Pioneering Downtown Artist Losing His Gallery to Make Way for Highway Overpass
In a fight between a man and the interstate highway system, one would expect the man to always lose. Artist George Sánchez-Calderón, who's been engaged in such a conflict all year, always figured he'd lose too. "But it's a fair argument to say, like, you should or could have this guy stay here," he said in mid-June.
Courtesy of George Sánchez-Calderón
The "you" in this case are the folks at the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) preparing the way for a project titled "I-395 Reconstruction," which would widen and further elevate the expressway, move exit and entrance ramps, and erect an "aesthetically pleasing bridge" high above Biscayne Boulevard sometime in the 2020s. All for less than $800 million.
The "here" is the little warehouse Sánchez-Calderón owns right next to I-395 at 75 NW 12th St. As a practitioner of a strain of fine art known as relational aesthetics, he's been engaged in the Park West/Overtown community for 13 years.
And he wanted to stay engaged: "My God, it's going to be one of the best downtowns in the world! I mean, let's be real! They're going to put in a train station. They're putting in all these new buildings. It's one of the warmest climates to live in." In fact, he wanted FDOT to incorporate his warehouse into the new highway design, even if that meant his place would end up under I-395.
But FDOT's right-of-way agents simply said no way. During a round of mediation early this year, the agency offered to buy him a warehouse valued at $650,000 at NW Seventh Avenue and 22nd Street near Jackson Memorial Hospital. "They said it had white walls so it looked like an art gallery. They actually thought I was going to say, 'Wow, thanks!'" Sánchez-Calderón explains.
Perhaps they didn't understand that the artist's locus of aesthetic instigation had to be in a spot of the artist's choosing. That is, exactly where it is.
To fully understand his argument, one must go back to at least February 2001, when Sánchez-Calderón paid $105,000 for the one-story, 2,600-square-foot warehouse on the south side of I-395. He named it the Bakery, in honor of his father, who had owned and operated a bakery in South Beach from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. The artist, who received an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995, remodeled the place into a cavernous artist studio and living space with high ceilings, a kitchen, three bathrooms, a bedroom, and a large den with an expansive wall bookcase requiring a ladder.
The warehouse was situated on a 4,200-square-foot triangular lot, a fragment of a city block that freeway designers had flattened to build the I-395 overpass in the 1960s. The lot sticks out from under the expressway, vaguely like the Wicked Witch of the West's legs poking out from under Dorothy's house after it fell on her in the tornado.
A triangular slab of concrete served as both patio and parking spot for his pickup truck. On the other side of the patio fence was a vast, gloomy asphalt wasteland with seemingly endless rows of gigantic concrete pillars holding up I-395. But best of all was the view to the east, so rare that he would one day sell a huge black-and-white photographic print of it to the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. The work depicts a dramatic line formed by I-395 dividing the bright sky from the dark expressway underbelly, with two high-rises under construction on the horizon.
In 2001 he secured permits from FDOT to construct a replica of the Villa Savoye, a famous modernist house that Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier designed and built from 1929 to 1931. Sánchez-Calderón titled his installation La Bendición (The Blessing). According to the text he wrote for his website, "The sculpture calls into question the goals of modernism by juxtaposing... the quintessential modern home with the harsh realities of the blight-ridden area under interstate I-395... infamous for prostitution and the panhandling of crack cocaine and heroin." Because Art Basel Miami Beach was cancelled in 2001 owing to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he repeated the feat in 2003.