Regular visitors to Miami Beach City Hall are accustomed to fourth floor art exhibits as standard practice – and as routinely forgettable.
“It seems to be that as a rule, public art is pretty lame,” said one frequent city hall guest who did not want to be identified. “It’s kind of like NEA grants. Public art is for art not good or interesting enough to real people to make it in the private sector. I think most people know that. They just wouldn’t say anything about it because it isn’t politically expedient.”
But the current exhibition took even this jaded insider by surprise – in a good way.
“Nice stuff, interesting,” he said.
“There is a lot of hidden talent amongst the Miami Beach family and this program is a wonderful opportunity for them to showcase their artistic talent in a public exhibition” — Miami Beach Cultural Affairs Program Manager Gary Farmer
Jeanne Brower felt the same way when she had to drop off a letter at city hall for her employer this week.
“I noticed one photograph that was really cool, then I looked around and there was a whole exhibit of interesting work,” Brower said. “It was a pleasant surprise. I didn’t know how many talented artists were around here.”
Brower wasn’t demeaning the work of the region’s serious or professional artists, or even taking an easy shot at art brands disguised as real artists but that are really just garish moneymaking machines.
The “artists around here” to whom Brower referred are, instead, City of Miami Beach employees; and the current fourth floor exhibit a showing of artwork in different mediums from city workers in numerous departments.
The occasion is the exhibition component of the National Arts Program. The annual program provides City employees and family members with a rare opportunity to exhibit their original works publicly and to compete for $2,400 cash prizes and five continuing art education scholarships. The exhibit is sponsored by the National Arts Program Foundation, with support and cooperation by the Miami Beach Cultural Arts Council and the City of Miami Beach.
“I came across the program by chance about five years ago,” said Miami Beach Cultural Affairs Program Manager Gary Farmer. “They sponsor similar arts contests in the U.S. for municipalities and large non profit organizations. They’re really nice people.”
This is the fifth year that the National Arts Program has sponsored the program for Miami Beach city employees. The Foundation provides virtually all materials and the structural framework for the program, Farmer said. Every year the city’s primary responsibility is to help promote the program among its employees and to line up a jury of art professionals to grade each entry in the competition. Farmer then averages out the scores to determine winners in several categories and tiers of expertise (Amateur, Intermediate and Professional). The competition is open to city employees and their families, so there are both adult and youth categories.
“We had submissions from 64 artists with about 110 total pieces of work,” Farmer said. “We have always gotten a very strong response from employees. The numbers vary a little from year to year. Last year we actually had 10-20 percent more participation. This time of year, a lot of people are on vacation.”
Farmer said that participants are pleased that all of the works of art get displayed at city hall – this year through November 18 – and that the city’s leadership attended the awards program last week.
Jackie Szafara, executive director of the National Arts Program Foundation, said that the entire concept stemmed from its two business associate founders, who wanted to help prompt people to explore their inner artists. Municipalities made logical partners since public employees generally have plenty of free time. The program has also targeted hospitals and airports.
“It started in 1985 and we’ve been growing every year,” Szafara said. “We have 90 shows now in 45 states.”
Through the program, Szafara said, employees learn about whole new dimensions of the people with whom they work every day.
“It’s important that these are not just art shows and competitions – all of the artwork has to be displayed in public for at least two weeks,” Szafara added. “In a lot of competitions, only the winning work is every exhibited.”
“There is a lot of hidden talent amongst the Miami Beach family and this program is a wonderful opportunity for them to showcase their artistic talent in a public exhibition,” Farmer said.
Judges this year included Dennis Tejedor, curatorial assistant, Bass Museum of Art; Jeremy Chestler, director, ArtCenter South Florida; Matthew Tumbleson, graphic designer, Brand Miami; Roman Fernandez, artistic director & president, Left Field.
Hugely supportive of the program are ArtCenter and the Bass Museum of Art, providing scholarships to help budding artists explore their creative sides.
Sharon Saballos, a 22-year veteran property and evidence technician for the Miami Beach Police Department is well acquainted with the program and its benefits. Her son won first place in the teen category the first time he entered three years ago. With gift certificated awarded through the competition, Sharon has learned how to use her digital camera with the same skill with which she used her 35 mm camera. She has also learned beadwork and now crafts bead jewelry that is in demand from friends and fellow employees.
“Who knew?” Saballos said. “I just wear it and people end up asking me to make something for them.”
The program has brought Saballos’s family together, she said.
“My whole family loves photography, and it has been something that my son and I have done together,” Saballos said.
That class in digital photography worked out well for Saballos. She took many images while on a vacation in Costa Rica. One of those images, “Tropical Rainforest” earned Sharon first place in the adult amateur category of this year’s competition.
“It was great,” Saballos said. “Everyone was at the event and so many people came up to congratulate the winners. Everyone was very excited. It isn’t one of those things that make people jealous. People are so supportive and are so good natured about it.”
Saballos said that her son, now 18, remains intrigued with photography and is already planning on next year’s program.
“I recommend the program to other people,” Saballos said. “It opens things up for you – enables you to do what you want to do.”
“Miami Beach is a great example of what our show is doing across the country,” Szafara said. “We hope in the future that the National Arts Program continues to thrive here.”