Oolite Arts: New acquisitions program, new home, new virtual offerings
Oolite Arts CEO Dennis Scholl and artist Diego Gutierrez in his studio at Oolite Arts. (Photo courtesy of Christina Mendinghall)
About five years ago, Oolite Arts’ board chairwoman Kim Kovel visited the Cranbrook art center in Michigan. While touring the art museum’s collection of works created by students – many of whom became renowned as alumni – Kovel had a revelation that percolated over several years.
“She came to me six or eight months ago and said, ‘How would you feel about having an Oolite art collection?’” said Dennis Scholl, Oolite’s CEO and president, in a recent interview.
The idea: To acquire and display the works of Oolite’s artists-in-residence and alumni.
Scholl loved it and suggested that after a few years of exhibition in Oolite’s new facility – currently in the planning stages – the works be gifted to museums, chosen to best support each artist’s developing career. Scholl and wife Debra, renowned collectors who also initiate traveling exhibitions and make major gifts, have strong connections to many museums.
Scholl and Kovel agreed it was a very good, virtuous circle. With an approved budget and a long list of candidates, the Oolite Arts Acquisitions Program was born.
A committee, led by board members Lin Lougheed and Marie Elena Angulo, selected works by seven current and recent Oolite studio residents and presented these to the full board.
“We originally were going to only take one or two,” Kovel said. “But in the end, we decided to take all of the recommendations, just because of the times and the need in the community.”
Additional funds were promptly budgeted, totaling $46,000, Scholl said. The acquisitions include two commissioned pieces – a baroque-style interior charcoal drawing by Gonzalo Fuenmayor, and a vividly painted, expressionistic masked portrait of a young man wearing a bandana by Michael Vasquez. Both are improvisations based on prior works, expanded in scale.
“These are artists who are working at the top of their game and in our community among the best,” Scholl said.
In phone interviews and transcribed excerpts from recent videos, the artists commented on their works.
“I’m really interested in showing the process that goes along with making the painting, and so I’d like to leave things really dirty and gritty. I don’t like to have a refined finished product. I don’t see it like that. For me, it’s more capturing an energy.”
– Diego Gutierrez, “45 minutes to myself,” 2018
“It’s a Victorian-style room used as a storage space for Hollywood-style letters, spelling out ‘BANANAS.’ When I came to the U.S. [from Colombia], I was making work with bananas as a way to exoticize myself, coming from a ‘banana republic,’ and bananas became a vehicle to explore my identity, power dynamics, immigration, luxury, labor.”
– Gonzalo Fuenmayor, not yet titled, 2020 (reference image)
“The [Malcolm X] text and phrasing are re-phrased as a ‘we’ statement and layered on and about impressions of flowers and leaves — the botanical and natural. The rest is art, so the artwork is my layering of those things together as an offering, a kind of reminder, a marker – hoping the viewer goes there.”
– Adler Guerrier, “Untitled (We will join Malcolm) IV,” 2017
“Partially revealed elements are essential components in my work. This veiling alludes to protection – preservation as a way of cloaking historical elements previously distorted by external forces. Both the Oolite purchase and the piece currently on exhibition endeavor to protect their coded meanings, otherwise skewed by commercial fabric production.”
– Yanira Collado, both pieces she cites in the quote are known as “Untitled”
“We live in an irrational, absurd and surreal time. I am building improbable structures, which would collapse in the real world, but let me dream, believe in and explore on paper. These works, more so than ever, reflect the ever-tenuous relationship to what we believe we know and reality. It’s a delicate balance.”
– Karen Rifas, “1225,” 2017
“[In Miami Beach], it’s like I don’t have to invent light anymore. It already exists here, and it reflects off of the multitude of shiny surfaces. It is sort of this jungle, but it’s so unnatural already, and so there’s plenty of artifice for me to work with that I’m absolutely fascinated.”
– Anastasia Samoylova, “Miami River,” 2018
“I’m most recognized for my figurative paintings and portraiture that explore identity, pride, place, and belonging. With this new commission, I am acknowledging the current moment of social progress and the health crisis, and creating an image that’s imbued with a sense of resilience and a will to overcome.”
– Michael Vasquez, not yet titled, 2020 (sample work)
In selecting next year’s acquisitions, the board plans to adopt a more formal jurying process.
Kovel, who also heads her family’s antiques publishing business and has a background in finance, said Oolite administers an endowment of about $95 million – primarily from the 2014 sale of a Lincoln Road property. That bounty still requires judicious management to maintain a positive balance sheet, particularly with commitments such as the annual Ellies artist awards and its new $30 million building project.
“Helping artists help themselves” is the oft-quoted motto from later founder Ellie Schneiderman. Oolite Arts, once known as the South Florida Art Center, offers an array of services – with a particular focus on residents and alumni (more than 1,000 since 1984). Scholl calls it “a 360-degree holistic support system, with a place and opportunity for every artist in the county.”
Among the benefits afforded Oolite residents and alumni is the chance to exhibit alongside nationally and internationally celebrated artists “in the same show with equal dignity,” said Scholl. “That’s the best thing you can do for an artist. Every year, artists are given two or three such opportunities.”
As an organization intimately connected to working artists, Oolite quickly responded to the economic pain induced by the pandemic with an emergency relief fund, offering grants of up to $500 to artists who demonstrated need. Initial seed money was supplemented by individual and institutional contributions and, to date, about $200,000 have been awarded to 464 Miami-Dade County artists. Moreover, no staffers were laid off or had hours cut, Scholl said.
Despite the pandemic, planning for Oolite’s new mainland home – at 75 NW 72nd St. – continues relatively unimpeded. Scholl expects the schematics from Spanish architectural firm Barozzi Veiga to be made public this fall, with an anticipated buildout by spring 2023.
“I’ve got really the dream team in terms of the facilities committee helping us and guiding us,” said Scholl, praising Oolite board members with architecture and development expertise.
In addition to more education facilities and 22 studios, “it’s going to have a theater, a significant exhibitions space, a makers’ space where people can come in and use very interesting tools – CNC routers and things like that. So we’re going to be a lot of different things,” Scholl said.
Complementing these expanded facilities, there will be scholarships and outreach available to open opportunities for residents of the Little Haiti/Little River community.
Already, before the COVID-19 pandemic, Oolite’s Video Art Club engaged middle-school students at nearby St. Mary’s Cathedral School. “We bring in some of the best filmmakers in our community and invite them to make a film,” Scholl said. The students develop the story, design the sets, even use green screen for special effects.
While the new facility is intended to pull Oolite’s audiences to its mainland neighborhood, Kovel and Scholl both said that retention or sale of Oolite’s second Lincoln Road property is one decision they’ll make only when the new dynamics can be assessed. Considering these turbulent times, that’s an uncertainty they can live with.
Seasoned arts executive and entrepreneur Dennis Scholl became president and CEO of Oolite Arts in 2017. View more video interviews with Scholl in Florida International University’s Inspicio e-magazine. (Video courtesy of Inspicio)
Following Centers for Disease Control guidelines, Oolite’s facilities remain closed, but staff and board regularly meet via Zoom sessions. Programming has also adapted to virtual platforms, as a range of film screenings and commissions, curatorial talks, professional development workshops, and hands-on classes are offered – currently at no charge to participants. Meanwhile, instructors are paid.
“Idioms and Taxonomies,” curated by Laura Marsh, is the current exhibition, featuring 16 Oolite artists-in-residence whose work encompasses diverse two- and three-dimensional mediums and timely themes. Absent physical access to the facility, a seven-minute video tour provides an intimate virtual walk-through, suggesting the tactile qualities of high-touch work, but also advanced digital media. View the current exhibition by going to Oolitearts.org/exhibition/idioms-and-taxonomies.
For more information on the Oolite Arts Acquisitions Program, visit Oolitearts.org/acquisitions.