Arriving in Miami with his family as an eighteen-year-old punk rocker, Brook Dorsch fondly recalls the state of South Beach in the Eighties. The Beach was my stomping ground, he says. The Dead Kennedys at the Cameo, Jane's Addiction at Woody's, Rat Bastard's shows, Charlie Pickett, F. I can still vividly remember walking down Lincoln Road one night thinking, This would be a cool place to buy a storefront.
Miami Beach city officials had a less cheery take on matters at the time, publicly decrying the increasing crime and spread of boarded-up buildings as that decade wore on, but one man's urban squalor is another's bohemia-in-the-making. Lured by cheap rent, blue skies, and the kind of permissive atmosphere that occurs when local police are too preoccupied with actual robberies to worry about quality-of-life issues, all manner of creative freaks flocked to South Beach, in the process fashioning a genuinely offbeat scene of interesting artists, musicians, and slumming fashionistas. The end result was a nightlife with little need or desire for velvet ropes and clipboard-wielding door divas -- the Beach's sketchy post-Mariel reputation acted as an efficient method of self-selection.
If you need an easy marker for this period's apex, try the 1992 New York magazine cover story trumpeting the new SoHo in the Sun, a reminder that the area's appeal was once based on something beyond VIP room celebrity sightings (though the thong-clad Rollerblading models probably didn't hurt, either).
Eight years on plenty of four-letter words come to mind when describing South Beach's cultural milieu, and SoHo isn't one of them.
According to a recent Mayor's Economic Council study, 1999 saw almost four million tourists bunking in the Beach's hotels, the catalyst for the economic prosperity that the City of Miami Beach has experienced in recent years, contributing more than $11 billion to the area's economy. That's great news if you're a restaurateur or a tchotchke merchant, but as the recent closing of the Alliance Cinema underscores, the enshrinement of tourism is a death knell for any cutting-edge arts scene. One can only imagine what thoughts are now running through the head of James Quinlan, the plucky promoter responsible in the Eighties for bringing acts as disparate as the Butthole Surfers, David Byrne, King Sunny Ade, and Sonic Youth to the Cameo Theater (now remodeled into the defunkified crobar). Currently the director of Miami Beach's Office of Arts, Culture, and Entertainment, Quinlan's recent musical projects have involved booking edgy outfits such as the Lovin' Spoonful to rock the Lincoln Road Mall.
At age 39 Brook Dorsch certainly is looking a bit more respectable than in his slam-dancing days. As he sits in the back yard of his newly relocated Dorsch Gallery -- now inside a sprawling Wynwood warehouse complex at 151 NW 24th St. -- he readily admits he's traded in his safety-pin-studded tuxedo jacket for a pair of sleek Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses. I tell people the D and G stand for Dorsch Gallery, he says with a sheepish laugh as he slides the shades atop his head. His soundtrack of choice has shifted too, from the guitar thrash of the Germs to the outré jazz of Don Byron and the chilled electronic beats of Pole. Still he's held on to one important lesson from witnessing firsthand South Beach's dramatic transformation: Don't rent.
"Yeah, buying this has broken me," he sighs with a pleased smile, motioning to the gallery behind him. But it's something I've always wanted to do. After eight years in a slightly cramped Coral Gables space, the Dorsch Gallery finally has all the room it needs.
It's a purchase that seems to have come just in time. Both real estate speculators and the local media are beating the drum for the area's development, sending prices on even the most dilapidated buildings soaring; El Nuevo Herald's front-page headline two Sundays ago screamed "Downtown challenges South Beach," trotting out the familiar SoHo comparison and using pictures of Club Space (a nightclub favoring dance-floor brawls and the same tired trance acts as Washington Avenue's joints) and the Estefan-owned Bongos (the Cuban-exile answer to Planet Hollywood) to illustrate this glorious arts renaissance.
Meanwhile the past few months have already seen a flurry of activity at the Dorsch Gallery, only some of it centered around visual art. To accompany an August opening, legendary New York City avant-jazz tenor saxman Arthur Doyle ventured down for a concert, only to find himself in danger of being one-upped by Miami's own Rat Bastard. Postset a visibly exhausted Doyle wiped the sweat from his brow and settled into a chair in the audience. An appreciative look showed on his face as Rat began conducting an impromptu assemblage of a dozen horn players, percussionists, keyboardists, and violinists. In lieu of a conductor's wand, Rat would flail his arms wildly at a particular player and then leap into the air -- all in the service of trying to physically summon forth a transcendent racket from the gathered group. Even Doyle, famed for his own visceral paint-peeling workouts, looked impressed. It was the kind of jazz performance you're not likely to find over at the Beach's decidedly more genteel Van Dyke Café. Which is precisely the point.
What a gallery should do is challenge people, Dorsch explains of his initial inspiration for opening shop back in 1992. I was getting fed up with what was I was seeing in the galleries in the Gables. There were a few that always stood out, like [the galleries of] Ambrosino and Fred Snitzer -- they were great. But then you go to these other galleries and you see the same thing month after month. Eyes sparkling, he adds, I love having people come and not know what to expect. One time it's photography, the next it's an installation.
Or perhaps, as he's currently contemplating for Halloween, a "haunted crackhouse."
Dorsch leads the way to the adjoining ramshackle house he's also purchased, freshly devoid of its previous tenants: a crackhead couple who'd been terrorizing the area. He recalls that when the previous owner finally evicted the pair, all the people from the neighborhood came by: Hey, there's my wheelbarrow! Oh, so that's where my lug wrenches went!'
The home's living room still has a tangibly creepy feel, not least because of the writing spray-painted on one wall: a large skull and bones next to an ominous Good Day To Die. Perhaps even more jarring, pinned nearby is a poster from Mickey Rourke's ill-fated South Beach nightclub, with the scruffy actor gazing out from in front of his motorcycle. Shrugging his shoulders, Dorsch quips, Maybe the crackheads were big fans of Harley Davidson & the Marlboro Man.
Kulchur is staring at the cryptic phrase Neta 100%, which appears scrawled on several door jambs as Dorsch excitedly calls from a back bedroom. There, black scuff marks dot the walls in even intervals. This entire room was filled with tires from the floor to the ceiling, he marvels. It looked like an art installation -- just incredible! Apparently the former inhabitants' chief source of income was undercutting the disposal fee for tires. Unfortunately for Dorsch, they never quite got around to the disposal part of their business plan. He eventually counted 800 tires on the site. If anybody had dropped a match, this place would still be burning today.
Dorsch is undecided about whether to convert the house into a studio, but for now all the bizarre graffiti stays. Local band AlphaVox just finished shooting a music video inside the home, and a somewhat bemused Dorsch explains that via word of mouth alone he's already been contacted by several film crews about renting the spot for shoots. Why pay to simulate drug squalor when you can get the real thing?
Back inside the gallery proper, Dorsch begins gushing about the current featured display: the work of local artist Kerry Ware. Standing in front of one gargantuan wall-size construction of protruding wooden pegs lashed together amid a splash of blue, he declares, I love this! He runs his hands over the wood as he describes how it evokes a pier at water's edge on Biscayne Bay, capturing an otherwise indescribable slice of the city. Basking in his intense enthusiasm, it's hard not to agree.
I guess you could call this my crusade, he says. I really want to get people into collecting individual stuff. People tell me: I've got lots of art at home; you've got to come see it.' So I go there and it's a wall of Coconut Grove Arts Festival posters. Yeah, they're pretty, but -- He shakes his head and laughs. They make 100,000 of those things!
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It's much better to have your work on the wall of somebody's house than sitting in the corner of your studio in a pile, he continues. As great an artist as you think you're gonna be, you've got to get it out there, and that means letting it go for a little cheaper. They have these formulas in these art books: How many hours did you work on it? What was your medium, your materials? If you calculate all that stuff out, and then add in the dealer commission, by that time it's expensive. So look, cut the price, get it out there.
Doesn't this anti-elitist thinking take money out of his own pocket? Basically I lose a lot of money, he concedes, but I can't think about it like that. If I believe in an artist, that's all that matters. So after working what often are 60-hour weeks as a satellite computer specialist, where on earth did he find the energy to personally rehab this warehouse? What keeps him going?
"I have this little idea that sits in my head," Dorsch replies. Sometime in the future an art historian is going to go back and look at all these Miami artists, and all their résumés are going to show that their first solo show was at the Dorsch Gallery. All these great artists had their first show here, and I'll be proud to have given them that chance.
And when that art historian comes digging, ready to parcel out glory, where will Brook Dorsch be? Oh, I'll be around, he responds. I'll be looking at all the new students coming out. That's what I do.