit service agency affiliated with that city's Department of Cultural Affairs. Jones was chosen to head up SFAC because of her extensive experience with arts organizations and what board president Jan Cheezem calls "an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary art." Cheezem stresses that it was the artists on the search committee who most strongly supported Jones's candidacy. Jones was brought in on the premise that the SFAC was ripe for change, and that she was the person to impose it.
"The basis for which I was hired was that up to then the organization had focused on developing the [studio] spaces and serving the resident artists," Jones recalls over lunch at a quiet restaurant on lower Ocean Drive, far removed from the clamor of construction crews on Lincoln Road. "And that now with the changing nature of the Road and with a growing organization, they would have to raise outside funds. And if they wanted to raise outside funds, the only way to do that was to really serve the changing nature of South Beach, to serve two other audiences, in terms of programs, exhibitions, and education Athe broader arts community and artists who were not residents of the center."
To accomplish these goals, Jones hired Jenni Person, who had previously worked at the Loft Theater in Tampa, as SFAC program director. Person and artist Roly Chang came up with the idea for Ground Level, an alternative space first located in the 924 building, where Person began organizing poetry slams and other performance events. Meanwhile, Jones sought outside funding and implemented a curated exhibition program that included work by nonresident artists.
At an open SFAC meeting in May 1994, Jones, board members, resident artists, and members of the community met to discuss many of the same issues now on the agenda of the recently formed planning committee. Much of the meeting's transcript contains contentious dialogue: While Person advocates "placement of the organization in the field" through marketing, artist George McClements tersely responds with the comment that artists want to be in their studios selling. Cheezem talks about movie theater negotiations, while ClaySpace director Bonnie Berman cautions against selling the buildings and expresses her suspicions about the city's interests. The only thing all parties seemed to agree on was that they would have to work on better communication.
Among the biggest concerns of SFAC's administration during Jones's two-and-a-half year tenure was the quality of the artwork being produced at the center. Plans for periodically evaluating the output of each artist -- or perhaps limiting the amount of time each could remain in a studio -- went around the table at several board meetings. Jones questioned the propriety of allowing artisans and commercial artists who set up their studios as showrooms to remain in the subsidized spaces.
"Pat had a very elitist attitude," contends artist Margarita Cortes. "She didn't care about any of us. We felt there were schemes to get rid of a certain kind of artist and get better artists in there. That's like artist cleansing."
Jones waves this off as nonsense. "We were trying to get good artists in there," she allows. "If you want to consider that elitist, you can. But I think we were saying we are not there only to serve the resident artists; we are trying to serve the general community and the community of artists in South Florida. I think the problem here is trying to change things in midstream. It creates a broken population that feels threatened because they don't want to lose what is now very valuable real estate."
The former director managed to increase the scope of SFAC's programming, bring in some more experimental artists, and develop the Art Adventures program for Dade County schoolchildren (directed by artist Charo Oquet, the program brings inner-city kids to the art center for workshops with resident artists). But by all accounts, including her own, Jones had trouble communicating with the artists and lacked the skills to manage several properties successfully while simultaneously addressing art issues. After several bouts with the board over the center's priorities, she resigned last February.
."I think there was a lot of animosity on the part of some of the artists," says the 50-year-old Jones, who now serves as a consultant for the Miami City Ballet and other area arts organizations. "That's the trouble with Lincoln Road and South Beach A people have too much time to gossip. I still have good friends who are artists there, but there were a lot who saw me as a threat A I wanted to make change. I was getting very frustrated with both trying to educate the artists and the board.
"Many of the older, long-term artists were suspicious of my motives, and therefore I probably couldn't get the kind of changes implemented that were necessary," she adds. "Somebody new would have to come in and take it to the next step."
Jane Gilbert approaches the Van Dyke Cafe for breakfast, a tall slim woman dressed casually, her unpretentious attire downplaying the confident swing of her Seven Sisters stride. Raised in WASPy Darien, Connecticut, Gilbert studied environmental science at Barnard College, then went on to Harvard for a master's degree in public administration.
Having already worked as an environmental management consultant, made videos in Central American rain forests, and organized after-school programs for urban youth in Boston, Gilbert was consulting for several development programs in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut, one of the nation's poorest neighborhoods, when she came to Miami on vacation last year. She stopped into the South Florida Art Center to pick up information for one of her Bridgeport projects -- developing artists' studios in a derelict downtown area. Gilbert established an immediate rapport with Jenni Person, who referred her to Jan Cheezem and other members of the board. Before Gilbert knew it, Cheezem had offered her the open director's position. She accepted. (Person has since left the center and taken a development job at the Florida Philharmonic.)
Sitting down for breakfast on a Monday morning, Gilbert is cheerful but visibly tired from the events of a busy weekend -- particularly a daylong SFAC artists' retreat held on Saturday. The new director has been holding meetings nonstop since her arrival -- with SFAC artists, with the board, with members of the community. She has seemed particularly determined not to alienate the artists from decisions about the art center's future. But today she is a bit impatient with what she calls some members' "self-serving" attitude.
"The message that I'm getting is that you're going to lose support from the artists if you're going to talk about turnover, or if you're going to talk about less studios on Lincoln Road," she explains as nearby bulldozers compete with the restaurant's classical-music-blaring sound system. "And the balance that I have to weigh that with is the long-term support of the center. Officially it would be the board who would decide what direction the art center is going to take. The role that the artists have is to nominate the board members. I think it's very important that the decision-making process be aligned to direct the organization in the way it needs to go. Right now I question that. I question whether it's aligned to further the organization. I think it may be holding it back. Certainly we're putting together a team that will look at the bylaws and make recommendations, and I think that the organization clearly needs a turnaround. I personally don't have much interest in sticking around if I'm not able to do that. So I'm going to address the things that I think need to be done and make those recommendations and make them strongly.
"I did not come here to operate a cooperative," Gilbert adds firmly, biting into a bagel. "I came here to run a community organization. This is about transforming a community, not just providing real estate for a limited set of individuals."
Later, over at the Lincoln Road Cafe, artist Carlos Alves answers his cellular phone and makes preliminary plans with an SFAC staffer for an artists' barbecue at his Ocean Drive apartment. Then his friend Sid Smith, an artist turned massage therapist, pulls up a chair, and the two turn to reminiscing about the mid-Eighties on South Beach, when, as Smith puts it, "You could shoot a gun down Lincoln Road and the only thing you could hit was a garbage can -- or a rat."
Alves says that he -- like most long-term resident artists -- has always been against selling any of the organization's property. But, he concedes, "Things have changed and we'll have to change with them. Something has become a cancer, and if we have to cut off an arm to save the body, we'll do it."
Alves quietly sips his coffee for a moment, then puts his cup down hard. "I think we want it all," he says, rising to pay his check. "Why shouldn't we? We've been here long enough.