Matthew Carone leans back in his chair and sighs. Above a furrowed brow tanned nut-brown, his hair is bright white, a contrast that suggests a contented mixture of leisure and success. A prominent art dealer, gallery owner, and painter, Carone has been a fixture on the local art scene for more than 40 years, so he's not afraid to speak his mind.
Broward Art Guild (BAG) director Sue Buzzi sits opposite Carone, nodding obediently. Buzzi is organizing the annual Hortt Competition, which was recently dropped by the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art after 41 years.(See "Hortt No More," September 21, 2000.) The Carone Gallery is one of the two venues for this year's show, which opens May 19, but if the place's owner had his way, the Hortt would never have left the museum.
"It's tragic," Carone says of Museum of Art director Kathleen Harleman's decision to evict the show. "It's a terrible mistake. Now," he says in a prelude to a rant, "I'm getting angry."
When Harleman, who joined the museum in 1998, pulled the plug on the Hortt last summer, it signaled the end of an era. Founded after the 1958 death of real-estate developer M. Allen Hortt, the Hortt Memorial Art Competition and Exhibition became an important event on the area's cultural calendar, attracting as many as 1700 entries at its peak. Buzzi and the BAG scrambled to save the Hortt, securing the JM Family Enterprises Gallery (ArtServe) and the Carone Gallery as venues.
Carone doesn't think guild members did enough. "If you would've had them in front of the museum picketing," he tells Buzzi sternly, "[Harleman] would've had diarrhea on the spot, because she would've been the enemy. How many members do you have?"
The BAG is 300 strong and could have produced a considerable crowd, but Buzzi says such activism simply isn't her style. In a black suit and magenta lipstick, she looks severe. Her tone, however, is earnest, and she is soft-spoken. She's more interested in running the Hortt than persuading the museum to reclaim it, and for good reason.
The show, which is just a little more than two weeks away, could garner considerable cachet for the nonprofit BAG. Located in a battered building on busy NE 13th Street in Fort Lauderdale, the guild is a sharp contrast to the newly renovated MoA. Though it is celebrating its 50th anniversary, the organization is operated on a shoestring budget by Buzzi, her assistant, and a board of volunteers. Buzzi won't disclose this year's Hortt budget, but she expects to run the show for less than $8000, a hefty sum for the BAG. "We didn't make $8000 last year," she says.
While the BAG has something to gain by sponsoring the Hortt, the changeover could diminish the show's reputation. Many artists say the show's main appeal was the chance to exhibit inside a museum. Without the MoA's involvement, entries might drop off. "The Hortt's sponsorship by the museum lent a credibility to the show," says Tin Ly, a prominent Fort Lauderdale artist. "That's basically it. For anyone who wants to be established, that is a step one has to take, to have some kind of working relationship with the museum."
Winners of this year's Hortt won't be afforded that career-building opportunity, nor will they establish a similar liaison with the Carone Gallery. Carone says he rarely shows local artists at his prestigious, appointment-only space. "Local art has taken on such an ugly, amateurish sound," he says with a grimace.
Bill Withers, former chief curator at the Norton Museum, says the esteem the former venue lent the Hortt cannot be overestimated. "It matters," Withers insists. "We always used to joke that when we painted the walls between shows, our paintings were on the walls."
Hollywood painter David Maxwell, who has won four Hortt awards, acknowledges the BAG's and Buzzi's relative inexperience but looks forward to the show anyway. "As far as the BAG goes, its strength is its weakness -- it's grassroots," he says. But he adds this year's Hortt may lack the polish of previous shows: "They're gonna get grass stains.... You're gonna get some very amateur work.... If you wish to encourage innovative work, you have to be very open and democratic. Society is the eventual judge of what is good art."
In fact Maxwell predicts the Hortt's new incarnation will be an improvement because it's no longer associated with the MoA, an institution that, in his opinion, has been faltering for years. "It's gonna be better [sponsored by the BAG] because they don't have their heads stuck up their ass. Their heart is in supporting the arts, not making some entry in The Herald or ArtNews or Art in America."
At the moment the Hortt is a blank canvas on which local art scenesters pin their hopes. Buzzi envisions a traveling show that would make stops in five South Florida counties.
However she's still struggling to secure the prize money for Best in Show ($2500) and Second Place ($1500) and isn't even certain if both Hortt venues will be open to the public at the same time. And though CityLink continues to help by printing the entry application in its pages, SunTrust Bank -- a long-time, if inconsistent, Hortt sponsor -- recently decided not to sponsor the show this year.
Perched on the edge of her chair, Buzzi buzzes with nervous determination. At the same time, her voice betrays her, quivering with a hint of uncertainty. "The Hortt cannot die. It just can't," she insists. "And hopefully," she adds, "it won't."
Carone, who won the show in 1963, holds out hope the Hortt will one day return to the museum and reclaim its former glory. "I know they could take it back," he says. "Get somebody to get off their ass on the board, get on the phone, and call the banks! What does it take to get on the phone and call 20 banks and get $20,000?"
Harleman isn't about to do that. She has already replaced the Hortt with the Contemporary Projects Series, a program intended to engage the public in works of art in new media. "For the foreseeable future," she says, "I'm planning to do different things."