The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In 2009, while expecting their first child, visual artists and life partners Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova and Frances Trombly co-founded a new artist space in their hometown of Miami. They named it Dimensions Variable after their short-lived visuals-only blog that had showcased the kind of challenging art they rarely saw supported or valued in their city.
Using a donated space in Miami’s Design District, Leyden and Frances worked in their personal studios in the back, and in the small front space, Dimensions Variable started curating exhibits. Leyden was committed to imbuing their new venture with the ethos that had guided a previous Miami-based venture named Box that he’d co-run years before. Dimensions Variable would support great art and artists without placing the demands of the market ahead of the artists’ needs or aspirations.
Since its founding, Dimensions Variable has had to relocate several times for reasons beyond their control due to the increasingly treacherous real estate market in Miami. Since 2019, though, they have operated out of their largest space yet comprising 4,500 square feet in Miami’s Little River/Little Haiti neighborhood. In 2019 they also registered as a non-profit organization and since then have continued to support a wide range of artists with residencies, exhibits and, since DV is also a gallery, sales.
Here Frances and Leyden discuss very frankly the lessons they’ve learned in the last 14 years in how to make Dimensions Variable sustainable through thick and thin while remaining as welcoming and enriching as possible to the art and artists they are passionate about supporting.
Choose a question below to begin exploring the interview:
- When you started thinking about founding Dimensions Variable in 2009, what need in Miami were you hoping to address?
- The Miami art market has such an outsized importance there. Were you trying to create a venue for artists in the community who didn’t necessarily fit that mold?
- Can you describe a project within those first two years that you felt particularly passionate about that you know couldn’t have really come about without Dimensions Variable’s support?
- You are partners in more ways than one. How do you deal with disagreements in the business?
- You didn’t officially become a nonprofit until 2019. What went into that decision? Why incorporate as a 501(c)(3)?
- If somebody wanted to copy your model or use it as an inspiration in their community, what are a couple of the most crucial lessons learned that you’d share with them?
- As you look ahead at 2024, what’s happening at Dimensions Variable that you’re particularly looking forward to?
Frances Trombly: What was going on in 2009 for us — and even prior to that — we would be out and about and looking at works within our community, and I guess we always felt like we wanted something more. We would go visit other communities and we were craving to see work that we were interested in. We were always seeing a lot of colorful works that were mostly paintings or were sparkly. It was market-driven.
Pier Carlo: Which is not surprising to me. I mainly know the Miami art market through what I read about Art Basel, and so I know there’s so much money to be made there. I understand that the market has such an outsized importance there. Were you trying to create a venue for artists in the community who didn’t necessarily fit that mold?
Frances: Exactly, exactly. I mean, we didn’t have any money. It was basically, “We have this space.” We ended up later on partnering with an organization here and there to help us support artists from out of town, but for the most part, it was local. It was works that were not so market-friendly but that were inspiring to us.
Pier Carlo: And were you also creating — I have to talk about money — a stream of income for yourself and your new family? Was this a new way of adapting to your growing situation?
Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova: Not so much. I mean, Frances says yes, but —
Frances: Oh, he was saying no.
Leyden: We were … . I don’t know how you’re saying yes to that question because really for the first couple of years, the invitations were just inviting artists to come to Miami, and we would be able to potentially work with local institutions and be able to get them into a residency or certain things of that nature. A lot of artists oftentimes were very interested in just coming to Miami and working on a project. I think it was two or three years until we got some funding.
Pier Carlo: So it was just opening up the doors as a pure act of generosity, just because you happened to get a donated space?
Leyden: Yeah, we had a space, and we wanted to share it. It was just like, “Do you want to come to Miami and work on a project? We don’t have any money.” [He laughs.]
Frances: When we agreed to do this, Leyden was very firm. He was like, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right.” And that’s what he’s said this whole time.
Pier Carlo: And what did that mean, Leyden? What did doing it right mean?
Leyden: A lot of artist projects have this reputation of ... . There’s this temporary nature in which everybody expects them to just be around for a little bit, and then, “Oh, artists, business isn’t their forte, so of course it was going to close down.” And so I was just kind of like, “Well, if I’m going to do this, I want to do it seriously.”
Box was very hyper-independent. We paid for everything that had to do with the rent and the projects there out of our own pockets because we didn’t want any kind of outside influence, whether it was building a board or applying for grants and becoming a 501(c)(3), in any of these things. We wanted to just have absolute control.
But in this case, I was like, “I want to do it for real, and I’m not going to pay for it.” So it was like, “We need to make sure that we begin to set up the mechanisms for this to become more serious over time.”
Pier Carlo: And so how long would you say it took for you to set up those mechanisms?
Leyden: Frances, in 2011, right?
Frances: Is that when the Knight Grant came in?
Leyden: Yeah. We were approached by Dennis Scholl, who we knew. We had a relationship with him, and he had just taken on a role at Knight to be the Knight Arts Challenge cultural director. He was out there, looking at what was going on in the city and what needed to potentially have funding. He came to some of our events and said, “You guys should apply.”
Leyden: I think you know, Frances, which one.
Frances: Catalina Jaramillo is a special exhibition for me. Is that the one you’re talking about, Leyden?
Pier Carlo: How was it special?
Frances: Well, as we were trying to, I guess, figure out our way with this space and the projects, friends were like, “Hey, I’d love to put together an exhibition.” I would always be like, “Yep, just send me a little paragraph or something.” A friend of mine, her name is Catalina, sent me this proposal, and we read it. Her mother had passed away recently, and she wanted to do this project about her mom dying. She’s in my studio, chatting with me about how this would be such a meaningful thing for her. She sent me all these beautiful emails and a little drawing of the concept of the show.
I came to Leyden and said, “We have to give her the opportunity to have this exhibition so she can go through this process.” He and I were butting heads a little bit because he was like, “Oh my god, she’s going to talk about death and dying.” We were really young. It’s just an intense subject, and it could very easily go in a direction that could be possibly very literal or something that was very —
Pier Carlo: Or sentimental.
Frances: Yes, or heavy. But anyway, we went back and forth, and I’m like, “Leyden, that’s it. I’m giving her this exhibition. We’re doing this.” And we agreed.
Anyway, the show was called “You Are Always Here.” It was in 2011. Her mother was an avid collector of objects, almost to the point of maybe being a little bit compulsive, so she had all of her mother’s things. She took all of these objects, and she placed them all around the perimeter of the gallery. This is a small rectangular gallery that is 400 square feet-ish. I don’t remember the square footage, but it was small. She very carefully went through all of her mother’s things, from puzzles to hairbrushes to purses, and she just placed them all around. She had this beautiful layout, maybe a foot in depth, all on the perimeter.
At the end of the exhibition, she had an event where she gave all those objects that were her mother’s away into the community. It was very touching and a little sentimental but visually very elegant and a very special exhibition. And to this day, I still have her mother’s hairbrushes in my bathroom.
Pier Carlo: Oh, you got the hairbrushes!
Frances: All this time, I’ve had her hairbrushes, yeah.
[They both chuckle.]
I’m asking this because clearly there was a disagreement right there about Catalina’s piece.
Frances: We for the most part aesthetically have a similar sensibility. I think it’s gotten more complex as the space has grown. There are things that we’re navigating … . I think we’re learning as we build. The arguments or any sort of disagreements come from us not really being familiar — I don’t know if I’m being a little bit too vague —unfamiliar with how to run a nonprofit. All of this has been a learning curve for us both.
Pier Carlo: Well, let’s talk about that. Clearly, you’re doing something right because you’ve been around now for how long? 14, 15 years almost.
Frances: Fourteen, yeah.
Pier Carlo: But you didn’t officially become a nonprofit until 2019. What went into that decision? Because running a nonprofit, as you hinted, is its own ball of wax. So why incorporate as a 501(c)(3)?
Frances: We started to realize that it was more difficult for us through a fiscal agent to get grants. I think that that was a big thing, right Leyden?
Leyden: Yeah, we could only access so many funds, so many grants, that did not require … I mean, we could get a fiscal agency and so on and so forth, but we just wanted to … . I think one of them was the Warhol [Foundation], for example. You needed to be your own nonprofit, so I think part of the decision was, “Well, if we’re going to focus on a Warhol grant, eventually we need to do this.”
Because we were always about thinking, “How can we best structure this, and how do we not necessarily follow what is expected of us to follow?” Like, “OK, you need to be a nonprofit because you’re this artist-run space.” Or, “Oh, you need to be a gallery or you need to be … .” We were looking at everything, thinking, “Well, can we create some kind of hybrid that isn’t necessarily one or the other? And how do we navigate all of these potential opportunities?”
Through all of this thinking about all these structures, we ended up as a nonprofit because it seemed to make the most sense. We wanted to make sure that we were able to support a program that remained independent of a market, even though we still wanted to embrace the market. If we could place work and make sales for artists, great, but we didn’t want that to be the sole direction.
Pier Carlo: So what you’re referring to, when you said kind of a hybrid model, is that you’re a nonprofit that offers support to artists but you also operate as a gallery?
Leyden: Exactly. We wanted to function in-between as a hybrid, because we realized that in order to support contemporary art, you’ve got to have the most incredibly diverse methods of revenue. And we wanted to make sure that we could pay artists a stipend to do an exhibition while at the same time trying to sell the work.
Pier Carlo: God, I love that. That sounds so revolutionary to me for an artist to get paid for her exhibition while also trying to sell her work.
Frances: That’s the dream, right?
Pier Carlo: That’s amazing!
Leyden: Yeah, that’s the dream. But we learned from our own experiences.
Pier Carlo: Because I will tell you — I’m a generally pretty well-educated guy — I was in my thirties before I learned that galleries generally keep 50% of an artist’s sale, which astonished me. What you’re proposing sounds so different.
Leyden: Yeah, we had learned from our own experiences. We were working with emerging galleries because we were also emerging artists. I remember working on a solo show and going into debt. I went, I think it was, $10,000 in debt, making the show.
Pier Carlo: At a gallery, you mean?
Leyden: Yeah, at a gallery. Of course, you’re already in this debt, and you’re hoping, “OK, I hope that something sells.” Oftentimes the kind of work that we were interested in making was challenging work, and so the potential of a sale would have to be an institutional sale or a collector that really had the capability to house a work or a visionary collector that really was interested in the kind of stuff that we were looking at. So it was really difficult to make that work. I think all those lessons learned was why we were like, “OK, we have to try to figure this out.”
We were also in a new economy too. Technology was affecting so many industries and making so many changes. We had musicians that were changing the way that they funded their albums, and we had entire industries being completely turned upside down. So it was like, “Why isn’t anyone in the arts thinking more and more about how do we change the finances of it? How do we change the way that it works?” We were trying to just figure out how to move forward.
Leyden: I think the move to becoming a nonprofit might’ve been something that we would’ve done earlier. I think in certain conversations, there were voices who were advising us that, “Well, maybe you don’t need to do that because you guys are artists and you need to focus on your work.”
Pier Carlo: And also when you incorporate as a nonprofit, you do lose some control, right?
Leyden: Yeah, you do. And so that was something that we navigated for a little while. But I think it can open up a lot of doors because the way that we always looked at it was not that we were getting into this to be this profitable business; we were getting into this as a service to art and artists. If that meant that we were paying ourselves a modest salary … there’s no reason why someone working a nonprofit can’t make a decent or a good living.
Frances: One of those pitfalls or one of those mistakes early on is that we wanted that give-back, but we hadn’t really, at least until recently, been looking at the nonprofit as an actual business for it to make money. Because the only way for us to actually give back is to actually have the funding, so it needs to be a business. Originally when we were starting, we didn’t have the understanding of that mindset.
Pier Carlo: So you were not incorporating your own financial needs in the picture.
Pier Carlo: Which is very common, right?
Frances: Right. Which is a mistake.
Leyden: Well, I would interject and say that the financial compensation or the compensation that we always made sure that was in the project was that our studios were always a part of the project. We’d been invited before into spaces that would be donated to us, but there wasn’t enough room for our studios, and so we would decline because the way that we had structured it early on was that our compensation was that our studios were there. In a sense, we were getting compensated by other means through the use of the space, but also we were getting compensated by the relationships, the exposure, the people that were coming through, the people we were meeting. So that was always worked into the project.
But recently we’ve gone beyond that. You hit a threshold where you’re like, “Well, we’re putting so much time into the project at this point that that model of compensation of space and exposure only goes to a point before you have to cap the amount of time that you’re putting into the project.” Because the more complex it gets, the more you have to … . So now, when working on a project, we have to begin to look at financial compensation as well, because everyone has bills to pay and everyone has to be paid for their time.
We’re not only paying artists; we have to pay a team of people to make sure that the project continues. That’s an important component now, particularly when you begin to plan the future of the project. If you don’t have compensation for a team in place, you can’t at a future date decide that you’re going to bring in a new director or bring in someone if those things are not in place.
Frances: Are you sure you want me to answer that?
[They both laugh.]
Pier Carlo: Oh, this sounds juicy. What’s going on?
Leyden: We’re excited about a couple of things. There are some exhibitions that are sort of bubbling. We’re excited about the new artists that have come on board to rent the studios. We recently made a shift in a little bit of our structure because of the volatility of Miami real estate and all the challenges that we’re facing in this rapidly growing city. We have opened up more studios in our building, and we’ve made some shifts to the galleries.
Unfortunately, the studios became more expensive, which was something that we didn’t want to do and that I held off as much as possible. But Frances was shaking me, telling me that we needed to make some changes.
Pier Carlo: Is that what you were referring to, Frances, when you said, “Are you sure you want me to answer this?”
Frances: Well, go ahead, Leyden.
Pier Carlo: No, this is fascinating because it’s about running a business and market demands.
Leyden: I’m just going to say that we had told a lot of artists that were coming through Dimensions Variable, “Hey, the payment that you’re paying is only for utilities. These studios are this way because this is how we believe they should be. But we can only do this as long as we can keep them, as long as we can raise the funds to do this.” We were hoping that collectively we could all work our networks to be able to do that, but unfortunately Miami has been growing rapidly, and it’s just been intense.
Frances, you were going to add to that?
Frances: No, I think you pretty much summed it up.
Pier Carlo: It sounds like it was a difficult conversation because in a way, you did have to adjust your guiding ethos a little bit because of the market.
Leyden: Yeah. We had to make another one of those decisions of, “We have to adapt to a market.” The building owner has certain things that he needs to take care of, and I do my best to mitigate that. But like Frances said so eloquently, we have to be a business that has the funding to continue to do what our mission needs us to do.
But even our funders — whether it’s the county, the state, federal or foundations — if they don’t see that you’re making other revenue, they’re going to not feel very comfortable in continuing to fund you. We’ve learned all these lessons, because we were thinking, “Oh, out of the virtue of our program, we’re going to get funding because it’s important the work that we’re doing.” Well, not so much.
Pier Carlo: Yeah, they’ve created a little bit of a Catch-22 for you and other nonprofits. Would it ever be feasible in your planning to own your own building?
Leyden: That’s been on the table for a while now.
Frances: Yeah, we’ve looked at that. We would love that and it would help tremendously, but it’s complicated.
Leyden: Yeah, that was a conversation that we were going to have with or wanted to have with one of our biggest supporters, the Knight Foundation. We were really looking at the numbers and saying, “I know you guys want to support us being around and you want to support us being successful. The ultimate way that we could do that is if we bought a building and technically rent-controlled ourselves for the next thirty years,” but for some reason … .
Pier Carlo: You never hear about funders funding building purchases.
Leyden: You don’t. You don’t. And it’s beyond us the amount of money that’s just being thrown out the window. Arts organizations are not being given the power.
Pier Carlo: Why do you think that is?
Leyden: I’m not sure. We have two examples in the city of Miami that are the most incredible examples of what happens when an organization buys real estate. One of those examples is Oolite Arts, formerly known as ArtCenter/South Florida. In the 1980s, they bought two buildings on Lincoln Road, turned them into studios, and did their thing for the next 30 years. Not too long ago, they sold one of them and instantly became the institution in South Florida with the greatest endowment.
Pier Carlo: Wow.
Leyden: That’s one example. The other example is Bakehouse, which has been around again since the ’80s, and they have now I don’t know how many studios. They’re one of the biggest studio providers in South Florida. They own their building, and they’re able to do all kinds of different things. One of those things is that they’re not getting priced out in terms of rent for their building.
We’ve had this conversation with Michael Spring, who is now gone but was the director of Miami-Dade Art in Public Places. When we asked him, “Why aren’t there more grants like this?” he said that they’re having those conversations, but at the county and state level, they’re really long conversations to have.
It’s beyond Frances and myself that since the ’80s, there hasn’t been a conversation about that.
January 23, 2024