DADE CITY — The email gave the artists less than two weeks to move out.
Mayor Camille Hernandez's abrupt decision last month to move the Dade City Center for the Arts caused an uproar among local artists, who gathered on Christmas Eve to clear out more than 100 pieces of artwork from the center's HiBrow Gallery. Stuart Marcus, the volunteer director who ran the gallery, was so disgusted by the move that he resigned.
"The leopard has revealed her spots," said Marcus. "We were stunned by this decision."
For three years, Hernandez and her husband, David, have provided free space for the Dade City Center for the Arts in their partly vacant commercial building on Seventh Street. Hernandez serves as the center's executive director. The 2,000-square-foot facility offered art camps for kids and housed the HiBrow Gallery, where local artists could sell their work.
Then on Dec. 20, Hernandez sent an email to the artists announcing the gallery would move effective Jan. 1 to a neighboring unit that is about 3,000 square feet. She noted the new space would be the "corner unit which is larger and offers new opportunities."
Still, the artists were told to take their work home, and they have not been given access to the new space. And Marcus said that empty storefront, once home to Kiefer's Pharmacy and Remember When Antiques, is unsuitable.
"The roof is leaking with no plumbing or air conditioning," Marcus said. "And there's been no sign of renovations."
He was also stunned by the timing. The Dade City Center for the Arts positioned itself over the past two years as one of the marquee sponsors of the annual Kumquat Festival. Tens of thousands of visitors will pass through downtown Dade City on Jan. 26, yet the center has no home base and the artists won't have a gallery ready in time.
"Why close the doors three weeks prior to such an event?" Marcus asked.
Hernandez refused to comment on the disruption, discuss the timing of the decision or respond to artists' concerns about the alternative space. Instead, she provided this statement:
"The Dade City Center for the Arts and its subsidiaries are grateful to the benefactors that continue to provide a venue for artistic expression in the greater Dade City community. In the presence of continued support, the Dade City Center for the Arts and its Board of Directors remain committed to provide an outlet for artistic expression in the community."
Diana Murcar, a board member with the Dade City Center for the Arts, noted that "the transition was included as a matter of the future direction."
"It has been long anticipated," Murcar said.
It's unclear when the new venue will become available or who will organize and display their work there.
Until his resignation last month, Marcus, 61, oversaw the daily gallery operation and coordinated efforts with local artists. His own international wildlife photography filled the south wall.
A retired Tampa firefighter who owned the Wildlife Gallery in Lutz, Marcus moved to Dade City and took the reins of the HiBrow Gallery in 2011. He rewired the space with gallery-friendly lighting, built movable walls for exhibits, closed in the front windows and conducted outreach programs for local school children.
"I did it for the community and the many artists who deserve a proper place to show their work," Marcus said. "The way this ended was a classless and heartless act."
Marcus shares the despair of other artists who said their work was just starting to sell. He hosted a gathering on New Year's Day where artists discussed forming their own co-op and seeking a new home.
Glass etcher Nadina Piehl of Ridge Manor had been spending more time in her studio since developing a following from her displays.
"I'm heartbroken," Piehl said. "None of us anticipated this. It was doubly disappointing to lose the kinship with Stuart."
John Evenhouse opened a HiBrow installation of handmade historic ship replicas in November. His work was interrupted over the holidays by scrambling to make room for six ships in his living room.
"Stuart was their lifeblood," Evenhouse said. "How can they make plans without him? How can they expect artists to place their work in a moldy environment? It was nice while it lasted."
The Hernandezes paid $680,000 for the prominent building in December 2006 with big plans for the downtown spot, including a restaurant and rooftop bar. Then came the real estate crash and spats with several tenants. The owners of the Tropical Breeze Cafe sued their landlords in July 2007 over the insufficient air conditioning and other maintenance problems. The popular restaurant prevailed with a $26,000 settlement — and moved to a larger building across the street.
Jason Everett, who operated Salon on Seventh in that building, also moved out in 2009 after sparring with David Hernandez over the conditions.
"They brought in a demolition crew, and the constant banging upstairs was bad for my business," Everett said. "Then the bathroom water line was unhooked. My clients were forced in capes with color in their hair to use the Matter of Taste restrooms. The air conditioning went from broken to a wind tunnel."
A different beauty parlor now occupies that space. It's the only tenant left in the building, now that the Dade City Center for the Arts has cleared out of its space at 14125 Seventh St. The storefront that once showcased local artists now contains the last remnants of a gallery without a home. HiBrow's website simply says, "Operations have ceased!"
"No one would begrudge a business decision," Marcus said. "It's their building and we can't object. But a trust has been broken without any explanation or realistic plans for the future."