Build it and they will come? Maybe.
Brand it and “it happens,” says activist artist and cultural warrior Rolando Chang Barrerro.
Earlier this month, Barrero opened his third Palm Beach County gallery and studio in the midst of five stagnant blocks east of I-95 on Belvedere Road and declared the mostly moribund retail strip “West Palm Beach’s Cultural Corridor.”
The christening party for what Barrerro and his partners hope will be Palm Beach County’s newest arts district starts Friday with three days of events behind the fresh white facade of Barrerro’s 4,000-square-foot Box Gallery.
The All-Florida exhibition includes work of about 30 artists from all over the world who now live in Florida. Saturday night’s event will include six hours of live music, films and performance art. Sunday, curators, artists and arts administrators from around the country will present conversations about the state of the arts in South Florida.
“Cultural corridor is a term used throughout the country signifying access to cultural institutions,” said Barrero, citing the four-lane road as the closest I-95 exit to the county’s biggest cultural institutions and arts districts, such as the Norton Museum of Art and South Dixie Highway’s Antique Row.
To Barrero, the rebranded thoroughfare that runs alongside a handful of historic 1920s neighborhoods seemed destined for first-stage gentrification, of which artists are often the vanguard.
Earlier this year, a new Publix opened on the road which is also home to local favorites including Tulipan Cuban bakery, Souvlaki Grill, Dante’s diner and Rooster’s, one of South Florida’s oldest gay bars, as well as a strip club and a couple of fast food restaurants.
But to Barrero, the attraction was the bleached-out desuetude of a handful of 1940s storefronts whose cheap rents of $1 per square foot — a quarter of the cost of a similar Clematis Street building — whispered possibility.
“Nobody was expecting anything to happen here,” he said. “All efforts were concentrating on downtown. But with downtown already marketed as an arts and culture district, then Northwood, and now this, West Palm Beach will be a great city to contend with when it comes to the arts.”
Barrero signed a five year lease on a former used appliance store, placed a Craig’s List ad inviting people to cart away decades of accumulated junk inside, then obliterated any remnants of its former life with dozens of gallons of white paint.
The gallery contains a movable projection wall for video and film projects as well as room for performance art and large installations such as T.D. Gillispie’s art house construction, currently on display.
If anyone can transform the area, it may be Barrero, who lives nearby in the Sunshine Park neighborhood.
The Miami native helped energize the Boynton Beach Arts District with monthly art walks and food truck nights, bringing together artists and art fans in a gritty warehouse district along the SEC train tracks.
“Rolando was a huge force in making the arts more alive,” said Debbie Coles-Dobay, Boynton Beach’s public art manager. “He’s very clever and very creative. He’s an excellent curator. He will look at the trends, meet many different artists, look at what’s happening in world and decide what will attract people.”
Barrero is that rare artist who manages to easily bring artists and cultural institutions together for a common goal.
In 2013, with fellow artists Frank Basta, Jr and Craig McInnis, Barrero formed Art Synergy, a countywide effort to unify Palm Beach County’s diverse arts organizations. The group capitalized on the nationally recognized ArtPalmBeach fair by organizing tours of the county’s four nascent arts districts. The next year, there were six districts to tour. This year, there were nine.
“People always wait for the government to do something,” said Barrero. “I never waited. I go and recruit people, I try to get other galleries to move in, to get artists to share studios. There’s a lot of availability right now.”
Even before Barrero moved in, two other arts businesses staked claims on Belvedere Road. In October, Antiques & Modern Auction House and Gallery moved in, attracted by the cheap rents and proximity to historic neighborhoods and Palm Beach.
“We can bring new life to the strip here,” said owner Chris Cieckiewicz. “It may take some time, but I definitely think creating an arts district here is a possibility. We’ve got great exposure, lot of traffic, lots of people passing by, although parking is a little bit of an issue.”
By the end of the summer, Take Heed Theater and Improv expects to open next door to the Box Gallery, in a former storefront church. Artistic director Dave Hyland expects to offer classes, improv nights and performances in a 50-seat theater.
“This will help West Palm Beach reach a little bit further south,” said Hyland, an actor and drama teacher. “It’s nice to have an area where you can go have a nice meal and some options of things to do. It’s walkable for the nearby neighborhoods. All of a sudden, those people will reap the benefits.”
In a sign of his commitment to Belvedere’s cultural future, Barreo has already programmed Box Gallery shows through January and plans to bring cutting edge work that usually heads to Miami to West Palm Beach.
IF YOU GO
All-Florida Exhibition opening Friday 7 to 11 p.m.
Saturday: “Projections and Performances” with live music, performance art, films and video, 6 to 11 p.m.
Sunday: “State of the Arts Presentations, 3 to 5 p.m.
811 Belvedere Road, West Palm Beach.