Fine Arts on the Plate
How an unexpected art influencer served up a colorful assemblage of Cuban artwork in Kendall
BY ALONA ABBADY MARTINEZ. PHOTOS BY FELIPE CUEVAS.
Leonardo Rodriguez’s inflection is lyrical and engaging, bubbling with enthusiasm as he discusses a lifelong connection with artists from his homeland. The 55-year-old is personable and gregarious, weaving terms of endearment usually reserved for family and friends into the conversation. And while there’s plenty of laughter and colloquialisms when speaking with him, one thing is for certain: his deep-rooted commitment to preserving and promoting contemporary Cuban art is very much a serious thing.
“I began collecting art [back in Cuba] when I was 20 years old. From one thing to another, time passes,” Rodriguez reflects, explaining that when he arrived to Miami in 1999 he had 50 pieces with him. “Now I have 680. Things change!” he adds with hearty laughter.
His love of art began at an early age and, in large part, was accidental. Suffering from severe childhood asthma, Rodriguez spent a substantial amount of his youth inside the renowned Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, where his mother worked as the accountant. Unlimited access to one of Cuba’s most extensive art collections ignited his love of art, eventually leading to the creation of the Kendall Art Center (KAC) years later.
The idea for KAC was born as a solution to a practical matter. Rodriguez, who owns an electrical company (Contractors Electrical Service, Inc.) decided to use some of the company’s empty warehouse space to store his overflowing collection of art.
“My house was full [of art pieces], my son’s house was full, and the rest?,” he offers with a chuckle, “the rest I had stored away in a closet!” he said.
KAC, a non-profit organization, opened to the public on July 15, 2016, more so as an experiment to see if people would come view Rodriguez’s private collection. Over 200 did.
“The only publicity done was from the artists and family friends. As we say crassly in our country, ‘la bola fue corriendo.’”
His expression loosely translates to “it took off,” and witnessing art enthusiasts flocking to Kendall — a neighborhood lacking the art-driven identity of Wynwood — inspired Rodriguez to expand the cultural center to help Cuban artists living outside their homeland. While a majority reside in Miami, KAC has exhibited works from artists living in Japan, Spain, Boston as well as other parts of Florida.
“The Cuban artist, when he leaves Cuba, is forgotten...I wanted to show the world that the artist that is in Miami keeps being a Cuban artist and is very professional. That’s the origin story: it’s us seeing that even though we’re on this side of the puddle, we’re creating art like the Cuban artist is on the other side,” Rodriguez says.
He groups his collections into four time periods: the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and the millennium. Today his 680 pieces (and counting) make him one of Miami’s largest, privately owned Cuban contemporary art collectors. KAC only works with living artists, in large part because the idea is to promote and assist each artist on their professional journey.
“I don’t work with dead artists because they’re dead, I don’t know if I am explaining myself. What promotion will I give a dead artist? Galleries are more interested in dead artists, but remember, I don’t work like a gallery, I work like a cultural center, so I work with the living artist,” Rodriguez explains before listing prominent artists on KAC’s roster like José Bedia, Sandra Ramos, Ivonne Ferrer and Aldo Menéndez.
Since its inception in 2016, KAC has become a destination for art lovers who know the visit to the western Miami suburb is well worth the trip. Approximately 20,000 people come each year and many more enjoy KAC’s prominent presence in media, which includes catalogues, books, YouTube videos and an active following on Instagram.
Then COVID-19 arrived, and, as artists struggled to sell canvas paintings, Rodriguez fast-tracked an idea he’d been tinkering with for two years: an exhibit featuring one-of-a-kind art pieces on ceramic plates. The goal was twofold: to revive a long-lost tradition of art in ceramics while also offering a financial opportunity for the artists he promotes.
“Not everyone has 8 or 10 thousand dollars [to buy] a canvas, but anyone has one thousand or one thousand two hundred dollars to pay for a plate,” he explains.
Rodriguez, whose livelihood revolves around construction sites, notes many high rises provide minimal wall space, opting for glass to showcase Miami’s coveted views. This can present a challenge to collectors of traditional art.
It’s an option we are giving, a way in which you can decorate your house at a high level,” he says, explaining that one can showcase multiple pieces from varied artists in a space normally destined for one canvas piece.
The pieces in the Fine Arts on the Plate exhibition are 15 inches wide and slightly concave, with each artist showcasing 10 plates. KAC provides all the material to participants. Artists are as enthused as Rodriguez. What began with the participation of 10 artists has now grown to 45. The exhibition is set to run from November 27 through January 30, with each plate available for purchase. A traveling exhibit will begin September 2021. KAC has already allotted a space for a permanent exhibition and plans to use 25 to 30 percent of the proceeds to fund the artist’s production of the plate art.
Rodriguez’s cadence increases as he lists what lies ahead for the Kendall Art Center. A plan for murals and sculptures is in the works, new catalogues are being created, and museums beyond South Florida are requesting the exhibition be sent their way. It may be difficult to follow his train of thought if his enthusiasm weren’t so infectious. And while there’s no doubt Rodriguez is a force, he is clearly grounded and supported by his family. He emphasizes that this is a group effort he proudly shares with his wife, son, Leonardo Rodriguez Jr., and daughter-in-law.
“I’ll be honest with you, the four of us give our heart to this. It is the collection of the family: that is why it’s called the Rodriguez Collection,” he says.
Rodriguez is thrilled by the success Kendall Art Center has had, citing the importance of sharing these artists with the world, not only because their works have had a direct impact on his life, but because of the significance they hold in the art landscape as a whole.
“These are artists that have left a fingerprint on history, so they are artists that we cannot stop mentioning.”
Miami Herald / Indulge Magazine
DECEMBER 5, 2020