We had the good fortune of connecting with Cathy Leff and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Cathy, have you ever found yourself in a spot where you had to decide whether to give up or keep going? How did you make the choice?
Generally, when it gets really difficult or challenging, try to keep going; it’s always easiest to give up–on anything. That’s not to say you always succeed. But, I have only regretted not trying. You reach a point when you know you should stop; but as long as you are unsure, I would say, keep going.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Almost forty years ago, I worked for the City of Miami as Assistant Director of its Community Development Department. That position allowed me to work in, with, and at a hyper-local level some of the most distinctive neighborhoods for Miami: Overtown, Little Havana, Wynwood, Liberty City, Allapattah, West Coconut Grove, Downtown, among others. As part of my portfolio with the City, I administered a grant to Bakehouse Art Complex, founded in the early 1980sby artists and for artists, to buy their own site to ensure a permanent and affordable place for artmaking in the City. So, now, four decades later, I am full circle of where I began—in Wynwood Norte, but with a 30-year tenure, in between, working on and in The Wolfsonian-Florida International University. There I helped Micky Wolfson take what was then his private collection into the public patrimony, as an important museum and research center as part of FIU. There I worked for almost twenty years, building the organization, its programs, and integrating it into the academic life of the academy.
In 2018, after working three years with Harvard Graduate School of Architecture on the Future of the American City initiative in Miami, I accepted the opportunity to work with the Board of Directors of Bakehouse Art Complex to help them forge a more relevant, impactful, and sustainable path forward for the organization. This required understanding not only Bakehouse but the context of and relationship to neighborhood. While Wynwood Norte seemed intact from the days when I worked there; it dramatically had changed, in demographics and population decline. Several old and new Wynwood Norte stakeholders came together to establish the Wynwood Community Enhancement Association. Together, with neighbors, social agencies, business owners, etc, we were determined to craft an inclusive and community-driven vision plan for this beloved historic urban neighborhood rather than have one imposed upon us. We recognized the pressures of redevelopment around us, but we all were committed to preserving the residential and cultural character of the neighborhood, while recognizing the need for revitalization and an increase in population. The resulting Community Vision Plan led the City of Miami Planning Department to work with us to codify the vision. Just last month, the City of Miami Commission approved the creation of the Wynwood Norte Neighborhood Revitalization District. This designation provides Bakehouse with the zoning, land use, and density to add housing for artists and others to its site and renovate our historic 1926 former industrial bakery building as a better version of its current use as a center of art making and community building. Bakehouse is working home to approximately 100 Miami-based working artists. I am so thrilled to be working with our Board and the community on plans to add housing for artists to our campus. It also is so gratifying that I come back to a place where I worked 40 years ago, with a new perspective and much more experience, and with the desire to positively contribute to its future
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Of course my favorite pubic institutions to visit in the City are The Wolfsonian, Bakehouse Art Complex, Perez Art Museum, and Fairchild Tropical Garden. I probably would insist they go with me on a bike or walking tour to explore the macro and micro. It could include,
1. Day one: bike Shark Valley, in the Everglades, followed by stone crab lunch at Camilia Grill in Everglades City. After lunch, we’d take an easy kayak ride before returning to Miami.
2. Day two: early morning visit to Flamingo in the Everglades, stopping before at Roberts Is Here for a smoothie; then, after boat ride or walk down some of the trails, with lunch at the road-side taqueria, near the entrance/exit to Everglades National Park.
3. Bike ride though Wynwood, stopping for breakfast at Zak the Bakers, then riding through Wynwood Norte, visiting Bakehouse, Margulies Collection, El Espacio 23, Mindy Solomon, and Spinello galleries, and Rubell Museum, with lunch at Leku, Hometown BBQ, or Henriquetas.
4. Bike to Miami Spring Gardens and beg to see artist homes of Emmett Moore, Magnus Sagamin, Willie Kedell; drive by visit to the Brillhart house, and lunch at Casablanca on the Miami River—maybe an afternoon visit with artist Antonia Wright and certainly a tour of the Masonic Temple.
5. Bike Ventian Causeway to The Wolfsonian for a tour of its collection, then bike around the Deco District, with destination Bass Art Museum, New World Center Campus, and end at 1111 Garage. Late lunch at the poolside Standard Hotel.
6. Bike to see Young Arts Campus–among the best buildings in Miami–and then head to the Miami Design District, to see the fantastical architecture of the Museum Garage. Visit ICA, Swampspace, De la Cruz Collection, David Castillo Gallery and all the pop-up and site specific art works one finds there. Lunch in any of the many and varied Miami Design District restaurants or food trucks.
If one’s lucky to be in town for a performance of NuDeco, New World Symphony, or Miami New Drama, I would include as well. I also wouldn’t miss a walk on the Miami Beach boardwalk, early AM. The Betsy Hotel is best place to stay on Miami Beach or Vagabond on Miami side.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I want to shout out to two people who have influenced my life and my work: former City of Miami Mayor Maurice A. Ferre, under whose administration I worked and from whom I learned about Miami potential as the nexus of the Americas, its strength is in its multiculturalism, and the importance of public service.. The second is Micky Wolfson, founder of The Wolfsonian-FIU, with whom I collaborated thirty years on taking public and then developing and an extraordinary international museum and research center in Miami Beach. From him I learned how to navigate the world (he IS the original social networker), how to curate people, to give generously, and be unapologetically curious about everything.
Linkedin: Cathy Leff
Facebook: Cathy Leff
Youtube: BakehouseArtComplex and Wolfsonian
Images by Cathy Leff. except for Bakehouse 1989–unknown photographer. Can you confirm at least 6 images uploaded?