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How Federal Arts Funds Sparked Urban Renewal in Miami Beach

When poet Adrian Castro's singing cadence filled the streets of Miami Beach's art district recently, hundreds heard his uniquely south Floridian voice.

It was a milestone for the young artist. After years of reciting his rhythmic poetry, he'd put on his first show, weaving myths of his Cuban roots into themes of Caribbean identity, immigration, and culture. Some of the poems will be part of a new book, "Cantos to Blood and Honey."

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Castro's triumph is tied to ArtCenter-South Florida, a group born more than a decade ago when the now-bustling art district was but a decaying slum. It gave Castro a place to perform and helped market his art. It also administered his $3,500 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

For supporters, Castro and the ArtCenter offer an example of why federal funding of NEA should continue. The debate has taken on fresh urgency after the House of Representatives moved last week to close the agency.

Many Republicans object to spending tax dollars on art, especially that done by artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographs many conservatives consider "pornographic." Beyond that, many say the government should not be in the art business. If art is "good," the marketplace will support it. "There's no place in a democratic society for the government to be determining what is and what is not art," says Michele Davis, a spokeswoman for House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas.

But most recipients of the NEA's roughly $80 million in yearly grants are more like Castro and the ArtCenter than Mapplethorpe.

The NEA has strong supporters in the Senate and at the White House, so it may survive despite the House vote. That's good news to the soft-spoken Castro, who comments, "It's such a small part of the national budget but such a big part of each individual artist."

For smaller, local groups like ArtCenter, the federal dollars count more as a seal of approval, making it easier to test new ideas and to raise money from other sources. "It's like seed money," says Jane Gilbert, executive director of ArtCenter. "Public funds give you a certain endorsement."

In 1985, when ArtCenter opened its doors, the area was hardly the cultural center it is now - a pedestrian mall, lined with galleries, elegant boutiques, and trendy stores.

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"Every store was for rent. Every glass was broken. There was no bookstore, no coffee, no nothing," recalls Michel Carel, who's had a gallery on Lincoln Road since 1962.

But ArtCenter founder Ellie Schneiderman, who had just come from New York, felt Miami needed a place for artists to work and interact with each other, and with the public. Lincoln Road's decaying buildings would do just fine. Taking advantage of cheap rents, she leased 20 storefronts - three entire blocks - and attracted some 100 artists to rent space in the complex. "It was there to benefit the community," Ms. Schneiderman says.

Within years she would buy the buildings with federal urban-renewal money at a bargain price of $5 per square foot. The artists in turn drew others arts groups. Soon, the Miami City Ballet, and the New World Symphony made Lincoln Road their home. In 1987, Miami Beach designated Lincoln Road an art district. It was, Schneiderman says, "the revitalization of a slum through the arts."

Today, the ArtCenter is no longer receiving NEA funding and Schneiderman's vision remains intact. "The amount of energy is incredible," says Karina Chechik of Argentina from her second-floor studio. The center rents workspace to artists for about $270 a month.

Nearby, Vesna Vera's studio has yellow walls. Her paintings are pale blue to give people "a sense of tranquility, of harmony." They contrast with Joyce Chadroff's bright paintings of trees and flowers next door.

The NEA recently stopped funding individual artists like Castro, the poet. The ArtCenter now gets about one-third of its budget from artists' rent, one-third from state and local government grants, and one-third from private groups such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation.

Despite the lack of federal funding, the ArtCenter is growing. It works with hundreds of children from neighborhoods as varied as Overtown and Little Havana.

Still, Ms. Gilbert, the director, wants to expand the effort. In April, she turned to the NEA again, applying for a $150,000 grant that would build on the art center's outreach effort. The money would send workers to Overtown and other depressed areas and help artists there market their art. "It would help us carry our mission further," says Gilbert. Whether private or public, "grant makers can move the world out there for nonprofits."

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