Who is Ellie Schneiderman? You won’t find the answer in your local library or on your Kindle or iPad. While the story of how she transformed an entire city is remarkable, her richly deserved biography has not yet been written. I am hard pressed to find a candidate more deserving of being immortalized in the pages of a book, one thickly bound in leather, or within a Wikipedia page.
To begin to describe Ellie and the influence she’s had, first picture this: It’s 1984, and Lincoln Road is not the bustling pedestrian mall it is today. In fact it is a sad, sleepy thoroughfare passing through a neighborhood made up of mostly low-income retired elderly rationing their Social Security checks between inexpensive rentals and the $3.99 breakfast special at David’s Cafe. In the mix are also the homeless, recently paroled and local high school truants (not that I would know).
Enter Ellie Schneiderman: a visionary who wants to turn 20 vacant storefronts into permanent, affordable space for outstanding emerging, mid career and established visual artists in an environment which fosters individual artistic development, experimentation and dialogue among artists and ongoing interaction with the general public.
With the help of scholarship and grant money, she establishes the ArtCenter/South Florida that year, installing over 100 juried artists and ushering in a movement that will eventually bring performing arts entertainment to Lincoln Road– like Judy Drucker’s Colony Theater, the New World Symphony in the Lincoln Theater and the Miami City Ballet. Further business gets stimulated and soon after, art galleries and cafes move in.
I spent the day with Ellie in her Coral Gables home, talking and looking through old scrap books and newspaper clippings. As I scan all the different artwork in her house, it is her signature white clay pieces I like best. When I tell her how much I love them, she is modest, Yes, I have the best job ever, I get to play in dirt all day. And that is what is so remarkable about Ellie. With all of her accomplishments she describes herself first and foremost as a “lucky” mom of three children. In truth, she is also a teacher, wife, grandmother, student, former research scientist who used to “tame and train monkeys” and not least of all, a gifted artist in her own right.
My favorite point that afternoon came when she reminisced about the time a bank threw away their old windows in a dumpster and how she retrieved them to use at the Miami City Ballet’s newly acquired practice facility at 905 Lincoln Road. I remember being a passerby during those early days, transfixed as I watched the ballerinas practice their pirouettes through those same glass windows. It is a treasured memory. When I tell her this and ask if she realizes the impact she’s had on countless artists’ lives as well as those like me, that witnessed the revival first hand, she simply says, Some people help children, others help the elderly, I help artists help themselves… Thank God. I remark, barely audible, but she hears me and humorously adds, No, thank artists!
Ellie admits she likes to plan, create, build and move on, and move on she has. After 10 years as founding director of the ArtCenter, Ellie’s next venture was Miami Artworks, which provided a “destination” anchor for a mall on Coral Way. She next joined a partnership to develop an “art campus” in the historic district of downtown Homestead. So it’s clear that she’s made a career out of creating art centers that revive neighborhoods and communities. I am also aware that creating the ArtCenter was just a small piece in a much bigger picture for her. Still, I credit her for her vision and the brains to purchase (instead of lease) those 3 fabled blocks- a move that has allowed the organization to remain stable for the past 30 years. During her 10 year tenure, she brought exhibition space, art education, mentorship programs and a presence for art to a community that was culturally depressed. She provided artists with a communal, affordable space when there was none, and with the opportunity to play and ply their trade in peace. For this and much more, I think it’s time the world celebrate her, and her positively pioneering spirit.