Comment: Arts Garage successful, so of course, it’s threatened

Written by Bill Meredith on 09 February 2013.

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Davis and Dow, at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach.

Perhaps only a conspiracy theorist could come up with a scenario where a fledgling arts center revives and enhances a region's jazz, blues, Latin, hip-hop, musical education and theater scenes, only to literally be sold out.

But this is South Florida. And the Arts Garage (http://artsgarage.org) ― the 18-month-old Delray Beach venue that's distinguished itself by presenting everything from jazz legends like trumpeter Randy Brecker and organist Dr. Lonnie Smith to rising pop singer Anna Haas and hip-hop artist Eric Biddines to playwright Israel Horovitz's Gloucester Blue over the past few months alone ― could be sold to another of the Sunshine State's endless string of law firms.

The area personal injury firm of Kanner and Pintaluga has made an offer of $2.5 million to the City of Delray Beach for the building at 180 N.E. 1st St. in its Pineapple Grove Arts District. The good news is that a counteroffer has also been made by Robert Schmier of Schmier and Feurring Properties Inc. that would secure the Arts Garage in the site for 10 years with an option to buy.

The fate of the Arts Garage now rests in the hands of Delray Beach's City Commission, which will vote on the sale at Delray Beach City Hall on Tuesday. Which begs the question, what part of the term “arts district” could they possibly not understand?

“We’ve always known that the building could go up for sale,” says Arts Garage executive director Alyona Ushe, “since we’ve been leasing it from the city. We just couldn’t anticipate that it might happen so quickly, or that it might be transformed into office space. We were designed and developed with the city for the benefit of arts and culture for all of Delray Beach. Robert Schmier, who made the counteroffer, is one of our board members. And his offer is identical.”

The Arts Garage has succeeded beyond expectations, earning a $30,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, plus a $20,000 People's Choice Award from the same foundation that was based entirely on text message voting.

“No one else expected the venue to be this successful,” Ushe said, “especially so quickly. So undermining it at this point doesn't seem beneficial to anyone.”

The Arts Garage’s identity has become particularly tied to the South Florida jazz scene. Even with multiple strong music universities, most area jazz venues have folded during the past two decades, leaving a dazzling roster of singers and musicians based in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties with fewer opportunities to perform.

The list of South Florida regional-to-international jazz artists who have found a haven in the Arts Garage include vocalists Debbie Orta and Nicole Henry, vocal-and-guitar duo Davis and Dow, singing violinist Nicole Yarling, guitarist Randy Bernsen, steel drummer Othello Molineaux, saxophonist Jesse Jones Jr., multi-wind instrumentalist Ira Sullivan, bassist Jamie Ousley, drummer Reuben Hoch, percussionist Sammy Figueroa, and trumpeters Melton Mustafa and Troy “Satchmo” Anderson.

“The Arts Garage is a shining example of a successful arts non-profit in South Florida,” says the Miami-based Ousley, “and it’s become known as the jazz venue which others are being measured up to. I applaud the city of Delray Beach for fostering this wonderful entity, and implore the city to continue supporting it.”

“All the bankers and deal-makers love to go to places that have live jazz,” says the Miramar-based Orta, “yet at the same time, they jeopardize its existence by these moves that choose office space above a happily popular jazz venue like the Arts Garage. Jazz musicians appreciate a place like the Arts Garage; the patrons are true supporters of the music, and the venue is a true supporter of not only jazz of all types, but original art in various media, theater, and workshops. It would be a crime against this community.”

Unlike nightclubs, where alcohol is served, the Arts Garage sells only snacks and non-alcoholic drinks but allows patrons to bring their own cuisine and libations. Along with its modest ticket prices, the bring-your-own policy has helped to keep visits to the venue more affordable. An intended consequence has been the boost to the local economy through the sale of food and drinks at neighboring restaurants and shops, whether before or after Arts Garage shows or through to-go items to consume within the venue.

A convenient parking garage is located directly above the 150-seat room, and windows along the its north side allow passers-by to witness the proceedings, which often draws them in.

And someone really needs to witness a performance at the Arts Garage to understand its underlying impact on South Florida. With no kitchen, bars or TV screens, the large, rectangular venue sets itself apart from most of its supposed peers. The focus isn’t on the sale of food or liquor, since it’s an actual listening room as opposed to a club or restaurant. Its dozens of large round tables, along with the BYO policy, foster a meet-and-greet sense of community.

The Arts Garage’s Performing Arts Academy, headed by director of education and outreach Drew Tucker, increases the venue’s youth quotient while also keeping area kids involved in character-building activities. Lou Tyrrell, artistic director of The Theatre at the Arts Garage, is increasing its calendar of theatrical performances following his current production of Gloucester Blue by Horovitz (which runs through Feb. 17 and features a soundtrack by his son Adam, of Beastie Boys fame). The academy's student performers are rehearsing for an upcoming production of Thirteen: The Musical, directed by Mark Kirschenbaum.

So a typical Arts Garage presentation draws underage kids by not being a bar; parents and other people in their baby-boomer age bracket, and even those of a certain grandparent age ― who otherwise wouldn't see live music because of the racket and distractions that nightclubs and their patrons embrace.

Where else are you going to see three different generations of arts lovers attending the same live performance?

“We have nothing against any law firm,” Ushe says. “This one is one of the biggest in Delray, and what they bring to the city is fantastic. But they’re hinting that they may move away if they don’t get the expansion they’re seeking, which may be putting additional pressure on the commission, and I feel like the city may be worried that it would be viewed as unfriendly to business growth if it rejected the sale. But the real question is, would a law firm be the best use for this particular space?”

More than 750 people answered "no" within 48 hours of a petition being posted at www.change.org/petitions/keep-arts-garage-in-its-current-location, with many writing about the negative aspects of the site going dark on evenings and weekends. As of Friday night, it had 1,290 signatures.

Gene Fisher, on behalf of the Directors of the Pineapple Grove Arts District, went further in a letter to the Delray Beach City Commission to dispel rumors that the Arts Garage could simply move to the Arts Warehouse ― a space at 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue that has been proposed as its possible future home.

“The benefits that the Arts Garage has brought to the community do not necessarily translate if the performance venue is moved to the Arts Warehouse,” Fisher writes. “The location is unproven in its draw appeal, not to mention the lack of covered secure lighted parking, dark streets, and no restaurants or nightlife.”

So the Delray Beach City Commission vote all comes down to nurturing an ascending arts community vs. turning a prospectively quicker buck, which has always been one-sided toward instant gratification in the past. But at least Schmier's counteroffer levels the monetary playing field, literally making it a the-arts-or-bust decision.

“We only found out about this being a possibility within the last two months,” Ushe says. “We’d love to be able to sit down with the city and look at the big picture and work through all the details in a timely, intelligent, coherent fashion. But this offer was firmed up too recently to give us that luxury. We’re hoping the commission will do the right thing, and what's best for the city. And I feel like their vote may be based on the turnout by arts supporters at this very commission meeting.”

The Delray Beach City Commission meeting takes place at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12, at Delray Beach City Hall, 100 NW 1st Ave., Delray Beach, FL 33444. Supporters of the Arts Garage are encouraged to arrive no later than 5:30 p.m. Call the Arts Garage at 561-450-6357 for further information.