Changemaker James Echols: Passionate About Supporting the Arts
James Echols’ passion and drive to support the arts keeps him busy year-round, which includes running his businesses – Life is Art and Soul of Miami. He also recently joined forces with the Arts & Business Council and other arts leaders to create the Miami Arts Brigade, whose first order of business is drumming up awareness and support for Give Miami Day on Nov. 20. Echols sat down with Artburst to give insight about his various ventures, his time in Miami, and the current art scene in Miami.
AB: What drives your passion to support the arts?
JE: I think if I could say that if I have a passion, it is helping people. Comes from reading too many super-hero comics when I was a kid, I suppose.
I’m the kind of person who sees a need and tries to fill it, with the skills and resources I have. When we started Life Is Art almost six years ago, we had spent the previous few years enjoying the art scene, watching the very beginnings of Wynwood and the early growth of the Art Basel movement and all the other things that were slowly starting in the early part of the 21st century. We had become friends with numerous artists and learned quite a bit about the Miami art scene, as well as the social scene.
Many artists we knew were moving to other cities in order to survive, something we dubbed “creativity drain”. Much like the well-known “brain drain” phenomenon, where educated people moved away to find better opportunity, this creativity drain was having the effect of lessening the quality of life in Miami. Local artists are the ones who are the soul of any community.
They tell the story of our city, and bring something special to the residents. It was much different than now. So, we decided to do something to help.
AB: Are you an artist yourself?
JE: I am not an artist. I used to dance a bit back in college, ballet, jazz, modern and such, but that was years ago. Event creation and community change making is my art.
AB: When did you first start Soul of Miami and then Life is Art? What was your reason for starting Life is Art?
JE: Our first post on Soul of Miami was July 16, 2008. It was started more as a personal site mainly for our friends, but quickly became really popular. Life Is Art was originally conceived around November of 2008, although we had been thinking about doing something for some months previous. We had meetings with friends and artists to talk about the structure for the organization, and what they needed then incorporated on January 5th, 2009. Our first event was March, 2009, the Life Is Art Miami Featured Artist Fair. this was well before the whole #change maker thing came up. We were one of really focused on providing opportunities for local artists. There were others that provided support; there were things like artist collectives, and, of course, the Bakehouse Art Complex and ArtCenter/South Florida, but nobody doing exactly what we do.
We discussed a variety of ways to address this need, but our strength and experience is in event production, so that is what we decided on, an organization that would create arts events.
AB: Describe Life is Art. What is the mission of that organization?
JE: The mission has changed somewhat over the years, but is always focused around the local arts. Originally, we just focused on supporting the artists, but we have since expanded our mission to include creating positive change in the community through the arts. Soon after we started doing art shows, we discovered that many of the emerging artists were lacking in business knowledge. We heard many tales of woe about how they had been ripped off by unscrupulous businesspeople of all types. So, we started doing educational seminars, in addition to the art shows.
Q: Tell us about the Miami Arts Brigade:
A: We have always been about collaboration, right from the very start. Our second event was in collaboration with Ecomb, our third with Zen Village, and so on. We were co-founders of PhilanthroFest in 2012, and have been working with the downtown arts organizations to form MDAD, the Miami Downtown Arts District. When Sonia Hendler, from the Arts & Business Council, proposed the idea, I was stunned with the realization that Miami did not already have an arts coalition. How could a major metropolis not have an organization that brought all the arts together? We are always stronger together. I immediately jumped onboard and helped her get it up and running. It is truly a collaborative organization, with everyone participating in the creation. I take no credit for the original concept but I am dedicated to moving it forward.
AB: What is your overall feeling of the arts scene in Miami today? You’ve been in Miami for 12 years so how have you seen that scene evolve?
JE: It is so much different now than it was a decade ago. Things have changed a lot since then, in just a few years. Now, it seems like all people talk about are local artists, which is great. When we started Life Is Art, nearly everyone scoffed at us, saying that Miamians do not buy local art. We heard this a lot. When we started PhilanthroFest, everyone scoffed at us, saying Miamians did not volunteer. Turns out in both cases “everyone” was wrong. Now we see local artists in galleries, museums and fairs, and #change making is a thing. There are more groups that produce local art shows.
There is still much to be done and we need to keep the momentum going and make sure it is sustainable in the long run. We are working on expanding our organization to increase our capacity to positively impact more people.
AB: Tell us about yourself. How did you get to Miami?
JE: Our story is kind of classic. We visited Miami on vacation and just fell in love with the place. Like so many others, we wanted a place to start fresh, and Miami seemed like a place with lots of potential. We saved up some money, quit our jobs and moved here totally without knowing anyone or having any jobs lined up. The thing is we had no idea just how much potential was here when we moved.