Archival effort chronicles history of Miami-Dade's visual arts since 1945
By Sherri C. Ranta
As Miami's art community finds itself in the international spotlight, veterans like art critic Helen Kohen are looking to compile the history of visual arts here for future generations.
"This is going to a history of the visual arts: who were the artists, when they came, where they came from. We will build this from the artifacts of the art world itself," said Ms. Kohen, art critic for the Miami Herald from 1978-95 and now retired. "The latest artist to arrive thinks the movement started with them. Then the people who leave think it's not sophisticated enough. We lose the shape of what is going on here."
Ms. Kohen and Barbara Young, art services supervisor for the Miami-Dade Public Library System, are spearheading the archival effort, known as the Vasari Project, as a joint venture between the library and Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs.
They are collecting a paper trail of sorts - reviews, invitations, catalogs, brochures, magazine articles - to document the history of visual arts in the county from 1945 to present. Library personnel have collected such paraphernalia for many years, Ms. Kohen said, but now the community and its artists are being asked to contribute.
"I don't need to have everything," she said. "I can have copies or information from oral histories. I don't need the things, I just need the information."
Many artists are reluctant to give away original invitations, brochures and clippings but many have contributed, Ms. Kohen said, such as Fred Albert, who gave the project his scrapbook. Mr. Albert, now an Arizona resident, was a fixture on the Miami art scene in the 1950s.
"Artists are very likely to keep everything that pertains to them. We get a whole range of things from artists when they can spare it. Mostly, we get things when they move or clean out," Ms. Kohen said.
In addition to the archives, she said the goal of Vasari Project is to publish a history of the county's visual arts movement in book form in about three years.
The book may be similar to another book chronicling the history of art in Los Angeles, said Michael Spring, director of the county cultural affairs.
"It made people there think of themselves as a community of artists. The idea is we need to do the same thing here and begin to give shape to what we've accomplished here," he said, "because unless you see it, it doesn't exist to some extent."
Although the collections are ongoing, Ms. Kohen said it is clear the visual arts movement here started at the University of Miami.
"What you need to start your own art world are artists, someone to sell and someone to talk about it. That happened. It all gelled out at UM," she said.
The public library, Ms. Kohen said, became an incubator for the art movement in Miami, collecting and showing art throughout its branches. She credits former county librarian and artist Margarita Cano for pushing the library's art collections beyond prints and drawings.
"She really advanced the whole concept of what the library could do," she said.
Ms. Kohen said then county commissioner Merritt Stierheim also was very instrumental in the library beginning an art collection.
The library continues its art shows this summer with "Miami Alphabet: From A to Z" at the main library today (6/20) through Sept. 14, Ms. Young said. Local artists were asked to create letters. Many are on paper and some are three-dimensional.
Similar shows featuring various letters and artists will be shown at branches throughout the system. In honor of the exhibit, librarians are featuring ABC books, Ms. Young said.
Today Miami is coming into its own, Mr. Spring said, and is considered to be one of the hottest areas in the world for artists. "Artists are living here and making work," he said. "The community is being incredibly supportive. Art collections in the area are considered among the tops in the country."
The city received a huge vote of confidence last year, Mr. Spring said, from organizers of Art Basil, an international art show based in Switzerland. Officials there decided to organize and open a second show in Miami in December 2001.
The show was postponed, Mr. Spring said, because of problems associated with shipping art after Sept. 11. But the show is scheduled to open this December and be the only Art Basil show outside Switzerland.
In its second year, the Vasari Project is funded by about $15,000 in grants from the Department of Cultural Affairs and in-kind services - office and archive space and services - from the Miami-Dade Public Library System.
"We're happy with the progress so far," Mr. Spring said. "We'll review it every year. Contingent on us having the money, we're going to continue supporting it."