Across multiple social media accounts, Jessica Santiago vamps for the camera. In New York City, she’s pictured gazing out the window at The Standard Hotel wearing a sleep-shirt that bears the words “bless those who curse you.” Later, she’s happily grinning into the camera at the Armory Show with her fiancé, George Georgallis, and the rapper/art collector Swizz Beats. In Florida, she’s swathed in the crisp white sheets of Nobu Hotel Miami Beach. Back in that city two months later, she’s pictured seemingly contemplating a purchase at the Miami yacht show.
It’s a picture of a life that looks ripped from the pages of Vanity Fair or cribbed from Robin Leach, rich and famous and all that.
But Santiago isn’t a lady who lunches shopping her way around the world; she’s the CEO, curator and public face of Art Republic, a private nonprofit art entity that is responsible for many of the murals in Downtown Jacksonville. In support of the annual mural expo (2018 will be Year Three) AR has hosted art exhibitions, parties and, in ’16 and ’17, fashion shows, too.
She’s a Jacksonville native who’s returned home (she was in real estate in South Florida for several years), and it’s easy to imagine that upon her return to the area, Santiago saw a city ripe for cultural growth and development.
Thus, after a stint at Cutter & Cutter Fine Art, she set to work sharing her notions about art with the city. Her idea: street art (murals) married to a luxury lifestyle. “We’re really interested in the art world becoming more accessible to a younger demographic and street art has really become the bridge for that,” she said.
In the two years Art Republic has been up and running, she has certainly ruffled feathers in the art scene. “There’s a changing of the guard, and you can either get used to it and join—or you can stay on the sidelines,” she said in a 2016 Folio Weekly interview.
“We represent a new way,” Santiago wrote in a Dec. 13, 2017 email to artist Krista Kim, in which she accused the artist of being elitist and demanding (among other things). “I am blown away by the new arrogance and lack of gratitude and respect for all that AR and I have done for you.”
Santiago sent the email in response to Kim’s email, in which the artist attempted to secure an overdue payment for her participation in, and her help organizing, the Techism exhibition, which was on concurrent display with the 2017 AR mural expo (Nov. 3-12). “I have expressed appreciation for all of your efforts and achievements. What I want is proper renumeration [sic] for my work for the amount that we agreed to,” wrote Kim.
The cause of the rift? Nonpayment to four of the five featured artists (including Kim) in the Techism exhibition.
Kim also alleges that the artist fee she was promised was $10,000, not the $5,000 Santiago offered (and is currently considering not paying). “I’m going to let it be a team decision,” Santiago told FW during an April 12 telephone conversation.
Santiago asserts that she was cut out of commission for a sale to a private buyer that Kim and her agent Mikael Kraemer made during the Techism exhibition. (Kim contests this—more on that later.)
But this is just the beginning of a tangled situation that has multiple threads and cross-accusations.
In mid-March, artist Krista Kim reached out to FW, saying she felt poorly treated by Santiago and Art Republic. It’s a feeling that Santiago says is mutual. According to both women, from 2015 to about November 2017, they had a very close working relationship. They spoke almost every day, said Santiago, who emphasized that she believed in the artist’s work enough to facilitate Kim’s “dream project,” that eventually became the Techism exhibition on view at the 100 N. Laura St. building.
“I believed in the work. I found it on Instagram and I really wanted to be; I was captured by the work immediately,” said Santiago, who also asserts that the Techism exhibition cost $100,000 to mount, $40,000 of which she personally financed. Further, she said that she spent two years cultivating Kim and helping build a market for her here. (Kim had a show at Wall Street Fine Art Gallery.)
Kim asserts that she brought in the four other artists featured in the Techism show: REO, Fabian Forban, Miguel Chevalier and one other artist who asked to remain anonymous. “I conceptualized, organized, delivered on my promises and made everything happen for Art Republic,” Kim wrote in a Nov. 21 email to Santiago. As of press time, those artists, with the exception of REO, are awaiting full payment—after being contacted for this story, Santiago remitted partial payment to the others, excepting Kim. She says—and the artists confirmed—Chevalier was owed $35,000; Kim $5,000; Forban $3,721.84; and the anonymous artist $3,000, for a total of $46,721.84. Recently, each was paid roughly 50 percent of what they are owed. None of the muralists has complained about payment.
The Techism exhibition showcased works that merged technology and humanity. Kim’s manifesto says, “Techism is a movement that recognizes technological innovation as an artistic medium, and encourages artists to promote digital humanism in the formation of culture.” In short, it is a reaction to the algorithm-driven digital world, in that it’s using those same materials.
Kim’s work can best be described in terms of swaths of color and stains, à la Mark Rothko, but with a digital edge. Kim prints abstract compositions on Plexiglas (or projects/presents the work on other substrates) by manipulating binary code in photographs.
Chevalier is internationally recognized for work ranging from site-specific installation, like those in Paris’ Saint-Eustache Church (Heavenly Vaults) and one for Lumiere London 2018, to pieces that appear more screen-referenced, like the piece displayed in the 2017 Techism exhibit.
Fabian Forban’s work is grounded in photography, but influenced by superstring theory. His aesthetic takes cues from Pop mark-making and Surreal tendencies. For the Techism show, he produced a video that moved through photo-referenced work to abstracted compositions.
To research this article, FW spoke to artists, former board members, donors, volunteers, vendors and community members who have interacted with Art Republic. We collected dozens of emails and on April 10 met with Santiago, a meeting that was twice postponed at her request after our initial April 2 inquiry.
By the April 10 meeting, which Santiago recorded, Forban, Anonymous and Chevalier had received payments of $2,500, $1,500, and $17,500, respectively.
The Techism exhibit ended on Nov. 14, 2017. In a Nov. 28 email to Chevalier, Santiago had promised to send “a payment from me personally right away for you.” More payments were to follow: one in January and one in February. Those did not arrive.
In a March 23 email to FW, Chevalier wrote, “We are very disgusted by dishonesty that we had not imagined about Mrs. [sic] Jessica Santiago.”
In March, Forban confirmed the past-due amount, which he said created significant financial strain. “After four months, I would really like to see the money,” he said on March 23. However, he was quick to say that his experience in Jacksonville was very positive, “What I did enjoy a lot, and I want to emphasize this, were the days in Jacksonville meeting so many wonderful people! With many of them I am still in contact … . It’s a [pity], the idea was a good one, the event worked out and I fell in love with Jacksonville and its surroundings—no one will be able to steal these memories!”
He also said, “I was hoping that if I gave her time and peace that she could get the money.” He also noted that Santiago was “regularly posting where she was in nice hotels in Miami … .”
After Forban received partial payment, he told FW again how positive his experience had been. “There was a great atmosphere; I could see it was doing really great things to your city.”
Santiago alleges that the deficit which left her unable to pay the artists immediatley was created by a donor pulling out at the last minute, and a board member failing to raise promised capital, among other reasons. She also says that she informed the artists of the situation, and that it could affect the timeline for payment, prior to their participation.
In a Jan. 2 email, Santiago apprised Chevalier of the situation, saying, “As you know, this was our second year for Art Republic and it was a very difficult part of the start-up phase. To make a long story short, we dealt with staff mismanaging money, stealing money from us, lack of experienced staff and over-committing ourselves with the murals and exhibition at one time. I am also still waiting on three major payments that I am extremely dependent on to pay everyone that I was promised two weeks after the event ended. George and I have given all we could to help float the business until all of this comes in and are doing everything we can to tie it all up as quickly as possible.”
Staff and volunteers told FW that they did not have any access to, or responsibility for, AR’s finances.
Santiago’s conflict with Kim appears to be as personal as it is financial.
“Every other artist who worked for AR has been paid (including Miguel and Fabian) [except] for you and we all know why that is. You have spent a ridiculous amount of much time attacking me and trying to harm my reputation amongst people who know me well and have all watched all I did for you. This has been a fruitless debacle,” wrote Santiago in an April 7 email to Kim.
Speaking over the phone from Paris, Kim explained her goals for making their dispute public, saying, “They are my friends; I feel responsible.”
The two women also disagree on the amount of payment promised. Kim says she is owed $10,000; Santiago says she is owed $5,000. She also says that Kim owes her roughly $10,000 for a commission to which she was contractually entitled. Kim contests this.
Kim further says her participation wasn’t limited to showing her own work. Emails dated July 13, 2017 between the two appear to support this assertion.
Kim: “[S]hall we include me as an ‘Advisor’ for the Techism show in the presentation? I understand the dynamics and this would be a fair compromise as I do feel that my contributions require official recognition toward programming the show. Also, all written materials in the proposal that I contribute will be ‘by: Krista Kim.’ I appreciate your amazing work behind all of this. It will be an amazing show.”
Santiago: “I think that would be a great way to do it.”
Kim was not credited as an advisor on any public materials supporting the exhibit.
Another problem that Kim and the other artists are facing is the lack of contracts—no signed papers, no proof of agreed participation. “We trusted her,” she said. “We believed in it.”
Santiago contends that the exhibition, which was publicly announced on July 24, 2017, came together too quickly for contracts. “Because it was so last-minute, everything was done through email. And that was only because there were artists contract from the sales side, but it was very last-minute.”
Kim did have a contract in place with Wall Street Fine Art, the commercial gallery wing of Santiago’s venture, which Santiago says is “a revenue stream for Art Republic.” The contract is another source of tension and disagreement between the two.
Santiago contends that there was a sale of Kim’s work to a private collector in Northeast Florida, and that she, Santiago, was contractually entitled to a 10 percent cut. Kim disputes this, saying the collector was in Ft. Lauderdale and, further, purchased a custom work, one that was not on consignment with Wall Street Fine Art, and thus not covered under the terms of the contract. The contract Kim provided to FW enumerates specific works on consignment, provides for a 10 percent commission on works sold for a period of one year, beginning Nov. 1, 2016, and states it is “between Wall Street Fine Art LLC … and Krista Kim.” Santiago asserts that the contract applies to all sales within 125 geographic miles; nowhere does the contract Kim provided mention this stipulation. Kim says the artwork that was sold was not on consignment with Wall Street. Santiago refused to provide a copy on the grounds that it included proprietary information.
According to Santiago, the real dispute began two weeks before Kim arrived in Jacksonville, when she teamed with agent Mikael Kraemer, who now exclusively represents her interests worldwide.
“That’s what’s been so disheartening for me; we had been working together the entire time. The real dispute really began when I got a phone call from her and her agent. To be very candid, that’s when things really began to change. She decided to go a different direction when her agent came on board,” Santiago said.
Prior to Kraemer’s involvement, Santiago asserts, “When she and I were together, we were both just trying to make things real, we were trying to accomplish big dreams, and then [her] coming from a place of ‘this is what I have to have’ was totally new.”
Santiago also confirmed that Kim referred artists to her, but says the effort was “totally collaborative,” and done in the spirit of “let’s just make it real [and Kim saying] ‘keep pushing, keep trying.'”
Kim said that Santiago doesn’t like Kraemer because “he sees through all of Jessica’s lies and protects my interests.”
Regarding the disputed sale, Santiago claims that Kraemer provided her with a verbal assurance. “Her agent Mikael Kraemer said verbatim to me in phone call, ‘We know the sale derived from you and your efforts sharing Krista’s work. Do not worry, this happens, but we wanted to call you to let you know that we know that it came from you and will pay the commission on the sale. We took good care of the client.'”
Santiago claims that Art Republic/Wall Street Fine Art never received a commission from the sale. She says Kim and Kraemer never disclosed information about the sale, “and then at the very end of everything, they gave me an envelope with $2,000 cash in it.”
Subsequently, Santiago says, she texted them to create “some sort of record” because she “could feel things weren’t on the up-and-up.” It was then she says that they told her it was a thank-you gift for all she’d done.
“For me, that was the end of everything. We put in so much time and money [flights, expenses, room charges], to be taken advantage of like that […] it was such a low blow, and I felt like the very first opportunity that there was to try to take advantage, it was taken immediately with no questions and no remorse.”
Kim confirmed that the money was “a thank-you and [also] asking her and George to come to Paris to come visit.”
On April 12, in response to a question about the speed at which the Techism exhibition came together, Santiago wrote, “It came together because I was able to identify the equipment needed to make it happen. Krista came to me with an idea and no way of knowing how to execute it, no idea of materials, equipment, budget, space. I enlisted the assistance of three architects and fabricators and for months went through the possibilities and no one had any idea how to do it. I came up with the idea of using an LED wall and found the equipment that made it all possible.”
Asked in a follow-up whether the material form that the installation took—the large, curved LED screen with sound, and changed colors—was her idea, Santiago replied, “Yes, 100 [percent] the installation was my idea. I searched for months for an option for her based on the picture she sent me which is attached below, which, as you can see, has no execution laid out what so ever [sic]. [ pictured] It was just a pipe dream. Not, to be negative when saying that, that’s what I offer to do, make a pipe dream real.”
Kim disputes this. She laughed when apprised of the statement and provided FW emails that support the installation being her idea; though it did not materialize at the scale she planned, due to the constraints of the Techism exhibition, there is clearly a concept of size, of immersion in a room or visible field of color. “This is the kind of art that is projected or presented on a separate presentation format that could be anything,” the artist explained.
When asked about Santiago’s statement that she helped materially realize Kim’s dream project, Kim replied, “I don’t live in Jacksonville, and we were not even sure of the venue or the budget. Those three factors completely determined the presentation format of my work. So the extent of her involvement is by procuring the production company and what materials they have on offer for the budget she was giving them … that went with everyone, too, like the famous Miguel Chevalier—she could easily claim that she’s the one who brought the wall to him so therefore she takes credit for the wall.”
On March 28, after FW began making inquiries for this story, Santiago’s lawyer sent Kim a Cease-and-Desist letter, commanding her to “immediately cease defaming Art Republic and Ms. Santiago … . Although it is my client’s intention to attempt to settle this matter without the need for further action; if you do not cease your defamatory communications, my client will be forced to consider further steps to protect their rights and business reputation.”
Santiago has planned a fundraiser at Preston Haskell’s private residence on April 26. She’s billing the event as a fundraiser for Art Republic 2018, but in a March 26 email to Forban, she wrote, “I have a few donors who are hosting a fundraiser for us on April 26th which will bring in our first influx of cash since last year and I believe I can send out the payments within 10 days or so after that event.”
In both previous years, AR failed to raise enough funds. In 2016, Santiago told FW that the budget for the event was $200,000 (total expenses were $215,749). Her IRS filing shows that she raised $127,520 and carried a deficit of $65,899 into 2017. She now says that she has learned from the past and adjusted accordingly.
Reflecting on the shortfall, former AR CFO Chris Byers (January 2017 to mid-December 2017) said, “The financial support from sponsors and donors, both hoped for and backed by verbal assurances, did not materialize at the level needed to pay for the event in a timely matter. I would have to think there is still fundraising occurring to pay off the outstanding payables. If there are outstanding invoices, I would hope that artists and vendors have been communicated to about the situation. It’s a tough conversation that must be had.”
Byers said that his involvement was limited to setting up a bank account for the organization and organizing a bookkeeper.
He says that he resigned from the board because of personal obligations. But referring to AR’s 2017 shortfall, he wrote in an email: ” … [I]nherent in a single event production, there are no other cash flow positive events to offset any shortfalls. I do know that there were some efforts and events that were eliminated when they lacked financial support. With the revenue curve I saw, and my personal estimation of the market’s wants and what it is willing to pay for, I personally would have pulled the plug. But there was hope that the Jacksonville market would come through in supporting downtown art.”
Santiago also says that the fashion show component, which featured the brand Luxuryia, was supposed to generate more money than it did. “The major thing that we did was, we counted on a lot of income from the fashion show … . I believe I overpriced the ticket thinking it was our one main event.”
Santiago blames some of the shortfall of cash on Chris Patterson, the president of AR’s board in 2017, claiming that he’d committed to raising $100,000 to support the event. “Of which he raised zero,” she wrote in an email. “What’s been disheartening for me is the work that has been done has been incredible. … [T]here’s been a lot of broken promises along the way. Our budget is counted on our board members’ commitments and nobody brought in anything.”
Patterson, CEO of Interchanges, was surprised to be contacted by a reporter. He said that his hoped-for contribution was to steer Art Republic in a more professional manner.
Asked about the funds Santiago said he had promised to raise, he replied, “I assumed that I would be able to raise more money with my connections, but most wanted to experience it this year and consider partnering next year since they have never heard of it before. Also, I think the word ‘commitment’ is way too strong. We went around the room in a meeting with about 12 people months before the event and discussed what the goal would be for individuals to raise.”
Patterson wrote that he “way overshot with my goal (maybe out of naiveté in my first year trying).”
“I don’t know any prudent business owners that spend money based on salespeoples’ goal projections,” he later added.
Patterson also wrote that he contributed by helping renegotiate debt from AR 2016, saving the organization $17,000; hosting and paying for a 300-person event; investing $8,500 of his own money; and making introductions.
“Obviously there are many other tasks, meetings, recruiting, correspondence, etc. … that were contributed over the last year or so as well. My guess is that Jessica has forgotten about any of these efforts.”
Asked about the deficit at the root of AR’s fiscal problems, Patterson replied, “I never knew that we were short of any monetary goals. … She never reached out to me for advice or gave any updates during that time, but in my brief encounters with her, she seemed excited and said that everything was going great and that the money was coming in. That’s why it was such a shock to me to hear that once again she was upside-down.”
Mural artist Nicole Holderbaum, founder of Jax Kid’s Mural Project, had a very high profile involvement with Art Republic’s 2016 inception until about two months prior to the 2017 launch in November of that year.
“She’s no [art] expert,” asserted Holderbaum. “She’s all about name-dropping and stuff like that.” She said ended her involvement because she began to feel like the entire project was more to satisfy Santiago’s personal goals than it was to serve the city.
Holderbaum describes her participation as “really painful” because it cost her her standing in the art community as well as friendships.
After she pulled out, Holderbaum says she tried to warn some of the friends she cared about. She says she later received an email from Santiago with the subject line, “Cease and Desist.” The email advised her that:
It is incredibly unethical and unprofessional for you to be contacting Wall Street Fine Art artists and ArtRepublic’s sponsors, artists and partners slandering the organization and our decisions. I have received over 10 copies of the emails, social media messages and phone calls that you have sent to our contacts. This is not a good reflection on you and is not being received well by those you are contacting. We wish you well in all your endeavors.
Asked about the email, Santiago said she sent the note instead of dispatching her lawyer to do so. “My attorney wanted to send it, but I just didn’t want to make things worse, I just wanted her to be aware that I was aware, but not to try to make it anymore hurtful than it needed to be.”
Of her time with Art Republic, Holderbaum said, “We thought it was going to be cool, we thought it was going to be good for the city … .
“I’ve never dealt with a person like her.”
The Techism exhibition was funded by private donors, including U.S. Trust, Coalesse and AVL Productions. FW reached out to Teresa Radzinski at U.S. Trust after Santiago asserted that she was aware of, and onboard with the decision, to not pay Kim. Radzinski said “No comment,” and abruptly ended the call.
Asked a similar series of questions, Preston Haskell said, “I have no knowledge of that. You are the first person that has brought subject up. I am not involved with contracts or payments to the artists.”
Haskell, a philanthropist who has contributed much to the city’s artistic community and public art for years, remains a fan of AR’s mission.
“I believe very strongly in public art and in beautifying our Downtown [and] Art Republic is putting colorful mural art from well-known artists around the country on the walls of Downtown buildings and I think that is a very good way to continue to beautify Downtown and make art accessible,” he said.
Santiago said she’s learned some hard lessons; one is that the 2018 expo will pivot to what works and what doesn’t work in town. And this year, she says, they’ll have financial reserves, too.
Correction: Originally, this article incorrectly stated that Krista Kim participated in a 2016 TEDx Jacksonville lecture. She did not.
Correction: Originally, this article stated that the total sum owed artists was $49,721.84. That is incorrect, the article has been updated to the correct number: $46,721.84.