When I Paint My MASTERPIECE

Street art commands attention. From the ornately Byzantine to a spray-paint blast of the Black Flag “Bars” on an alley wall, its impact is visceral, local and, by definition, public. To honor this 2D medium in which paint awakens the walls of a city, Art Republic intends to attract international attention to Downtown Jacksonville. Held Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 11, 12 and 13, the inaugural event unveiled the works of 12 international muralists as well as two local artists. At press time, the collected muralists include James Reka, INO, Felipe Pantone, Waone Interesni Kazki, Case Maclaim, Cycle, Guido Van Helten, Rene Romero Schuler, Astrograff, Jeremy Penn, Kenor, Nicole “Nico” Holderbaum, Phlegm and Mobarick.

Sponsors for Art Republic include local arts patron Preston Haskell, along with global companies Pilot Pen, Estee Lauder, PNC Bank and Tiffany & Co., and more than 30 other international and local sponsors and affiliates. Events for the expo run the gamut from a haute couture fashion show and an artist’s lecture series, to a pilot season dinner and family-geared events in Hemming Park. Well-respected art media outlets like Juxtapoz, Hi-Fructose, and Street Art News have committed to feature coverage of the expo. The ostensible impetus for all of this is to bring global notice — and global money — to Downtown Jacksonville.

It sounds like a godsend for an arts community that has, at times, bemoaned the overall recognition it has yet to receive.

And it is a godsend, depending on one’s viewpoint.

As Art Republic began to come into the sphere of the arts scene’s adherents’ awareness, a near-immediate schism arose. Attention being given to this unprecedented event now had to contend with a resentful faction and peripheral stream of grievances.

A Rashomon-like fusion of explanations, beliefs, contradictions, self-aggrandizements and “parallel” truths came into focus, framing an intersection of public art, personality, principle and perception.

While the expo’s title might sound like a creative conglomerate, make no mistake — Jessica Santiago is Art Republic. And while there is a board of directors she praises for their work, within minutes of meeting Santiago, it’s apparent who calls the shots.

For the past three years, Santiago has worked as an art dealer-curator. Her gallery, Wall Street Fine Art, is located on Laura Street on the second floor of the same building that houses the Cathedral Arts Program. Prior to becoming an art dealer-curator, she spent 10 years in real estate, owned mortgage and insurance companies and worked as a business consultant. Santiago’s vision for Art Republic is succinct: “I want to raise Jacksonville to a nationally recognized art city,” she says. “I’m a businessperson. But it’s still creation. I get flak for saying that, but it’s a fact.”

The décor and furnishings in the office space of the gallery are contemporary; house music pulses through ceiling speakers. Sitting on a couch in the lobby area, Santiago seems more than ready to describe her vision that’s now coming to fruition.

“Our goal from the beginning was that Art Republic is being built in Jacksonville, but it’s not designed strictly around Jacksonville,” she says. “It could go to other cities around the world. We’re really positioning ourselves to be the Art Basel of the street art world, and putting a luxury spin on street art.”

The Wynwood Walls, located in the Miami art district of the same name, is an international nexus of street art, attracting artists and much media attention. During Art Basel Miami Beach, Wynwood is a crucible of fresh art, creative dialogue, and networking. “Art Republic’s 100 percent purpose is to drive economic development into this city by putting amazing art into the area,” explains Santiago. “It’s based on the Wynwood model.”

Started in 2009 by the late developer and arts patron Tony Goldman, the Walls have become a global model of revitalization and economic growth sparked by visual art. In the last three years, Santiago visited South Florida every month, eventually building a relationship with the Goldmans. “Jessica Goldman was incredibly supportive of me from the beginning, in talking to them, about how it [Wynwood] was created, and looking at how it was created.” Inspired by the Goldmans, and after being in real estate for 10 years, while looking at business and art, Santiago believes that the divergent fields are “one conversation” to her.

Within the last two months, Art Republic began ramping up its oncoming presence through social media. Near-immediate criticisms were issued toward what some viewed as the lack of a local art presence. For many, Wynwood was their example.

“It’s a huge misconception that anything about Wynwood Walls was organic or local. They were very strategic; they’re business people and extremely successful developers,” says Santiago. “They didn’t use local artists. They brought in artists from all over the world.”

In conversation, Santiago, in her own way, is refreshingly unapologetic, if not blunt. It’s clear that her artistic worldview leans more toward branding than bohemianism. And, as the expo’s opening draws closer, she’s well aware of the controversy that has arisen: Some local street artists accused Santiago of painting them out of the picture. A few even see her Ponte Vedra Beach residency as making her an “outsider” to the urban art scene. “That’s a Jacksonville mentality that’s got to be broken,” she says. “In New York, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Brooklyn or SoHo.”

In particular, a furor of Facebook posts, comments and back-and-forth messages became particularly rancorous. The core complaint was that more area artists were not invited to participate in the expo. Yet according to Santiago, Art Republic was never an “open call,” since she personally picked the artists. “The sponsors wanted international artists,” says Santiago, “and those sponsorships were key to getting the wheels in motion.”

However, Northeast Floridians have been invited to work as paid assistants to the muralists. At press time, Santiago says, four artists have signed on to be assistants.

Contentions aside, Santiago is staying right on point with her plan. “If we ever hope to become an international arts city, we have to have international artists here. That’s a given. We’re using the same model of every other major city with this kind of art. And for that model to freak Jacksonville out, it really says a lot about what the problem is that we have here.”

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Held in the Main Library’s new first floor Makerspace, Art Republic was a featured guest at the Wednesday, Oct. 12 Cultural Fusion press conference. Roughly 40 people were in attendance, some sitting on plastic chairs in a circle that spanned the main space, as others sat in rows extending back from the main speaker area. Santiago was in attendance, joined by participating mural artist Nicole Holderbaum, who sits on the Art Republic board as Local Artist Programmer and is also in charge of the Volunteer Program for the expo’s team.

Hope McMath, former director of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, was on hand as a kind of de facto moderator. “Many of you know it’s been a hot topic the last few days,” says McMath. “What is Art Republic and what is it doing for the local arts community? And how is it addressing diversity issues; how it’s going to make a difference Downtown and in our neighborhoods …. And we are not going to flush that all out today. That’s not the intention of this.”

Addressing the crowd, Santiago explains that the word “festival” is misleading, because it’s really an expo.

“Our mission is to raise Jacksonville to a nationally, if not internationally, recognized art city, to unify the city through public art, and as well as economic development,” she says.
The mood of many in the crowd seems reserved, if not suspicious, arms crossed, eyes lowered.

As a local artist connected with the expo, Holderbaum attempts to negate some of the vibes. “My side is with the arts in this community. My personal responsibility and goal in this festival is to reach out to my friends and artists in this community to create opportunities and sponsorship for them.”

Artist Chip Southworth sits holding a piece of paper covered in scribbled bullet points and questions. As Santiago breaks down the idea and focus of the expo, he’s visibly agitated, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

Many artists in this room, many artists not in this room, have contacted you guys; I’ve read the communications and have copies of them all,” says Southworth. “But you’re popping off about our hot underground art scene while telling us the skill level and résumés of local artists did not fit your world class criteria.”

“That’s not a quote from me,” counters Santiago.

“You’re making blanket statements about the artists in this city and community and you don’t know shit about this arts community!” Southworth retorts.

“That’s true because I’ve been an art dealer for about three years and only five artists have reached out to me,” Santiago says.

One artist in attendance explains that he had experience, internationally, in creating murals and never heard from Santiago. “You took my business card at a Cultural Council meeting and I never heard anything.”

What began as a question-and-answer session quickly degrades into a scene, as some in the crowd yell out questions and demand immediate answers from the pair standing before them.

Eventually McMath rises from her chair, smiling, waving her hands in a “time out” signal, and walks to the center of the space. Santiago and Holderbaum are in an unenviable position, put on the defensive, expo representatives turned sitting targets. Looking over at the two, McMath tries to dispel some of the energy with a possible explanation. “The tension you’re hearing is that the people who are not getting the big visible projects and resources are not being involved,” she says to Santiago. “When you choose to not invite local muralists in projects, we are going to not be happy.”

“For me personally, I think it’s coming from the wrong place,” says Santiago. “We are open to anyone, and we could sit and have a collaborative conversation, instead of it being our responsibility to think of all the possible ways.”

McMath turns to Tony Allegretti, seemingly hoping he’ll try to extinguish some of the flames. As executive director of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, Allegretti has the often-thankless job of being a guide and liaison in dealings with the city, various arts groups and artists, as well as serving on other cultural boards. “I think everybody in this room, including me, would rather be doing what they do than be here, to be honest,” he says. Even some of the angry faces crack a smile. “If you don’t like this model or approach, the barrier is really low. Almost all of this comes down to funding. So I think the best way to channel the energy from this meeting is into keeping people interested and engaged in doing art.” He then dispels a floating rumor that the Cultural Council is somehow involved financially supporting Art Republic. “We do not. We do support more art for more places. It’s a quality of life issue; we’re certainly for that.”

Seated a few feet away from Allegretti is art educator Ebony Payne-English, who is participating at the expo. The Jacksonville resident is an award-winning poet and performer; she recently published the chapbook, Secrets of Ma’at. “My confusion is, considering the type of event this is, and as a local artist here in Jacksonville, I’m not really understanding the conflict,” she says, explaining that in her experience with the poetry scene, similar events only strengthen the city that hosts them. “I was approached by the curator of this event to provide performance art. But I’m a member of this community, too. So when the topic comes up that the community is not being included in this conversation, it seems like the questions weren’t asked first.”
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It’s two weeks after the meeting in the library, and McMath is on the road. Since resigning from the Cummer in mid-August, she hasn’t slowed down in her pursuit of a decades-long devotion to the arts. McMath is heading to Orlando, where she’s sitting as a grant panelist for the city of Orlando, after spending time in Tallahassee, where she’s a member of the 15-person board of the Florida Council on Arts & Culture. “My thoughts are less specifically about Jessica and what the Art Republic team is trying to do. Because I think my interest in this conversation is bigger than just that initiative,” she says. “You know, I’m an art historian. I think the idea of looking at art across our own boundaries is super-important.”

McMath feels that there has been a misperception that locals don’t want to have great artists from across globe make their mark on our city. “But I think if I had a disappointment with the particular initiative of Art Republic, it’s that this highly visible, high-investment project didn’t embrace people who live and work here. And I happen to believe that there are some artists living in this community who can do that kind of work.”

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If there has been a spearhead aimed at Art Republic, it’s most assuredly been thrown by Southworth. Particularly through Facebook, Southworth has been on a campaign decrying the absence of local street artists at the expo. His a 2013 anonymous street art project Keith Haring’s Ghost, begun in honor of Trayvon Martin, earned Southworth much controversy of his own. In secret, Southworth revealed the KHG  identity to many in the local arts scene from the very start (including this writer). Depending on one’s temperament, KHG was a visible push for greater street art or a savvy self-promotion campaign by Southworth — or both. He was praised, vilified, arrested, released and fined all the while absolutely widening the conversation regarding street art in Jacksonville.

“The next year after KHG, they passed a bill, the Urban Façade and Streetscape Program bill, that I helped write with Kerri Stewart from the mayor’s office,” says Southworth. “They basically made it legal to paint on public property with an approval that goes through the Cultural Council.”

Southworth says he initially heard of Art Republic through Holderbaum at its inception. He next heard about it two months ago, when Art Republic hired an attorney to investigate whether or not they could put sponsors’ names on the murals. “So that attorney actually called me to ask what the law was,” Southworth laughs.

Through a group text, Southworth was introduced to Santiago, a communication he believes became contentious when he inquired about locals participating.

“I said in this text that I was reaching out on behalf of lots of people in the art community, if there was any way to build some bridges,” says Southworth. “And she just burned that down in the next five pages of texts. She’s rude about the city, rude about artists, and down-talking it all.”
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Conspiracy and the art world are no strangers. The most relevant example would be the street artist Banksy, whose anonymous identity generates as much discussion as his radical, enigmatic works. Art Republic has come under fire for two perceived subterfuges; as it turns out, both are false.

The first one is the money. Art Republic is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, making it tax-exempt. “Our purpose and mission is to fund public art for social and economic outcomes,” says Santiago. “It’s really focused around revitalizing the Downtown core.” There have been rumored figures thrown around regarding Santiago’s base budget, accusations of her receiving almost cartoonish sums of money from various sources. Yet she stresses that she funded the whole expo. “Everything that’s been said about it has been false,” she says. “And we have run this like a small business. There are no salaries involved. I negotiated the artists’ commissions for way, way less than I’m sure most other artists in Jacksonville would ever imagine.”

However, when asked specifically about what the guest artists are being paid, Santiago becomes cagey.

“I’m not going to disclose that.”

Yet like any 501(c)(3), when tax time rolls around, the budget is open to public disclosure. “If people want to look that up, that’s fine,” she says. “I’ve been under a huge amount of scrutiny and for me, it’s my intellectual capital, of what I’ve been able to do for negotiating with these artists.”

An hour later, when the same question is raised again, Santiago finally reveals the budgetary figure.

“It’s $200,000, OK?” she asks, laughing.

A second cry of skullduggery has been an imagined conflict of interest regarding Ryan Ali’s position as both the director of development for the Cultural Council and head of Art Republic’s Business Development & Strategic Partnerships. When contacted by Folio Weekly via email, Ali readily cleared up any confusion or charges of ethical issues. That email read, in part: “My role with Art Republic has been solely in an advisory capacity that consisted of no fundraising or financial responsibilities. … As Director of Development for the Cultural Council, my main responsibility is to work with the community and the private sector to highlight, promote and encourage a vibrant arts community. I saw from the beginning that this project would bring an international spotlight on Jacksonville, and local artists would benefit from [the expo] … I was clear from the beginning that I would not help with any fundraising or sponsorships and I have stayed true to that. Jessica solely raised the funds herself.”
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If there is one individual caught in the Art Republic crossfire, it is Holderbaum. From the outside looking in, Holderbaum’s biggest crime is that she was chosen to be the sole local creator invited to paint a mural. (While Holderbaum was believed to be the only participating local for months, closer to press time, Santiago told Folio Weekly that a second local artist, “Mobarick” Abdullah III, had been added as a muralist. Santiago explained that Mobarick had been in place from “day one,” and only now was she able to secure a wall for him to use.) Holderbaum is surrounded by her own personal cloud of accusation, ranging from cronyism to being a “rip-off artist.”

“I can understand why people would be upset that more locals aren’t involved in making murals,” she says. “I’d been pushing from day one to have a wall that was open as a call to artists. Jessica wanted year one to [be] perfect, executed perfectly and start off strong.”

While speaking to Folio Weekly, Holderbaum is completing work on a mural with students at James Weldon Johnson Middle School. She received the funding from a PNC Bank Arts Alive! grant, monies geared toward providing art for Title 1 low-income schools. In 2015, she created the Jax Kids Mural Festival, a SPARK Grant project funded by the Cultural Council. “I’m not the most knowledgeable person about street art,” she admits. “But it is my passion.”

Her mural for Art Republic is a portrait of Ebony Payne-English, whom she met after the spoken-word poet signed on as a performer at the expo.

Holderbaum says her participation has negatively altered her relationships with some artists. “It definitely affected me and emotionally was really hurtful and upsetting, since artists were trashing me and accusing me of things.” She explains that even artists she “looked up to” as local inspirations trashed her on Facebook. Folio Weekly received a heated message exchange between Holderbaum and artist Jessica Becker, but in all fairness, it seemed mutually contentious. “I think that the people who have stood firm in their hatred toward this will never change their minds,” Holderbaum says.

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It’s barely evening at Nighthawks and the parking lot is already filled with cars. Various metal bands are unloading their equipment, as bearded long-hairs smoke cigarettes and laugh outside the stage door. Shaun Thurston sits on the club’s back deck, nursing a half-empty pint.

Thurston is surely one of this area’s most notable, if not the most recognized, street artists and muralists. With an estimated 30 completed murals, both here and abroad, Thurston’s work is featured on the site of the former Burro Bar, as well as businesses, including both the Jacksonville Beach and Riverside locations of The Blind Rabbit. Thurston is the recipient of various awards and grants, including the inaugural 2013 One Spark, winnings from which helped create his piece for MOCA Jax’s Project Atrium series.

“I heard more negativity about it before I was even aware of what it was,” says Thurston, who first heard about Art Republic three months ago. “The name was already tainted from all of the fury about it.”

When Art Republic used an image of Thurston’s artwork on its Instagram account, some locals argued the apparent hypocrisy of a project that didn’t invite local artists now using locals’ works to hype the event.
“That I don’t care about,” Thurston says of that appropriation of his work, dismissively waving his glass.

Far from feeling slighted for not being invited to participate, Thurston is supportive. “I think it’s only good for the city. I understand what all of the angry artists are saying, about things like ethics. But this has all been filtered through everybody’s emotions or sculpted by somebody to be printed. None of it’s true to me.”

Thurston also understands the greater grievance, as some artists are now feeling literally overshadowed by outside talents. “Everyone’s feeling rejected, and jealous. And they just want their opportunity,” he says. “But that’s on the back of all of these artists attending Cultural Council meetings, and being promised over and over, ‘You will be given the opportunity, you will be given the chance to do these works, we will nurture you for the next level,’” he laughs. “And then? Zero.”
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Jessica Becker embodies the rising wave of street artists. All tattoos, Atlantic Beach chill and DIY vibes, she is savvy in both creating murals and dealing with businesses to get a green light for the gig. Locally, Becker’s done murals for TacoLu, Carribbean Connection, Lynch’s Irish Pub, Kona Skatepark and Backyard Pops. “The second I heard about Art Republic, I wanted to do a mural,” says Becker, who says she was thrilled about the idea, believing that local street artists and muralists would finally get an opportunity to use the city as a canvas. “I thought, ‘Who is this, what is this?’ And I couldn’t find anything. No one even heard about this. I heard about it from a person, not from any advertising,” she says. “People still don’t even know about this.”

Becker has twice painted murals at Wynwood during Art Basel Miami Beach and disputes Santiago’s statement that the street art hot spot began with outside artists. “They definitely started with locals and that’s how I know that this festival isn’t being run correctly.”

More confusing was Becker’s direct communications with Santiago regarding whether Art Republic was an open or closed call.

Becker provided Folio Weekly with a copy of a message sent to Santiago on Sept. 7. In the message, Becker is clear in her intention to ask to participate as a muralist, rather than assistant; it reads in part:

“I know there’s a lot of local artists that are qualified and have been waiting for an opportunity like this. Was there any plan to open this to local artists?”

Santiago’s reply, sent later that day, reads:

“The artist selection is not based on residence but résumé and level of skill. It’s open to all artists. There are opportunities for murals as well as assistant positions.”

Back at her office on Laura Street, Santiago responds to this seeming contradiction of whether Art Republic was an “open call” or “closed call,” as all of the artists were ultimately chosen by her.

“Oh, it was definitely open to all artists. I was considering anyone. I was searching for them for months. But no … no open call. The was opportunity was open.”

Becker is both baffled and angered about what she sees as a confusing inconsistency toward locals’ inclusion.

“My concern is that they would manipulate this and say that we were attacking them. But we really just had these concerns, and I wondered why we couldn’t just go directly to them about this.”

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While renowned artist Jim Draper is perhaps best known for his resonant images of the natural environment, he’s equally concerned with the aesthetics of urban landscape, particularly the visual qualities of this city. Draper brings decades of experience as a respected artist, gallery owner, curator and educator. And he’s somewhat skeptical concerning the forthcoming Art Republic expo.

“I think this would be exciting 20 years ago. Jacksonville needs to be thinking innovative,” Draper tells Folio Weekly. “I just think that every image that’s put in the public sphere needs to be carefully curated. And I think if you’re not careful, you wind up with visual clutter that isn’t ‘place specific.’ And you wind up like every other place, in every other part of the world.”

Draper’s criticism is directed at what can be essentially viewed as gaudy urban décor. During a recent visit to Manhattan, Draper walked the High Line. A former train line, this 1.45-mile-long, linear park runs along the Lower West Side of the city. “It celebrates a particular place, and a particular thing, and a particular time. They kind of curated the weeds and integrated them with art pieces, very thoughtfully, and very introspectively,” Draper explains, adding that he believes Downtown Jacksonville boasts elements for a similar presentation. “It is public art, but it’s curated in such a way that the walk becomes a journey and a destination simultaneously. And it identifies a place, and it’s unique to that place and time.”

While Draper is protective of our visual landscape, he’s hardly reverent to his creative endeavors being pinned down to an area code. “The controversy over which artists are involved is kind of a moot point. I mean, whoever does it, does it. I shy away from the term ‘local artist’ because that’s the last thing anybody wants to be called. It becomes a diminutive thing.”

Looking at the panoramic rather than the parochial, Draper seems more concerned with any impulsive, future embellishment affecting the city rather than the bruised emotions of a few. “I really just kind of put my hands over my eyes when I start seeing art controversy in Jacksonville because it’s starting to become predictable,” he laughs. “But I do think the ‘visual air’ of a place becomes public property. And I think in order for a city to become a destination, it needs to curate the look and feel of itself.”

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Back at her Laura Street gallery, Santiago has finished her double-espresso. As the interview winds down, she remains as impassioned about the impact of Art Republic as she was at the beginning of the conversation, if not more so. Art Republic is rolling along as planned; by Nov. 10, all of the works in progress should be complete. And Santiago is certainly not going to allow a “small number” of detractors, who she’s certain are not of international caliber, throw an unsightly blemish on what she calls the “great white space” of Downtown Jacksonville. “It’s no secret that Jacksonville has a lot to do. And the fact that this reaction comes from a core group, I think it puts the spotlight on what has kept the city where it’s at.”

While some Jacksonville artists are reticent to acknowledge the expo’s validity, it’s obvious that many businesses are fully on board. The fact that Santiago is so direct in her highly visible assemblage of commerce and visual art may make some uncomfortable. After all of the paint dries, and eventually fades, the locals who are participating in Art Republic are sure to have their own cache of memories assigned to an event where the city will experience a certain, albeit ephemeral, blitz of hashtags, comments and photos. And those critical of the event will have their own memories, either as skeptical visitors or resolute protestors. But regardless of one’s view of Art Expo and Santiago, questioning her ambition is one thing, qualifying her success is another.

“There’s a changing of the guard,” says Santiago with a smile, leaning back in her chair. “And you can either get used to it and join — or you can stay on the sidelines.”

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