Miami itself becomes a work of art
Posted on Sun, Dec. 02, 2007

In Miami, art matters.

It matters beyond this week's Art Basel Miami Beach, when the largest contemporary art fair in the hemisphere comes to town, bringing for the sixth year a whirlwind of international art collectors, respected curators, museum directors and some of the world's most distinguished artists and galleries.
Quietly at first, but in the limelight now thanks to Basel's glam, Miami's booming visual-arts scene in the last decade has been transforming the character of the city from a mecca of fun and sun to a leading cultural destination. Art is helping to define Miami's identity, shaping its soul at a crucial moment in the region's development.
''There is a sort of shift going on in Miami right now,'' says Miami Art Museum Director Terence Riley, whose charge is to build a serious collection and a new, state-of-the-art home for MAM at Bicentennial Park. ``We used to think of it as a retirement city, a city of exiles, a city of transience. But today there are more and more people who consider this their long-term home, who want to help enrich it for themselves and for their children. They are very invested in the cultural life of the city.''
Consider the landscape that art has created in a five-mile radius of the city center:
In gritty Wynwood, art galleries transplanted from Paris share an avenue with an inner-city elementary school packed with children uniformed in baby blue. The gallery walk on second Saturdays floods the district with art lovers every month. Car repair shops, roaming chickens and discount clothing outlets shoulder the same neighborhoods where the world-class Margulies, Rubell and Cisneros Fontanals art collections are housed -- all open to the public.
Blocks away from Wynwood, a midtown is rising, flanked by the Design District and its art and home-design galleries. In downtown, the city's signature building, Freedom Tower, has been exhibiting museum-quality art -- the Spanish master Goya, the contemporary Canadian sound sculptors Cardiff and Bures Miller, and timed to coincide with Basel, a show of Miami artists gaining recognition in the international art market.
''Art connects people and creates community,'' says artist Wendy Wischer, a longtime teacher at the New World School of the Arts whose works reflecting on the impact of surroundings and technology are selling so well that she has given up her day job. ``When I go to gallery walk in Wynwood these days, I don't know half the people. Art is bringing all these people together. It gives them somewhere to go, something to see, and that builds community.''
There is more to come.
On Friday, a model design for what is expected to become another iconic structure a stone's throw from Freedom Tower was unveiled -- the new $220 million home of the Miami Art Museum designed by the star Swiss architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron. It is scheduled to be completed in 2011. And in North Miami, the Museum of Contemporary Art is undergoing an $18 million expansion to double its space.
Miami's self-esteem has been climbing as a result of the surging art scene and the kind of media attention brought by Art Basel.
''Everybody wants to do a project in Miami,'' says Cathy Leff, director of The Wolfsonian-FIU. ``There are a lot of Miami artists who have been moving back here. There is so much art going on here these days. . . . When a place has confidence in itself, it begins to build an identity that's original.''


Some in the art world believe that the most cutting-edge contemporary artists living and working here are to 21st century Miami what de Kooning, Pollack and company were to 20th century New York. Although it may be too early to say there's a Miami school, or a movement that can be defined by geography and identity as Miamians, the New World School of the Arts and Miami's Design and Architecture Senior High are graduating artists who have gone on to starring roles in the contemporary art world.
A week ago, for example, three Miami artists -- William Cordova, Adler Guerrier and Bert Rodriguez -- were chosen to exhibit in the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York.


From it all, the city is reaping a public relations benefit.
Once thought to be low-brow, Miami is now generating the kind of attention illustrated by this headline from Florida Travel + Life magazine: ``Miami: The Art World's New Darling.''
''In terms of being a destination, art is what grades you,'' says developer and art collector Tony Goldman, who helped revive several down-and-out neighborhoods, from SoHo to South Beach to Center City in Philadelphia, and is developing properties in Wynwood now. ``Without it, you remain a tertiary place. What level you're at as a city has everything to do with the level of the art your city has to offer. When you travel to any of the great cities, the things you visit are the arts districts, the great museums. In Miami, we finally have a destination we can call our arts district. Look at all the galleries in Wynwood.''
Adds Miami artist Robert Chambers: ``A city with visual arts shows vitality, growth and a sophisticated group of people, and Miami is like this wonderful swirl of those things and is developing a complex personality. It's like a fine wine. . . . When you don't have that, there's a vacuum, there's no poetry, no contemporary art, no music, no ballet. Culture and growth go hand in hand.''
According to a nationwide study published in June by the arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts, Miami-Dade County visual and performance arts groups are estimated to have brought $922 million to the economy in 2004.
''The last time we did a similar study, which was five years ago, we were at about half of that,'' said Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade County's Department of Cultural Affairs.
But beyond the economic benefits, the visual-arts scene is making another difference. In a region often mired in conflict over politics, class and race divides, and ethnic relations, the art world is a point of connection.
Artists from all walks are collaborating and influencing one another, and that has helped build bridges across cultural divides, says artist John Bailly, who has a show with Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco at the main library in downtown Miami.
''We are all mixing with each other, and that is being reflected in our art,'' Bailly says. ``I'm not Cuban, but living in Miami, Cuban influences are part of the painting luggage I carry. Haitian art is part of my landscape. When it comes to color, imagery, the conceptual, whether spiritual or emotional, I am reflecting the place I live and work in.
``I lived as a kid in France. I had never seen a botánica there. And if I stayed there, it would be a stretch for me to incorporate Latin American or Caribbean influences in my artwork. But because I live in Miami, even though I am not from those places, those influences do become partly mine.''
MAM Director Riley, who came to Miami from New York almost two years ago, agrees.


''The kind of multiculturalism that other cities talk about having is half the time just wishful thinking,'' Riley says. ``But in Miami, it's real. There are very few places as diverse as Miami. And it's becoming broader through the arts. There is not a ghettoization of Latin art here, where it's only shown by Latin dealers and only Latins go. Cultures rub up against one another here, now more than ever. Lessons are being exchanged. There is a constant shuffling and reshuffling of the deck.''
One reason is that the visual-arts scene is accessible. Art galleries are free and open to the public; museum admissions rarely exceed $8.
Miami has its share of top-notch art collectors, but contrary to what some may believe, the art doesn't simply sit in their stately homes-turned-museums.
Collectors Martin Z. Margulies, the Rubell family and Ella Cisneros Fontanals showcase their collections in chic, warehouse-size spaces that are largely free and open to the public. Cisneros Fontanals' CIFO in downtown Miami is one of the most well-curated art spaces in the city, showcasing avant-garde art, and her collaboration with MAM, known as MAC@MAM, is helping to bring to the city vanguard shows like the current The Killing Machine and Other Stories.
Collectors Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz, Norman and Irma Braman and Craig Robins sponsor exhibitions and have made generous donations to the permanent collections of MOCA and MAM.
The collectors not only lead tours of the art in their homes for Art Basel VIPs from around the world, but they also open their homes to art students.
''We have very generous collectors in this city who have given many significant pieces of art to the museums of this city,'' says Irma Braman, who has chaired MOCA's board for the last 10 years and recently donated to the museum a signature piece in the Braman collection.
Likewise, all of the area's museums have strong educational programs, ranging from art classes for teenagers to tours targeted to the physically and emotionally handicapped.
''I just took a third-year honors class on a field trip to downtown Miami,'' Bailly says. ``We got on the Metromover and went to see the Goya show at the Freedom Tower. Then we went to see The Killing Machine at MAM. The quality of the shows was worthy of any big city in the world. It was all free to the students. Cities of great culture make the culture accessible to the people and especially the students. It shows a coming of age in Miami. And there were a lot of other people at both shows.''
A lot of what has happened in Miami's art scene -- the boom in galleries and artist studios, with more than 100 of them opening in Wynwood in the last two years alone, and Miami artists becoming players in the scenes in New York and Los Angeles -- has a lot to do with the Basel presence.
''We have been moving so quickly in Miami that the perception of what's happening here is not able to keep up with the reality,'' Spring says. ``[Culturally,] we have been putting a lot of things into place very quickly. Art Basel being here has accelerated by maybe 20 years the world's recognition of Miami's work in the arts.''
That ''Basel energy'' is expected to multiply this year, when for the first time, Basel organizers are leading VIP tours of artist studios, bringing a monied, cultured audience of unprecedented importance to Miami's top artists. Among the artists who will be visited are Robert Chambers, Carlos Betancourt, José Bedia, Daniel Arsham and Naomi Fisher.


'Twenty years ago, people would say to me, `What are you doing in Miami?' Because Miami was considered a place you had to leave if you wanted to be an artist,'' says Betancourt, who has sold eight new pieces in anticipation of Basel. ``Now there are so many sources that sustain you.''
Artists can now thrive in Miami because they are supported by a network of art dealers, collectors, and people with money who make donations, commission works, join museum boards and get involved in fueling the arts scene.
''It seems like immaculate timing for us lucky people who started coming here in the late '90s,'' says Mette Tommerup, a Danish artist in Miami since 1998. 'If someone told us then Miami would start becoming a hub of contemporary art, we would have thought it was absurd. I was up in New York before, and I had a foot in each world, but Miami soon won my heart. It became easier and easier to say, `Let's stay in Miami.' I experience a sense of community here I did not experience in New York.''
''Art allows you to transcend your own consciousness and feel things like another human being does. Artists, in particular, see and feel the world in a different way than you do. They bring a kind of awareness to the world. Artists are particularly good problem-solvers and they will look at the status quo and turn it upside down, and look at it in a completely different way. They open issues to broader audiences.''

Bonnie Clearwater, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami

''The arts are what gives a city its competitive edge. Every city has natural resources, mountains or oceans or lakes. They stack up more or less evenly as they come out of the gates. What really distinguishes one place from another is its culture.''

Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade County's Department of Cultural Affairs

''Art Basel is like Christmas, but it's only here because of what people in the art scene do all year long to show the work and to make the work possible.''

Paul Clemence, architectural photographer and co-author of the new book, Miami Contemporary Artists

''Saul Bellow ... said cities are where young people go to realize they want to grow up and be something, and that was certainly true for me growing up in a small town. I would get on the train and go to Chicago and realize how much bigger the world was than the world I was growing up in. If there is one place in a city where kids come face to face with that idea, it's a museum. It doesn't mean they will all decide they want to grow up to be artists, but they are exposed there to the fact that you are what your ideas are. That you can find a way to express yourself, through art or law or carpentry. The notion that you can realize yourself through your ideas, that's a very important thing for our community.''

Terence Riley, director of Miami Art Museum