Case Study: How Did Miami Become a Cultural Hub?

// In this insightful essay from The Genteel, Ministry of Artistic Affairs member Karina Abramova explores the particular recent history that has brought Miami to the forefront of visual culture in North America. //

Miami has served many roles over the years: the glamorous rendition of the city’s criminal underbelly in Miami Vice, the bloody arena of the cocaine wars, the party-hard capitol of America. But within the past decade, a new role emerged: that of a dynamic international art hub. Over the past decade, Miami’s culture has been developing exponentially thanks to the proactive efforts of prominent Miamians, the city’s favourable geographic location, the arrival of the weightiest art fair in the world, the tropical weather and the unmistakable duo of chic and cheesy. 

It all started roughly fifteen years ago, when major developers like Craig Robins and Tony Goldman began buying up properties in Wynwood and the Design District, just north of downtown Miami. They wanted to take advantage of an already existing, but slowly developing, art community in these once-rundown, undervalued neighbourhoods. Their goal was to use the budding art scene to boost the allure of the areas as “up-and-coming”, and to inspire interest among artists and designers from other neighbourhoods and cities.

It worked, because today the Wynwood Arts District boasts a total of some 80 galleries and the Design District is one of the country’s hottest design and high-end retail destinations.

Design District restorer, Craig Robins, is a tour-de-force developer who was one of the first men behind the successful transformation of South Beach from low-key and rough into a desirable tourist destination by the mid-1990′s. He then set his sights west of the Beach, at the troubled Design District which contained some of the city’s sketchiest corners. With his company, Dacra, Robins started buying and developing properties in the area, turning them into mixed-use commercial assets. Now he owns about 60 per cent of the Design District, which translates into 700,000 square feet of property. Robins is also the co-founder of Design Miami (more on it here), the sister fair to Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB), which boasts satellite exhibits in the district. The neighbourhood is on the verge of blowing up as a global cultural and entertainment centre with serious high-end shopping – Christian Louboutin, Yohji Yamamoto, Marc Jacobs and Fendi are already present. Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Cartier and Dior Homme are on their way, as Robins expects to bring in forty to fifty retailers by 2014.

South of the Design District lies Wynwood, the once-declining neighbourhood filled with warehouses and a vibrant arts community. It caught Tony Goldman’s eye in 2004. Goldman, a New York developer, has over 40 years of experience reviving derelict districts in the United States. After purchasing over 20 properties, he began to work on his Wynwood vision of an artistically-driven, pedestrian neighbourhood with exciting architectural possibilities. His vision culminates in what is known as Wynwood Walls: a large collective of museum-quality street art murals sprawling on every wall of its adjoining warehouses. During the first week of December, when ABMB takes place, the neighbourhood lights up for a fun street party with live graffiti sessions, sidewalks full of pedestrians, open galleries and warehouses.

But Miami’s cultural development doesn’t solely lie in the hands of real estate developers. The city’s well-known private collectors, including the Margulies, Rubells, and de la Cruzes, have acquired large warehouses in the Wynwood neighbourhood to display their bulging art collections to the public. Some of these warehouses are notorious and not even half-full yet (the Rubell’s 45,000 square foot warehouse was even a Drug Enforcement Administration confiscation centre in its past life). The collections are fully controlled and funded by the families. The de la Cruz art space offers scholarships to talented artists. Tyler Green, an art critic, describes this way of showcasing private collections as “the Miami model,” noting that it “an honourable thing”. It is both a gift to the city and a way for collectors to see their works enjoyed by the public. Says Rosa de la Cruz, “Every collector needs to realise that you can’t take [the collection] with you [when you pass away]. The works will either go to an institution, which might not be able to show them; to your kids, who might not want them; or to an auction house. So why wait? I want to organise it all and show it now.”

At the turn of the millennium, a group of interested and determined Miamians started thinking of ways to turn the city’s soiled reputation around and capitalise on its existing multiculturalism. “We started to create our own cultural environment here,” says Dr. Carol Damian, director of Frost Art Museum at Florida International University. Among the yay-sayers were the aforementioned collector families, developers and other wealthy, curious art lovers. When Art Basel directors started looking for a North American branch, Miami came up. Persuading the mayor took some effort on the Rubell’s part, but once all was done, ABMB settled in Miami in 2002.The fair’s inception led to an influx of galleries, collectors, art dealers, not to mention international jetsetters and investors who were happily contributing in sometimes-tough economic times. More artists moved into the city, attracted by the relatively low rents.

ABMB’s presence inspired nearly twenty guerilla fairs that take place concurrently every December. They offer a kaleidoscope of art, spontaneity and fun under the scorching Florida sun. “Art Basel gave Miami the power to believe in itself, and that’s always a problem with regional art places,” says Mera Rubell.

ABMB gave confidence to its residents that the city has the potential to become a truly international player. It was no longer just a place to act out every hedonistic fantasy.As Miami’s cultural status has grown, so has the attention of the government. With the help of private and public sources, the Miami Art Museum is constructing a Herzog & de Meuron building and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami is expanding. The New World Center and the Arsht Center, an orchestral academy and a performing arts centre, respectively, recently opened. Architecture, in particular, has been on the upswing in the city, with the likes of the COR building by Oppenheim Architecture + Design (the first sustainable mixed-use condominium in the city) turning heads. Some serious international collectors, after having met Miami through its art fairs, decided to buy second homes in the area, providing a much-needed economic boost to the region.

But the city is far from an art nirvana. The fact remains that Miami isn’t well-represented at the Miami Beach Convention Centre, the home of ABMB (in 2011 there were only three local galleries out of 260 exhibitors), but serves as a flashy backdrop to international gallery heavyweights. Art experts state that the quality of work emerging from Miami might be inconsistent. While ABMB annually invigorates the city for a few days, gallery and museum attendance numbers are low for the rest of the year.These are all legitimate concerns. For the arts community to grow healthfully, it’s important for there to be a year-around infrastructure in place. De la Cruz points out that Miami universities need to create more graduate programs that would help launch the careers of talented young artists.

Lizette Alvarez from the New York Times states that the city also needs more full-time art critics, and that some collectors would rather see museums invest in permanent art collections instead of architecture. The yo-yoing Florida economy doesn’t help either, and the best-in-class galleries sometimes have a hard time surviving: Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin (a Paris-based contemporary art gallery) opened a gallery in Wynwood in 2005 only to shut it down in 2009.

Only time will tell if the cultural fountain in Miami is a fad or the beginning of a long-term trend that transforms the city. Oft-quoted ABMB is not single-handedly responsible for the boom that is happening in Miami, although its brand name has certainly helped place the city on the art world map. More than anything, it is the individuals who love Miami and who collectively decided to change the city’s reputation as the fickle drug haven by ushering in a cultural transformation. And it is their – and the whole city’s – team effort plus hard work that can make the success of the sunny paradise.

By Karina Abramova in The Genteel.

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