Artist Independent Republic: A Major New Arts Complex For West Palm Beach?

For some time now, a massive, three-story building at 2119 S. Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach, formerly the site of Ragtops Antique Car Showroom and Museum, has been undergoing a sweeping renovation. Virtually every square inch of its space has been repaired, redone, patched and freshly painted.

The project's mastermind, who, coyly, gives his name only as "Leo," says he has a vision, to transform this 1927 building on a forlorn stretch of asphalt into a regional arts landmark, anchoring an arts district in the city's south end.

Leo's project, called Artist Independent Republic, covers half a city block. Its main building, at 24,000 square feet, contains a cavernous, ground-floor exhibition space, second-floor offices, top-floor galleries, a meeting room and a cafe. An outdoor sculpture garden adjoins the building; a neighboring block may become green space. A bicycle share system (!) is in mind. With classes and other events still to be determined, Leo speaks of a commitment to innovation, inspiration and "the nurturing of new talent."

Already visible to the public, in the sculpture garden, are three large-scale constructions: a tangle of five triangles, ten feet high and fire engine red ("My life has been about triangles and squares," Leo told New Times); an array of large, battleship-grey, open-faced cubes (a la Donald Judd) around the lot's perimeter; and a 40-foot long string of multi-hued pastel 2-D forms along a low industrial fence on the far side of the lot.

Inside the building, the ground floor holds other work: a 300-pound, stainless steel cheetah; a flock of orange paper airplanes along a facing wall; a tower of steel construction scraps in a nine-foot high maze. There is furniture of Leo's design, lighting fixtures too, many also made from construction debris. The top floor is a labyrinth of white-walled corridors and alcoves, where Leo says he plans to show the work of up-and-coming artists. Large-scale signs are everywhere: "Artist Independent Republic : The Right Amount of Wrong" in red, white and black on the top floor; "An Insight Into Ideas, Methods and Creativity," in the building's southeast corner window.

Leo's plans for the cafe are provocative. He says he is working with a consultant formerly affiliated with Spain's legendary restaurant El Bulli ("world's best restaurant," proclaimed the BBC), and promises "exploratory cuisine."

Born in Colombia, raised in Barcelona, Leo is slight and trim, impeccably groomed and attired -- a real fashion plate, in fact. (It's hard to imagine he was, as he says, not too long ago homeless on the streets of Brooklyn.) His references as he speaks point to a well-traveled life -- Berlin, New York, L.A., Hong Kong. His rapid fire delivery -- by turns bemused, elated, or skeptical -- throws off sparks, painting a picture of the "republic" to come.

"'Artist Independent Republic' is what we are trying to create here," he told us. "The idea is to discover talent and create a channel for it. It's about transformation."

Why West Palm Beach? "It's a cool place," Leo says. "Not a city, not a little town, and this section of it in an identity crisis, a patchwork." He points to the Norton Museum a few blocks north, sweeps the horizon with his hand, points to the city's antiques district to the south, the industrial area with its artists' workshops by the railroad tracks to the west. "We can tie this all together," he says, his voice trailing off. "The students at Palm Beach Atlantic, the visitors from Palm Beach..."

The building was "a disaster" when he began, he says, "total disrepair." Bringing it up to speed, and in accord with city code, has been demanding. "The logistics of the job are complicated," he told us. "But I understand the concerns, for public safety and security. I hired an engineer, an architect, a traffic engineer."

At times the bureaucratic obstacle course had Leo thinking of giving up. "I'm creative," he says. "But my creativity is tied to a destructive power. I can walk away from anything." On the other hand, he says, he's "not a guy who likes to take down ideas. I like to make it happen." He hopes to open in October.

Public records related to the project reveal little. Permits and property records give the building owner's name as Main 1 LLC, a six-year-old company that state records show is related to a Jerry D. McCoy of Lake Worth. McCoy declined to comment for this article.

So far, the Artist Independent Republic has no website -- though Leo promises one is coming -- nor Facebook page.

We're standing in a workshop adjoining the main building and Leo points to another of his creations, an 8'x4' model of an electrical outlet, canary yellow, like a lost mate to a Claes Oldenburg. Leo smiles broadly and says, "We need more energy."

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.

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