In just a few weeks, mid-May to be inexact, the Lake Worth art hub Unit 1 will close its doors — at least in its current incarnation. New Times sat down with the owner of this fledgling cultural beacon, Jacques de Beaufort, to discuss what the short, happy life of Unit 1 has meant to him, to the area, and what the future of art (his own and in general) looks like in the Palm Beaches.
When de Beaufort left Los Angeles for South Florida in 2010 to become an associate professor in visual arts at Palm Beach State College, he did so out of necessity and, like so many, because of the weather (his other option was a dreary-sounding university in Pennsylvania.) It is a well-known story applicable to many transient residents of the Sunshine State. However, few end up having the sort of impact on their adopted homes as the veteran artist has with his unique enterprise, Unit 1, a gallery, studio, and music venue, often all at once.
We visited de Beaufort one Friday afternoon at Unit 1 – a clean, modern structure in downtown Lake Worth that over the past couple of years has doubled as a celebrated showcase space and his home, the latter occupying the top floor. After spending nine years in the City of Angels, splitting his time as an educator and a painter of elegant, erotically charged pieces illuminating the beauty of the female form, de Beaufort found himself uneasy and dissatisfied with the emptiness and glad-handing of his surroundings. Additionally, jobs had become difficult to come by, and so a fresh start was in order.
In an interview with New Times last year, de Beaufort commented that upon arriving on our shores, in comparison with the big markets, L.A. and New York in particular, it seemed to him that Palm Beach County was something of a “cultural wasteland.” He quickly discovered there were two main reasons for this: One, the affluent had no interest in buying art from local artists, and two, local artists weren't creating anything worth buying – at least not on the surface. He realized that many people, including some at his new place of employment, treated art as a hobby and, as he puts it, played it too “safe.”
“They were thinking of art in these terms of tourists, you know, something you buy on a cruise. Certainly that's valid, but that type of artwork was not the scene I was used to being involved with,” de Beaufort says. “But you can't get mad at people. That's what they know.”
Still, de Beaufort recognized that there was indeed talent in PBC, untapped and operating in the shadows with nowhere to shine. So in the summer of 2013, he created Unit 1.
“That was one of the reasons I wanted to start this gallery. They're out there. I know they're out there. They just didn't necessarily have the right space to show. There isn't the infrastructure.” So the idea was born to bring a different perspective, by pushing boundaries of what's been acceptable for so long. In the process, he strove to create a scene by giving deserving artists an opportunity to shape the artistic environment around them. Moreover, de Beaufort sought to evolve typically dry evenings at the art gallery into a destination rather than a stuffy stopover.
“The art openings here were always so boring to me. The little glass of wine, everybody walks around, you're half-asleep, you're out of there by 9, and then you go to where you're really gonna go to have fun, which is the bar. Then the same thing with the music scene. Lots of really cool, hip kids, lots of fun, but it's just a meat-market thing. They're really artistically minded, so let's bring those things together and create a new form. That's what hopefully we'll be remembered for.”
Sadly, in the same breath that he speaks reverently of these aspirations, the harsh reality of the current state of Unit 1 is revealed. “One of the reasons I'm closing, as much as I'd love to do this, we just didn't make enough money to make it profitable for me.” Of course, money was never the reason for embarking on this endeavor and conversely isn't the reason for its termination. “It just becomes a labor of love after a while. I have my own art. How long can you act as some sort of ombudsman of the community before you can pass the baton to someone else?”
Sitting in Unit 1's main space on folding chairs, surrounded by the final showing, a collection of startling paintings by Palm Beach County native Adam Sheetz that invoke the absurdity of Terry Gilliam's work on Monty Python, albeit much darker and political in nature, de Beaufort is refreshingly forthcoming and sincere.
And there is no sentiment that he vehemently desires to get across more clearly than this: The progress made at Unit 1 on behalf of the area needs to continue. “If anything, I hope people realize that there is a level of sophistication, there are challenging artists, there are things going on. I hope they take that ball and run with it. This is just one little gallery.”
As for the response to Unit 1's closing, it has been overwhelming. “Everybody's been really cool and supportive. A couple of people have called to thank me. I think everybody understands. I think everybody understood too that I was never an art dealer or a gallerist in the conventional sense and that this was a project. And projects have beginnings, middles, and ends. I thought of this space as a conceptual artwork that was community-driven. It's almost pretentious to call it that, but it's somewhat true.”
While this chapter of de Beaufort's life is concluding, he's already begun scripting the next, and it has some familiar characters and qualities. A hugely attractive component of Unit 1 was the combination of the visual and musical arts. Simply put, local bands rocking out inside four walls covered in eye candy was an awesome idea that will be missed. As will the beautiful and important video series Unit 1 Sessions, in which de Beaufort would film live performances from local favorites and rising talent in need of attention.
Still, de Beaufort won't be leaving it completely behind. He's been inspired to craft a series of portraits, 16 to 25, featuring men who have been involved in the livelihood of Unit 1. “The project that I'm working on right now is drawings of local musicians.” As we climb the stairs to the second floor to check out his new work, de Beaufort amends his previous statement. “Not just musicians, local dudes.”
Some of those “dudes” already immortalized include singer/songwriter Mykal Morrison and bassist Iiro Maki of the Mykal Morrison band, Mickey Vintage from West Palm Beach's reggae outfit Spred the Dub, and the aforementioned Adam Sheetz.
“It's an extension of Unit 1,” de Beaufort concedes, with a hint of nostalgia already creeping in. “This has been fun. I really appreciate how warmly the community reacted to it, how involved everybody got, and how supportive everyone was.” Despite his affection for the time he spent as a curator, unlike many broken-down athletes, de Beaufort knew when a good thing had run its course.
“I'm glad too that I didn't keep it going longer than it should have. I didn't want to be in the situation where I felt there was an obligation to come up with cool shit. Basically what I did was all the cool shit came to me, and when there was no more cool shit, I was like, well, there's no reason for this to continue. I want to continue, I love everything about it, but it needs to be vital, and it needs to be directing itself. It can't be something I'm doing just because.”
And so, Unit 1 — the art piece, the community project, the heaving, breathing cultural experiment — will no longer be displayed on the walls of Lake Worth. Yet, as much as it has stimulated the soul of its founder and the direction of his art, the hope is that if nothing else, it has done the same for others. Perhaps one day soon, we'll be overwhelmed with choices of kick-ass rock ’n’ roll art galleries.