The Biscayne Times

Jul 08th
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Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor; Photos by Silvia Ros   
April 2019

Farewell ArtCenter Hello Oolite Arts

With a new name (Oolite Arts), a new leader (Dennis Scholl), and a stunning bank account ($90 million), the venerable ArtCenter/South Florida has been reborn

ICover_Shot_0122f all goes as planned, ArtCenter/South Florida, now renamed Oolite Arts, will open in 2022 in a new complex in Little Haiti, at 75 NW 72nd St. The search is under way for internationally acclaimed architects who will design the $30 million, 40,000-square-foot signature center, which is slated to include 22 resident artist studios, a theater plus filmmaking spaces to go along with the newly formed Cinematic Arts program, a 2500-square-foot exhibition gallery, and ample spaces for the 200-plus classes it plans to offer, as well as talks and for printmaking and welding.

Oolite has also become a granting organization, with its introduction of the “Ellies” last year, grants awarded to 44 artists ranging from $10,000 up to the Michael Richards award for $75,000.

Much of this was made possible because of the groundbreaking 2014 sale of ArtCenter’s flagship space at 800 Lincoln Rd. on Miami Beach for a whopping $88 million. Through investments, that mother lode has grown to over $90 million, making it the largest endowment of any cultural institution in South Florida.

This has made Oolite Arts one of the most prominent and powerful arts organizations, especially now with Dennis Scholl as president and CEO. The collector, entrepreneur, longtime member of numerous local and international arts boards, and former vice president of arts at the Knight Foundation took the helm in 2017, and the center has been charging ahead ever since.

Not that ArtCenter was formerly a lightweight -- it has always had an outsized impact on the young art scene since its inception in 1984, and like that scene and the region itself, the center has changed and morphed with the times.

It’s important to look back at the origins of what was then known as the South Florida Art Center, a story that has almost entered the realm of legend. The early 1980s were known at the Cocaine Cowboy years, when drugs and money laundering were upending the tourist town; when Scarface, Miami Vice, and images of Mariel Boatlift Cubans roaming the streets gave Miami a rough veneer in eyes of the nation, prompting Time magazine to label the city “Paradise Lost.”

CoverStory_1_Lead_0058And lost, it’s true, was the allure of South Beach. The Art Deco hotels were crumbling and Lincoln Road was riddled with dying businesses. Homelessness and transience were clearly evident.

Artist Ellie Schneiderman, however, saw future possibilities and, with community support and grants, acquired some of the down-and-out storefronts on Lincoln Road to create affordable art studios, and as the first mission statement explains, “to help artists help themselves.” That mission may be one of the few things that have not changed in the 35 years since.

The art center eventually centered around several buildings, including three historic ones at 800, 810, and 924 Lincoln (the corner landmark building at 800, a former Burdines department store, would become the center’s flagship); the Sender Building that housed the performing arts space Ground Level and ClaySpace Galleries; and other studio spaces. They soon were surrounded by another dream of Schneiderman’s -- other cultural outlets, such as the Miami City Ballet and the New World Symphony, the result of a process of gentrifying the area through the infusion of arts.

That first decade saw artists pass through the center’s doors who themselves would infuse the art world, people like Edouard Duval-Carrié, Carlos Alves, Teresita Fernández, Charo Oquet, César Trasobares, Robert Flynn, and Carlos Betancourt, to name just a very few.

Numerous other “alumni” have influenced both the greater community and the local arts, including Luis Gispert, William Cordova, and Agustina Woodgate (all three Whitney Biennial winners), and the late Michael Richards, for whom the largest Ellie award was named; he was an artist-in-residence in a program run by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council offering studio space in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Richards was killed in the September 11 attack.

These Ellies are named for founder Schneiderman, who left after ten years to start other artist-run organizations, and a series of short- and longer-term directors and curators stepped in to fill her position, including Jane Gilbert in the mid-1990s, Jeremy Chestler 2005 to 2011, and from 2012 to 2016, Maria del Valle.

GCoverStory_2ilbert came down from Connecticut specifically for the job, to continue deploying the arts for activism, and through that, to spearhead a broader urban revitalization. She later became the founding director of Arts for Learning and is now the chief resilience officer for the City of Miami. Looking back, Gilbert says she was intrigued by the small grassroots movement Schneiderman created.

But after a decade, Gilbert adds, the center was in need of new energy. The name was changed to ArtCenter/South Florida, and Gilbert wanted to expand from solely visual arts to other disciplines and to interact more with the wider community.

There was some concern the center would turn into a static space, where visitors would simply watch the artists working behind glass walls in what Trasobares affectionately described as zoo cages. A resident at the center in the early 1990s, the Cuban-born Trasobares fit in with the mission of ArtCenter as an artist, curator, and community activist who also served as director of Miami-Dade’s Art in Public Places program.

Gilbert was also prescient. She wanted to open studio spaces in Wynwood, continuing with a plan of urban redevelopment through the arts, and making more places available for real experimentation and international interaction, breaking up the notion of studios simply for individuals to sit alone making art.

And in fact, longtime arts instigator Jenni Person (a BT contributor) was doing just that for ArtCenter, as programming director of its Ground Level, a multidisciplinary gallery that had become an incubator for performing arts, spoken word poets, dancers, and actors, many of whom went on to make their own marks on Miami’s cultural landscape. Some of these include poet Adrian Castro, dancer Helena Thevenot, and playwright Teo Castellanos, who developed his NE 2nd Avenue there, which would go on to win the Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2003.


Sound artist Gustavo Matamoros, who much later had a sound/performance studio at ArtCenter, remembers his first interaction with the center during Person’s time, when he was allowed space and resources for innovative programs. In collaboration with Miami-Dade College, he recalls, those Ground Level programs hit a memorable high mark with the Word(s)sounD festival in December 1993, curated in collaboration with sound poet Bob Gregory and featuring New York’s Kenn

Trasobares remembers the experimental nature of what went on at Ground Level as well. “I co-curated with James Herring the exhibition ‘EXODUS,’ he says. “The show was an early example of grouping artists beyond categories of race and national origin, emphasizing instead our archetypal condition as social outcasts looking for certain grounding, even featuring an actual balsa, a raft used by immigrants braving the Florida Straits to escape repression in their native Cuba [during that era of the 1990s].”eth Goldsmith, Alison Knowles, Jane Cortez and the Fire Spitters, and Adrian Castro.

Some of the performing arts incubator projects would morph into Here & Now, hosted by Miami Light Project, and the Ground Level space was eventually sold. Person herself is now managing producer at MDC Live Arts.

A Wynwood expansion didn’t happen, however, and Gilbert moved on to other projects. And at that point, a bit of a stale odor hung over the center.

During this time, Kristen Thiele, the daughter of well-known Miami sculptor Robert Thiele and a resident at ArtCenter starting in 2000, partially filled in to re-energize the studios, now occupying spaces in three buildings.

“The artists organized into three groups of building representatives in 2004, after we had some difficulty...implementing a policy that we saw as unconstructive,” Thiele says of that period.

She was a representative of Building 810; there was one for 800 and 924, as well. In time she was elected an overall representative, reporting to the board, and then became a board member, from 2005 to 2018. As a member of the executive committee, she served as exhibitions chair and later as alumni chair.

Looking back at the center’s history, she says, “The many significant changes, of course, happened during shifts in leadership that occurred a few times over the years and took many different forms.”

But the most significant change was the sale of the 800-810 building on Lincoln Road. “We spent a lot of time looking for the right person to man the helm and steer ACSF after the stunning and overwhelming amount of money we now had as an organization,” she explains. “We felt Dennis Scholl would be the right fit to lead us into a future that would expand our impact in supporting the arts and artists of our community.”

LCoverStory_4ast month the BT spoke with Scholl in his office at the remaining Lincoln Road space, the two-story 924 Building. He’s not often here, flying out for meetings in other cities, attending openings for his newly found passion, filmmaking and directing, and visiting other art institutions. Scholl not only oversees the huge endowment of the art center but wields a power all his own.

A graduate of University of Miami School of Law, Scholl and his wife, Debra, started participating in the arts in the late 1970s and investing in the redevelopment of South Beach back in the 1980s.

He later became founding chair of the Guggenheim Photography Committee and was appointed to the Tate’s Modern American Acquisitions Committee in Britain; and to the boards of the Aspen Art Museum, MOCA North Miami, the Miami Art Museum Collectors Council and its successor, the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). He and Debra opened their own art collection in a Wynwood building called World Class Boxing (that was the name on the building they bought; it closed in 2013). They were also founding board members of Locust Projects, Miami’s longest-running alternative non-profit gallery, where Debra remains chair.

Eventually Dennis joined the Knight Foundation in 2009 and started the Knight Arts Challenge, which has awarded millions of dollars to artists and organizations both here and in other cities across the country where brothers John S. and James L. Knight owned newspapers. As a PAMM trustee, he led the international search for a new director for the museum’s gorgeous new building, and landed Franklin Sirmans, who came from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015.


Scholl says he wants to play an “aspirational role” in supporting artists themselves through studio spaces and exposure to international influences, which he wants to expand with visiting artists and talks, something he expects Oolite’s new neighbors in Little Haiti will participate in as well.Needless to say, this is a lot of power in the hands of one man -- a power that many in Miami’s arts community hope will be used for a broad arts objective of supporting local practitioners as well as previously neglected, often underprivileged communities.

The exhibition space will feature shows from both local and international artists. And the addition of a film and video component, including the brand-new Block documentary grants, will make Oolite a truly comprehensive center with a focus on supporting local artists; helping them financially, as well through awards like the Ellies; and strengthening its educational roles in local schools and through outreach.

“We want to leave a larger footprint,” he says.

Aspirational and ambitious, and something he says likely he will do for only several years and then move on. He is involved in filmmaking (from writing to producing and directing) and wine-making, another passion.

WCoverStory_6hile Scholl has been brought in to enact some of the biggest changes in the art center’s history, fluctuations in how it was run and certain directions it would take were always part of the DNA. At about the same time as the art center was starting up, artist Lou Anne Colodny, who last year won an Ellie Creator award to assist in the finalization of her book

“It was becoming very commercialized because of its location,” she adds, “and the work suffered from that.”But she recalls that ArtCenter began to feel a little adrift after Gilbert left and interim directors came and went. “Their studios became somewhat stagnated, in my opinion, when I consulted there after I left MOCA,” she says. “We had an evaluation team of arts professionals evaluate the artists and developed a program to rotate some artists out of their studios. Unfortunately, because of finances, the [center] reneged on the new concept and allowed artists who rotated out to return after one year.

Jeremy Chestler later stepped in for a longer stint leading the center, righting the ship, but as with most non-profit outfits, money was usually an issue in planning a future path that would include some expansion and continued support for local artists. He left, and in 2012 ArtCenter hired as a replacement Maria del Valle, former director of the Miami Spanish Consulate’s cultural center, along with independent curator Susan Caraballo, who became artistic director.

Caraballo recalls that they were asked by the board to take the organization to new a level, “to make it more relevant again to the arts community.... It needed a little push.”

Under del Valle and Caraballo, the ArtCenter celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2014 with a year’s worth of elaborate shows that included artists from the very beginning to then-current residents.

They were once again looking how to engage a broader audience, just as the leadership in the 1990s had. This time around, they brought in more new media and international voices, and revamped residency and artist exchange programs.


And then the windfall landed in 2014, when the main 800-810 Lincoln Road space was sold, putting an unprecedented amount of money into the non-profit coffers. Unlike previous directors, Del Valle now had money to work with -- lots of it. She was able to experiment with expanded possibilities, such as setting up temporary shop in other locations around Miami, and trying out more avant-garde installations, bringing in, for instance, Israeli artist Dina Shenhav, who created a bizarre version of an American hunting lodge, and Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo, who buried herself in mud up to her neck.

But the visions of all those involved in the new direction collided, and del Valle and Caraballo left in 2016.

Scholl was the best choice, most people in the art world agreed, to take the center through the next steps -- toward expanding programming; adding more residencies, talks, and educational opportunities; starting up the Ellie grants and the film programs; and last month adding to that The Block, which will award money to local documentary filmmakers, in conjunction with the University of Miami School of Communication’s Department of Cinema and Interactive Media.

And, of course, he’ll shepherd the center into its new home. Most of the people who spoke to the BT about the move to Little Haiti believe it is a good choice, and will broaden the center’s reach into new communities.

There are, however, reservations from some. Caraballo, who is now an independent curator, is passionate in getting Miami residents to care about overdevelopment, climate change, and sustainability. She asks: Does the city really need another glamorous new structure, instead of building on what it already has and spending the money on sustaining a strong arts grounding?

“We need to think of investments in the future,” says Caraballo, “and the future isn’t what it used to be” -- namely, to build, build, build.

Others hope that the new free studio spaces will not mean a return to the old “zoo cage” dynamic, and that experimentation will be emphasized, that artists’ voices will truly be an essential part of the conversation.

“Infrastructure and money for artists is always a good idea,” says sound artist Matamoros, who has literally always “played” on the edges. “Now, how innovative will implementation be? How does it help Miami grow into a mature arts community?

“As an experimentalist,” he adds, “I’m always going to lean in favor of supporting experimentation.”

Matamoros hopes the art center can end up with a good mix of people: “I believe [Oolite] has become a much better institution all around in that it is having a great impact and it advertises to artists that it seeks to build community around the arts. That’s a good intention, but we all know the saying about good intentions. My skepticism is that there are no artists behind the wheel.”

ACoverStory_7s for the rather dramatic change of name? The center’s website describes it this way: “Oolite is a sedimentary rock formed by shells, corals, and other organic material coming together. It is the bedrock of Miami, a fundamental part of our ecosystem. Oolite Arts seeks to be the bedrock of the visual arts in Miami.”

Artist Eddie Arroyo, one of the Whitney Biennial’s few local winners (see “Local Hero,” page 52), objects to the new name, not because of its bedrock metaphor, but because “the rebranded name is an erasure of history,” with no reference to the ArtCenter’s origins and its legacy of importance to the community.

But most find Oolite Arts an intriguing, even fun name with which to move forward. César Trasobares says he has worked with oolite as a material and as poetic metaphor at different times. “The renaming and move to the mainland is congruent with the shifting artistic locus of South Florida,” he notes. “With expanded facilities, the organization will be better equipped to further its mission as a cultural catalyst, community gathering space, and enabler of artists’ work, profiles, and careers. That all this activity will be anchored on a high ridge of oolite stresses the strength of its foundation and future direction -- even as the water rises in the next few decades in our city.”

As director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Michael Spring has not only financially supported the art center but has helped nurture and develop the area’s cultural community more than any other single person. He fondly recalls walking down a decrepit Lincoln Road with Ellie Schneiderman in 1984 and wholeheartedly standing by her decision to buy up the storefront properties. The values of the department and the art center were always shared, he says: to cultivate an arts community from the ground up.

“The organization evolved,” Spring says, “but it never really strayed from its core mission.”

He likes the idea of adding film and new media to the offerings in a place like Little Haiti, and is excited to see the growth ahead. The name Oolite, he believes, signals this new evolution. “It’s a playful, distinctive name. I’m not sure I would have thought of it,” he says, adding that the inspired thinking behind it is part of why he likes it.


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