EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE A PERSON MAKES A BIG impact. Five years ago, that person arrived in Palm Beach County and his activism, leadership and energy ripple through the arts community. After he opened his studio in Boynton Beach, Rolando Chang Barrero helped to initiate the Arts District there, and then, with fellow artist Craig McInnis, started Art Synergy, exhibiting local artists along with the Palm Beach and Boca Fine Art Shows. Next, he opened his eponymous gallery on Lucerne Avenue in Lake Worth and this June, launched his fourth art endeavor here: The Box Gallery with 4,000 square feet of exhibition space on Belvedere Road.
“I coined this Belvedere area to be ‘The Cultural Corridor,’” says Mr. Barrero. “We have a theater group going in next door, an auction house, studios, galleries, dance and Resource Depot. It’s slowly happening; we don’t pay attention when something is happening organically. From one day to another, people wake up and say, ‘How did it happen?’ That’s because the press is usually geared to the prefabbed, CRA developments and the sanctioned things. But the Boynton Beach Arts District grew organically; here it’s going to grow organically. It’s nice when we have government-sanctioned areas, but this isn’t a government-sanctioned area. It’s happening organically just like it happened in Boynton. Just like it happened in Lake Worth; the CRA could go crazy trying to develop on the other side of the tracks where they put those artists’ lofts, but that is not an organic growth sprawl, so they are having a difficult time getting it going. Down Lucerne (Avenue) it happened organically. CRAs will accomplish it because eventually it does happen, but it’s easier when it happens organically.”
“Rolando began The Box Gallery in the slowest season of the year,” says Elle Schorr, another key player in the Palm Beaches art scene as an artist photographer who also organizes the Art Salons at the Armory Art Center. “He has so much energy and so many ideas and a different exhibition every month. Many of them have been juried and many people are submitting work to it. He’s doing special exhibitions that he is curating himself or bringing in a guest curator. He’s doing things with musicians and filmmakers and performance arts. He’s really trying to bring the arts of all kinds from this area to a place where they can be seen and enjoyed and appreciated.”
Born in Miami to a Chinese mother and Cuban father, Mr. Barrero graduated from Miami-Dade College and went on to the Chicago Art Institute for a bachelor of fine arts degree. His eclectic career includes being a curator for Miami-Dade College, a flight attendant traveling the world with art studios based in New York, Denver and Miami, a window dresser, model, graphic designer and, of course, a lifelong artist. After literally “flying high,” he was plunged into a decade-long abyss with a brain tumor. Eventually, surgeries and treatments later, he emerged to resume life as an artist activist and moved to West Palm Beach.
“There is something missing in this area that I want,” says Mr. Barrero. “It’s actually very personal. I want to see progressive art and lectures. There’s really no concentration on new, contemporary discussions. I grew up in the Miami Dade downtown system where everything had to be validated in order to get funding. Also, I am accustomed to looking at art differently; not just going to white-wall galleries as a store where you go purchase art. I am used to going to art spaces where art lives. The discussions, where there are roundtables and there is context and content. I didn’t find it here and I kept looking for it. But instead of complaining, I just started doing it.
“In addition,” he says, “there’s a definitely a paradigm shift that is going on in the development of the city in art and culture, in architecture. None of these three towns can be seen as fishing villages anymore. They are turning into worldclass cities. And with that, there is a lot of money being invested in the development of the city, primarily West Palm Beach, and with that will come an increase in a population that expects world-class art. So the galleries will follow and I think that we will see a big shift in the next year or two, and a much stronger, more vibrant art scene will start developing. A lot of the local artists that have been hungry for recognition will get a chance to see themselves in the limelight much faster than they expected.
“Artists located geographically need to prepare for national attention… because it’s coming,” Mr. Barrero says. “There’s a lot of good talent here. They shouldn’t be putting off completing their bodies of work sooner than later. It’s going to happen.”
West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Tuzzolino Muoio agreed. “Having a thriving and robust arts community creates the balance that makes our city great. Being a world-class city means nourishing the soul as well as the economy. The Box Gallery is a new integral part of what makes West Palm Beach great,” she says.
Instead of calling artists in the area “local artists,” Mayor Tuzzolino calls them “culturally relevant” local artists.
“The word ‘local’ is secondary. Where you paint has nothing to do with your talent. Artists probably never received the attention that they deserved because of geographic location. Now as we shift into another time of history in this area as it develops, artists will receive those accolades and recognition in spite of their geographic location,” she says.
She adds, however, that there is a problem in our area. “The papers and publications lack the staff for critical writing about art. There are no regular columnists anymore. If there is no writing or critical review of their work, artists will leave. They thirst for ‘am I doing something right, am I good?’”
Ms. Schorr thinks what Mr. Barrero is doing is trying to refocus people on awareness to the idea of an arts district. “In fact, the Armory Art Center has a huge amount to offer in the area and is right around the corner from him. The Norton Museum of Art is just down the street, and it is going through this amazing expansion. Once it completely reopens in two years, it will be an amazing art destination for the entire region. So, in a sense, The Box Gallery is on the road that links these and is becoming an art destination in itself. It is the beginning of linking in people’s minds that whole area as an art destination. Gradually, overtime I hope that more artists will take advantage of the idea and add themselves to the mix.
“I think he has given us a very dynamic and inclusive new venue to show and perform our work that just wasn’t there before. There are so many ways an artist can participate in one or more of his different shows. Rolando is increasing the dialogue by having lectures at his gallery. It’s all very new; a year from now we’ll be able to look back on it and say ‘Wow!’”
When asked how he accomplishes so much, Mr. Barrero responds, “I don’t sleep. You ask someone who smokes why do they smoke so much. They have to smoke. When you have an addiction, you smoke. This is my addiction. I love what I do; I love to paint; I love to make art, create art, I like to show other people’s art. It just feeds me. It only comes naturally to me that when I do something, I want everybody to know. You can’t throw a party for one; it’s boring.” ¦