Hortt No More

In history-bereft Fort Lauderdale, Museum of Art director Kathleen Harleman stamps out a popular tradition

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Early this year the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale hosted "Do It," a traveling exhibition based on instructions from an artists' collective. To create one piece, the staff was directed to issue a call for works illustrating a crime. One submission took curator Ginger Gregg Duggan by surprise. It was a picture of the museum front, spray-painted with the words "Hortt 41 sucked."

The photo referred to the 41st staging of an annual exhibition named for South Florida art collector M. Allen Hortt. "Actually I thought [the snapshot] was very funny," says Duggan, who helped organize the February 2000 show. "I wanted to keep it, but part of the [artists'] stipulation was that all of the pieces had to be destroyed after the show."

Museum of Art director Kathleen Harleman (left) was underwhelmed by the reaction when she suspended the Hortt. Broward Art Guild executive director Sue Buzzi's phone rang for weeks.
Joshua Prezant
Museum of Art director Kathleen Harleman (left) was underwhelmed by the reaction when she suspended the Hortt. Broward Art Guild executive director Sue Buzzi's phone rang for weeks.

In hindsight it was a harbinger. Some six months later, museum director Kathleen Harleman announced the Hortt, too, would disappear. The Broward Art Guild (BAG) will mount a juried exhibition in its place next year, but few expect the show to approach the credibility and prestige of its precursor.

Some local artists characterize the Hortt as a tired relic that had run its course and run out of money. But the decline and fall of the area's longest-running art competition have less to do with the art community than with Harleman's vision for the museum.

The decision to suspend the exhibition likely concludes a tradition begun in the 1950s. Hortt was an Orderville, Utah, native, who moved to Fort Lauderdale soon after the turn of the previous century at the age of 30. He was a real-estate broker who also served as the city's mayor in 1934 and 1935. In 1956 he donated $5000 for the creation of the art museum. In his honor trustees founded the art competition in his name.

The show's financial history is hazy. Museum officials say the Hortt family hasn't contributed money for roughly a decade, and it isn't clear whether they were ever annual patrons. In fact officials don't know what relatives, if any, are still alive. "It's my understanding that they've all passed on," Duggan says, "except I want to say a distant aunt or something."

The show was popular with artists because it offered a rare opportunity to exhibit in coveted museum space. BAG executive director Sue Buzzi has fond memories of artists lining up with their works. "They used to do this in August; it was hotter than Hades. They used to love to hate it."

About a decade after the Hortt's founding, the BAG held its own answer to the exhibit. The Salon Des Refuses took only those works turned down by the Hortt, making it a celebration of rejection in the spirit of the 18th-century French art show for which it was named.

The laid-back salon was popular and festive, a boon for those who had bothered to schlep their originals to the museum only to be rejected by a juror. "You'd literally pick the piece up and drive straight to the BAG," remembers artist David Maxwell, a nationally recognized Hollywood painter who has won several Hortt prizes.

The two shows produced a kind of synergy. In 1991 the Hortt received a record 1746 entries, but the unwieldy registration overwhelmed staff. In 1998 Hortt organizers stopped accepting original works for the judging and changed to a slides-only format, which put them in step with most major exhibition-holders. "They thought it was going to be a huge, drastic result," says museum registrar Shawntell Millman, "but it didn't cut down entries but by 400 or 500."

Still Millman says it marked the end of an era. "A lot of people missed the camaraderie of everybody going in, lining up, and dropping off their work at one time. It was an opportunity to meet 1400 people who are artists. There would be a line going out of the museum, a line out the back door."

Hortt 40 was staged just as Harleman was taking over as the museum's director. It was judged by Thelma Golden, who this year curated the Whitney Museum of American Art's famed biennial exhibition. "I actually thought it was a good show," Harleman says, then corrects her tone. "I shouldn't say it that way. I thought [Golden's] vision was really interesting." It was also provocative. "I think it raised questions for me, is this the best way for me?"

It wasn't. After two brainstorming sessions with area artists, Harleman planned a departure for the Hortt. She came to Fort Lauderdale with the idea of making art relevant to the community; one step toward her goal was to reinvigorate the local showcase. For the 41st staging, Harleman secured shuttle buses, port-a-potties, and an additional venue at a Flagler Heights warehouse to complement the museum space. Although the warehouse was less than a mile from the museum on Las Olas Boulevard, the move marked a paradigm shift. "I didn't feel comfortable, just because of tradition, carrying on that same model," she says.

Hortt 41 garnered 1105 entries, slightly more than the year before, but only 40 pieces were chosen for exhibition, down from 78 the previous year. Fewer pieces were chosen because there were three judges instead of the usual one, says Duggan. And all three had to agree that a piece was worthy. The show featured more art installations than in previous years. Duggan says the mixed-media art form was a natural fit for the raw industrial space of the warehouse.

Many local artists were angry. They felt the exhibit included a disproportionate number of installations. "It was almost insulting," says painter Genie Appel. "The last Hortt, I just didn't feel it was representative of this community." She says the show was the last and most severe in a series of affronts to the local art community, demonstrating the museum is more out of touch with artists than ever. "Many of us have not been happy with the Hortt over the years. We feel they've largely ignored painters for conceptual work almost exclusively."

Hortt 41 seemed to prove this point. The Best in Show winner was The Lintball Project, an installation by Miami artist Westen Charles. It was a working dryer that produced laundry fluff studded with hospital waste. "[The Hortt] had really become a darling for the avant-garde," Appel says.

It also cost the museum. Harleman estimates the show's price tag was in the high $20,000 range, with $12,000 recouped in entry fees. The Sun-Sentinel provided free advertising, but the museum made up the difference. "On its old model, [the Hortt] could cover the costs." Harleman says. She just didn't want to use the old model: "If I was going to do it, I wanted to change it."

Harleman felt using warehouse space in addition to the museum would fit her vision of a museum that engaged the public while showcasing cutting-edge talent. While lauded by some artists, her efforts were panned by the Sun-Sentinel as proof the Hortt had become irrelevant.

And then, after much soul-searching, Harleman ended it. She contends poor attendance during the show's six-week run, not criticism, signaled it was time to suspend the Hortt. Artist David Maxwell doesn't buy that. "Their reasons for cutting the Hortt are lame. When things didn't go so well with the Hortt, I think [Harleman] took it personally." After all, he reasons, "she's the boss." Moreover, Maxwell says attendance is a poor criterion for judging a show. "I don't think any of the shows have been well attended," he comments.

In the meantime the museum will incorporate local artists in other exhibitions throughout the year, while the markedly unglamorous, proudly grassroots BAG will now host the only Hortt in town. And the BAG show will accept original works, Buzzi promises, just like the beloved Hortts of yore.

Buzzi is unsure of the fate of the Salon Des Refuses, however, and as for the new show, it may not even be called the Hortt and may not be permanent. The museum could decide to reclaim the show, which puts both the BAG and Broward's art community in a paradoxical position. "We've been here 50 years," says the BAG's Dagmar Crosby. "We're trying to start a tradition."

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