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Knight Arts Challenge People's Choice: Swampspace, Still Swampy After All These Years

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People's Choice Awards nominees are live. The community can vote now through November 17 via text message for one of six selected Knight Arts Challenge finalists to receive $20,000 to fund their projects. It's a text-to-vote campaign: Choose your favorite group and text its code to 22333. Of the 75 finalists, the six People's Choice nominees are small, emerging groups from different parts of South Florida, all working to make the region a better place to live.

Oliver Sanchez's has had a running relationship with Miami's Design District for 50 years. As founder of Swampspace, a contemporary art space that has long been a constant in the Design District, he's been a beacon of productivity as an artist and facilitator for others. Born in Cuba, Sanchez lost his father immediately after birth to the executors of dictator Fulgencio Batista's regime and emigrated to Miami with his mother and brother at the age of 9.

In the '80s, Sanchez was a part of the East Village art scene and was friends with the decade's most iconic artists like Madonna and Keith Haring. Back in Miami since the early '90s, Sanchez has become the go-to fabricator for local and international artists. With his studio now turned an art space, Sanchez has become an altruistic benefactor of sorts for emerging artists. This endeavor has added more to his plate and as such, could benefit from a grant from the Knight Foundation that will allow for the space's continued sustainability.

But they need community backing in the form of public voting now through Monday, November 17.

See also: Knight Arts Challenge People's Choice: FAT Village Hopes to Bulk Up Broward's Art Scene

New Times: You've been in the Design District for six years now. What has been your frontline impression of how the neighborhood has evolved in that time?

Oliver Sanchez: Actually I have been in and out of the Design District for 50 years. Growing up in the '70s, the neighborhood was called Decorator's Row and it left a lasting impression on me as a place where artistic sensibilities flourish. Today I am here to contribute in a humble way to that effort, to celebrate creativity, originality and quality.

What do you find has been the major reason for Miami's art renaissance?

One indisputable factor in Miami's arts awakening is the caliber of its youth and their interest in global concerns, their understanding of mass culture, and embrace of identity. Miami is a unique geographic hotspot, a socio-political center also known as the "Latin Manhattan."

What is the endemic necessity of an alternative space within the larger scope of Miami's art scene?

Endemic sounds like disease. Admittedly, the longevity of Swampspace is an anomaly. It's a decade-old enigma. But if not me, who? And if not now, when? The prevalent art scene is thoroughly nuanced into disparate factions. Mass culture embrace of "low brow" art is understandable. The establishment is rooted in elitism and exclusivity but it also inexplicably wants to be super cool. Someone once said you can be the status quo or the avant-garde, just not both at the same time.

You speak about civility and artistic values being the core of your mission statement, what are they exactly and how do they translate into Swampspace's day-to-day operations?

For a primer on respect check out Rules of Civility made famous by George Washington. Civility is more than table manners and etiquette. Civility or graciousness proclaims our respect for others and in return gives us the gift of self-respect and heightened self-esteem. Artistic values are besides the commercial values that dominate a consumer society. Artistic values offer a rationale for the judgment of commerce. By this I mean that what is truly valuable is not money, but meaning. Wealth and power fade but the things that remain relevant; the things with lasting value are painting, sculpture, writing, music and dance. Understanding artistic disciplines enhances civility.

What are your immediate and long-term goals if you get the grant?

For some who solicit the Arts Challenge Grant, their ideas are just that, ideas. Fair enough. But for Swampspace, we are already up and running, we're making waves with or without. The immediate goal is to keep doing exactly what we have been doing, albeit with the encouragement that comes with recognition and support from the Knight Foundation. In the long term, it would be great to take Swampspace to the next level sustainability along a developmental path while remaining swampy relevant.

Forgetting the grant, what is your overall mission for Swampspace?

My mission as an artist is to live the example for others. With Swampspace I strive to maintain a venue for the uninhibited expression of ideas. Swampspace is now a recognized brand that is sophisticated enough for the arbiters of taste and unvarnished enough for the iconoclasts. To borrow the words of Shel Silverstein, "This is a place where the sidewalk ends and before the street begins."

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