he East Little Havana neighborhood that includes streets with modest bungalows, a bakery with Nicaraguan pastries and the Thumbs Up Miami Barber Shop would seem an unlikely area for contemporary art. But on a recent Friday night, the artist-run exhibition space 6th Street Container was buzzing with “All About Water,’’ an exhibition of videos by Maria Lino. The images — young women cast as mermaids/sirens, refugees on rafts and people cleaning up water spills in homes flooded by Hurricane Wilma — underscored the theme.
“This show is all about the water that surrounds us in Miami,” Lino says, “from the beautiful ocean to the destructive force of floods.”
Video artist Adalberto Delgado is co-founder and curator of 6th Street Container, an exhibition facility in the bottom half of a two-story former apartment building facing a courtyard; the top half serves as studio space for assorted artists. In this less-than-fashionable neighborhood, Delgado was able to rent the building far more cheaply than in more arts-savvy districts.
Such artist-run galleries and alternative spaces, scattered across South Florida, are part of a national explosion in the Do It Yourself (DIY) principle among contemporary artists. Rather than deal with the bureaucracy and politics of commercial galleries, artists opt to mount their own shows. The works are often far more experimental than those featured in most commercial galleries, a draw for audiences primed for edgy art.
Most artist-run venues are an extension of art studios. In one portion of the facility artists create their works; separate exhibition rooms are used to present shows of other artists they respect and admire. The alternative spaces are often located in transitional neighborhoods, such as East Little Havana, where artists are offered free or deeply discounted rents to help shift the area in an upscale direction.
Near the Museum of Contemporary Art on Northeast 125th Street is Bridge Red Project Space, a complex of 10 art studios with an interior courtyard and an upstairs gallery. Once a storage facility for film props, Bridge Red is run by artist Robert Thiele, his artist daughter Kristen Thiele and her photographer husband Frank Casale; the three artists bought the building from sculptor Carol Brown. Bridge Red is designed to be an exhibition space for mid-career artists without local gallery representation, although many show in New York or elsewhere.
One of the gallery’s group shows, 3, featured the illustrious line-up of Robert Chambers, William Cordova and Barbara Neijna. Cordova, who was featured at the 2008 Whitney Biennial, attached a feather to an eyeglass frame mounted on a pedestal in a salute to Bird in Space, a sculpture by Romanian Constantin Brancusi that brought a record $27.5 million at a 2005 auction.
Cordova’s tribute sold the day before 3 formally opened for an undisclosed sum.
“Every artist wants their work to be seen,” said Casale. “But there’s nothing like the rush you get when someone buys your work.”
Currently on view at Bridge Red is Ground, with landscape painter Jim Couper, mosaic artist Carlos Alves, ceramicist JC Carroll, painter Shirley Henderson and ceramicist Ellie Schneiderman, founder of what is now ArtCenter/South Florida on South Beach.
One of the most fertile areas for artist-run spaces is Miami’s Design District, which hosts a popular Gallery Walk on the second Saturday night of every month. Many artist-run spaces are open that evening.
As the district undergoes redevelopment, many arts spaces likely will be moved or displaced. For now, several are tucked into a long, one-story building on Northeast 38th Street that has seen better days.
The best known alternative space here is Locust Projects, founded 13 years ago by artists Cooper, Westen Charles and Elizabeth Withstandley. Locust is purely an exhibition space, with no working studios on the premises. Currently on view is Locust Projects: The LAB (Locust Arts Builders), an installation created by 13 South Florida high-school students working with Monica Lopez de Victoria of the TM Sisters, a two-woman performance and video collaborative. The 2,700-square-foot exhibition space has been transformed into a cross between an aesthetically calibrated prom and an after-hours club, with black plastic sheeting covering the walls, video pieces tucked into corners of the room and free-form sculptural elements draped in Mylar.
Swampspace, which bills itself as “the UN-gallery,” is a small exhibition venue that hugs artist Oliver Sanchez’s studio, on Northeast First Court. Sanchez, who keeps a pet rooster in his studio, is an old art hand who goes back to New York’s Lower East Side scene. His current show, Scale, by artist Desiree Almodovar, is inspired by the equation of music and mathematics: in the show, strips of wood are painted in precise lines. (Next door is a complex of private studios that hosts the artists Bhakti Baxter, Jason Hedges, Tao Rey and Jay Hines.)
The Buena Vista Building on Northeast Second Avenue and 39th Street is home to The Bas Fisher Invitational, founded in 2004 by Naomi Fisher and Hernan Bas.
The two-story building, a design showcase boasting such slick tenants as Jonathan Adler, designer of mod home accessories, and the salon Shampology, seems an incongruous setting for an alternative exhibition facility. Still, the Bas Fischer serves an essential purpose, tapping “into the pollination between creative cultures, from visual art to poetry and film,” says Fisher.
Currently the Bas Fisher Invitational is featuring a solo show of interdisciplinary work from New York-based Nancy Garcia, her first in Miami. It incorporates a three-channel video piece with images of Garcia dancing, as well as displays of custom-made swimwear inspired by Miami.
Back on Northeast 38th Street, next to Locust Projects, is Dimensions Variable, run by Adler Guerrier and the husband-and-wife team of Frances Trombly and Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova. Guerrier, who was part of the Whitney Biennial in 2008, is at work on two projects for Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places. Rodriguez-Casanova and Trombly recently had a joint show at the Bass Museum of Art. The artists all keep studios in the rear of the property.
Dimensions Variable’s latest effort is Absenteeism, a solo show by Icelandic conceptual artist Magnus Sigurdarson, who previously has exhibited at Wynwood’s Dorsch Gallery. Dimensions Variable encourages site-specific shows, and Sigurdarson has essentially framed the walls of the space, fitting empty picture frames from his collection to the exact dimensions of the exhibition room.
“The picture frames have become the work itself, which is a kind of comment on art collecting as a ‘lifestyle,’’’ says Sigurdarson. “It’s hard to imagine this show in a commercial gallery. They would say ‘what are we going to sell?’”
One advantage of many artist-run spaces is the opportunity to peek behind the scenes. The studios at Dimensions Variable are a mad and interesting jumble. Rodriguez-Casanova, who works with household decorative elements, has a profoundly ordinary white louvered metal blind hanging from the ceiling, twisted like a DNA double helix. Guerrier’s studio has a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Living with Music, the vodou reference text Cahier de Folklore and an Ohio Players CD.
For Guerrier, Dimensions Variable is an opportunity to present unusual artistic experiences.
“Places like this are not trying to re-create the gallery experience,” he says. “This is another building block of culture in Miami, a way that artists can jump in and do what they do – which is make new work.”