Arson and Budget Cuts Leave A North Miami Arts Center In Jeopardy

It's an awful time to be an artist in Miami. This Thursday, barring a miracle, the county commission will vote to slash $11 million in arts grants in order to help plug a $444 million budget hole.

So imagine how Michael George feels.

In June, the patron of the Performing Arts Network in North Miami watched his center -- and decades of his own artwork -- disappear in flames. Police recently arrested the arsonist suspected of setting the blaze, but it's not much consolation.

Unless George can scare up some grants, the music will probably stop for a space that housed 80 professional dancers and 100-plus artists.

"You couldn't ask for worse timing for a tragedy like this," George says.

A painter and property owner, George opened the Performing Arts Network in 1994.

At the theater in a bland strip mall on the corner of West Dixie Highway and NE 131st Street, Haitian dancers, flamenco troupes, and Irish high steppers shared the stage. Hundreds of artists used a studio in the back.

George rented out the mall's other storefronts. Since 2002, Yvon Dorvil, a Haitian chef, had run an eatery called NuVo Kafé in one of them. The café burned down in November; George suspected Dorvil.

On June 4, George received a phone call from the fire department after 3 a.m. and drove to the theater. He found melted mirrors, blown-out front windows, and more than 400 oil paintings and watercolors turned to ash. He estimates the financial loss around $800,000.

The next morning, George claims, Dorvil sauntered up and asked, "How does it feel to lose everything?"

Police arrested 47-year-old Dorvil on July 27 and charged him with a felony count of arson. His lawyer, David Ranck, says Dorvil never taunted George and had nothing to do with either blaze.

"He's innocent," Ranck says. "Why would he burn down his own restaurant?"

George has already re-opened two practice studios in another building nearby. But the insurance money alone won't be enough to renovate the scorched theater space -- much less replace the personal work he lost.

"These were paintings I did when my children were born, when I got married," he says. "They were my best work."

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