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ART, ECOMONICS AND BISCAYNE: Interview with Ryan N. Dennis and william cordova

Ryan N. Dennis

From The Root (Miami), 2016
Credited to Base Collective (william cordova + Leslie Hewitt)
While in Miami as a Visiting Writer for the Miami Rail, I realized quickly that I would only be able to scratch the surface of all that is going on in this culturally rich city. I had a number of great visits to artist studios, museums and private collections, but it was learning about Miami through the perspectives of artist william cordova and Diaspora Vibe founder and activist Rosie Gordon-Wallace that allowed me to see things that may not have otherwise been possible. william and Rosie showed me “their” Miami, truly one of most electric cities that I have been to in the country.

RYAN N. DENNIS: What held my attention from the time I touched down in Miami was the drive from the airport to my hotel, located on Biscayne Boulevard. This street felt like it has a profound history, but it is newly dressed with sleek designs and renovated buildings. What can you share about the street and the impact it has had on the neighborhoods that border it?

WILLIAM CORDOVA: You have to understand that Biscayne Boulevard, prior to the construction of I-95, was the only route from St. Marys River, bordering Georgia, to the Florida Keys. The section you saw in Miami was originally a tourist driven area with plenty of motels that catered to snowbirds and nightlife during the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the architecture still stands, and reflects the early space-age influence that captured the public’s imagination at the time. The Playboy Club (7701 E. Biscayne Blvd) stood only a few blocks from The Vagabond Hotel back in the late 1960s. The recession of the mid 1970s after Nixon and the Vietnam War brought a great deal of disparity to much of South Florida. 1980 also saw the influx of Cuban and Haitian refugees seeking asylum and brought a rich mix of diversity. Later, the crack cocaine epidemic swept our communities, destroyed whole families, and devastated many already economically strapped communities. There were four racial uprisings from 1980 through 1991 that were fueled by police brutality, starting with the fatal police beating of an unarmed motorist named Arthur McDuffie on December 21, 1979.

White flight and economic disparity for South Florida’s working class turned Biscayne into a mix of mostly working class African American, Caribbean and South American communities. The Playboy Club closed down and previously swanky motels sought out business from street prostitution to survive the economic recession.

The Biscayne corridor became a working class community with cultural diversity and plenty of mom & pop shops, but it also had crime, prostitution and was neglected by city officials throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. The complex mix of culture that sprouted on Biscayne Blvd from 12th street up to 125th street during these hard times, though, included an eclectic art scene, live music, Gay clubs, and bodegas. It sustained itself despite the lack of city support.

South Florida is like an airport, where people constantly come and go. The difference is that some people are pushed out while others profit from their removal. I documented many of the motels on Biscayne back in 2004 because I saw the phenomenon of Art Basel bringing in economic growth for some businesses while removing whole communities.

DENNIS: Driving around Miami, I could plainly see which areas were being invested in and which weren’t. There were major shifts! They struck me as very similar to what is happening in Houston’s Third Ward, where Project Row Houses is based, and it seems that these shifts are occurring in cities across the country. Can you speak to the impact you think these factors have had on the arts community in Miami?

CORDOVA: Only certain art communities benefit from private investors or public funding. In 2005, we had examples of how Wynwood was being revitalized through artist run spaces, grassroots galleries and new businesses in a predominantly Puerto Rican community. By 2013, most artist run spaces had been sold because artists were renters and rents rose. Those grassroots galleries were kicked out. There is a powerful documentary called Right to Wynwood (2013) by filmmaker Camila Álvarez and Natalie Edgar that reveals many of the strategies and tragedies that took shape in the removal of that community. Come 2015, most of Wynwood real estate is high priced, cluttered, trendy like South Beach, and the Puerto Rican community’s presence echoes Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

Little Haiti and Overtown were next, and what most artists don’t realize, but some do, is that they play straight into real estate strategies that are constructed to use them against the neighborhoods they live and work in. I am not against an art community expanding in South Florida, but I think there has to be a balance of give and take, responsibility by new businesses and city officials when it comes to moving into someone else’s backyard.

There are a few examples in Miami that reflect a different method of artists working and building with communities. The Miami Black Artists Workshop (1968- 1985) founded by scholar/artist Gene Tinnie and Robert McKnight among others, Center of Contemporary Art (COCA 1981-1996) founded and directed by Lou Anne Colodny in North Miami, African Heritage Cultural Center (1975) founded by Marshall Davis, Art Center South Florida (1984) founded by artist Ellie Schneiderman, The Barnyard Community Center (1983) founded by Elizabeth Virrick, and Little Haiti Cultural Center founded in 2009 are all art institutions that utilize creative methods of supporting, preserving and exchanging ideas with different communities while being self-sustaining.

DENNIS: How would you define the arts community in Miami?

CORDOVA: Segregated. Institutions, curators, and art periodicals are often not aware of the institutions or artists outside the Wynwood or South Beach area. It isn’t out of malice, but a very common South Florida state of being: a car culture city dictated by highways and fads. There are many spaces and people who do take risks and produce edgy and challenging programs like The Farside Gallery run by Arturo Mosquera, Bridge Red Studios run by Kristen and Robert Thiele, African Heritage Cultural Center, Under the Bridge run by Lou Anne Colodny and Diaspora Vibe founded by Rosie Gordon Wallace (1996).

Miami’s art community has, at best, always been fragmented and extremely fragile. After Art Basel many artists became driven by commerce, and new artists relocated to Miami for a chance to benefit from the week- long art fair; the only problem is that Miami does not have adequate commercial opportunities to sustain that many artists year-round.

South Florida still does not have strong Art History or Fine Art studio programs. Most people leave Miami if they want a challenging education. The Miami Herald Newspaper used to have a full-time art critic, Elisa Turner, who knew the art landscape and witnessed its changes up until 2005. The Herald, the only major news- paper in the city, terminated her position and we have not had a full-time art critic since, even though Miami’s commercial and non-profit sector is growing.

DENNIS: I find artists such as Yanira Collado, Khaulah Naima Nuruddin, Rick Ulysse, Onajide Shabaka and other members of the Coffee Cup Collective working in Miami incredibly invigorating. Each of them is doing something expansive within their practice, and I hope they are being given opportunities to make a living from their work in and out of Miami. You’ve often used your platform and network to curate exhibitions with these and other artists. Who else is working to de-segregate the Miami art world?

CORDOVA: I would add Juana Valdes, Carl Juste, Robert McKnight, Ena Marrero, Rhea Leonard, Gene Tinney… actually, the Perez Art Museum Miami recently acquired a work by Juana Valdes for their permanent collection, which is a wonderful step forward for our community.

Demonstrations in various states, including Florida, against the killing of Black and Brown youths have brought out extreme hate and micro-aggressions, but also created a deeper understanding of difference. Colin Kaepernick’s civil disobedience was met with harsh criticism by media and the public because many assume an athlete’s role is to entertain and not speak out, but his actions did a lot to create awareness. Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Peter Norman are all public figures who have used their positions to address injustices. This all has to do with maintaining conscious- ness. Like Angela Davis says, “We live in a society with cultural amnesia.” So we can’t fall asleep at the wheel.

Consistent action, maintaining open channels, collaborating, investing in community by participating or organizing public programs, education and passing on information are key to making change.. I believe in having a long-term and short-term plan. We have too many people motivated by self-interest who abandon everything as soon as they achieve their short-term goals. This isn’t exclusive to South Florida. It’s a phenomenon that occurs everywhere.

A platform can create dialogue, but it’s also up to the participants to address agendas, deconstruct, and build new examples that do not exclude or misinform. For example, The Coffee Cup Collective has chapters in many cities throughout the US. There is also an honorary chapter in Cuba that includes poet Julio Mitjans and author Roberto Zurbano. The Collective works in many capacities that include the visual arts, but it’s not exclusive to the arts at all. We are also interested in real estate and other methods of building.

DENNIS: How do you push up against visibility issues for the artists you support (including yourself)?

CORDOVA: My mother always led by example. As an orphan, she had to do everything herself because there was no guide, no template for anything. I applied the same strategies she passed on to all aspects of my life. I am fluid in the way I navigate the internal/external world because creating barriers only limits me. Walls are an illusion of security, but many people choose to compartmentalize their lives or further isolate themselves in gated communities out of fear.

As far as art is concerned I never waited for the art world(s) to come knocking. I started asking questions while at Miami Dade Community College (North Campus). Faculty like Pat DeLong, Bob Thiele, Karen Rifas, Elmer Craig, Pat Johnson, Robert Huff, and Charles Hashim really gave sound advice. I started to curate exhibitions during my first year at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago because there was a lack of representation for the artists of color in Chicago at the time.

My presence in the art world has changed since my undergraduate days in Chicago, but my focus hasn’t. The lack of equal representation hasn’t changed; only surface alterations have occurred. Artists of color may be more active now through high profile exhibits for certain individuals but these don’t make up for pervasive marginalization. All institutions (universities, publications, for/and non-profit art centers, media) in general need to be more proactive, research, schedule studio visits and not exclude artists because they choose not to use academic jargon to speak about their work or are outside of the institution’s familiar safe zone. The public also has to demand that institutions diversify their programs, otherwise we will be having the same conversation in five years.

I have always included curating, writing, and speaking as part of my practice. These things keep me grounded and in touch with different groups of people. They give me perspective. Maintaining a critical and close group of collaborators can lessen isolation. Isolation only leads to having a single opinion.

DENNIS: Since I first met you, nearly a decade ago, I have appreciated and admired your perspective. You have an unwavering focus that is vital to working and sustaining a career. Tell me what exhibitions or projects you have coming up.

CORDOVA: My exhibition negentropy: to speak a language is 2 take on a world opened at Bridge Red Studios on February 12th; smoke signals: sculpting in time will be on view from April 6 through May 6th at Sikkema Jenkins in New York City; I have a forthcoming Summer show at 80M2 Livia Benavides Gallery in Peru in June; and lastly, I am organizing a sci-fi exhibition titled “the past is more infinite than the future” a quote from Toni Morrison. The show will be at Under the Bridge in Miami run by artist and director Lou Anne Colodny.

DENNIS: What would you like people to know about Miami?

CORDOVA: I think it’s important for people to read Marvin Dunn’s Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. Culture and diversity anywhere cannot be defined solely by a TV show, food or clothes.

Ryan N. Dennis is the Public Art Director and Curator at Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas. Her work focuses on African American contemporary art with a particular focus on socially engaged practices, site-specific projects, and public interventions.