Writing Archive

Miami, Where the Grass Is Greener

New York Foundation for the Arts Interactive, February 9, 2005 (read there)

Great weather. An art scene that's been hailed as "the new Brooklyn." Affordable studio space. Contemporary art fairs that have become global attractions. Oh, and more great weather. The Miami of the art world's imagination resembles an idyllic utopia. But are the stereotypes true? And what about those 51 weeks of the year sandwiched around Art Basel?

Dear New York Artists,

Not too long ago, officials shut down LaGuardia Airport and Mayor Bloomberg characterized the weather as "life-threatening." Not too long before that, your friends returned from Art Basel Miami Beach spouting tales of beauty, riches, people buying art, more gallery openings than you could ever attend, and art world glitterati traipsing around in December in one layer of clothing. You had already heard about this mysterious neighborhood called Wynwood where people buy cheap warehouses and load them up with art collections and studios and the like. As you watched your street disappear under a hoary, frigid blanket, perhaps you fantasized about moving to Miami, buying one of those cheap warehouses, getting in on that up-and-coming art scene, and getting away from your accursed weather and that locked-up, trendy art world in New York City.

Well, you're right about one thing - the weather's great. Granted, you might want to consider whether brain-frying summer heat and hurricanes are for you. But otherwise, while you were stocking up on groceries in preparation for getting snowed in all weekend, we were driving around with the windows down. Neener neener neener.

But the rest of your conception of the Miami myth needs a little fleshing out.

Here's the deal - Miami is the frontier. Art Basel generated enough parties, soirées, vernissages, and other forms of social diddling to keep the Artforum.com' s Scene & Herd diary hot and bothered for one week, true, but consider the other 51. We have far fewer cultural choices compared to New York - the live music scene, in particular, is famously wretched - and if you point this out to us, we're going to look at you and say, "Duh." Everything New Yorkers have - museums, galleries, schools, curators, etc. - we have fewer of, with a commensurate effect on anyone's prospects of career advancement and employment in the arts.

The nice thing about the frontier, though, is that a lone, tall stranger with a good hat and a fast gun can swagger into town and stir things up. Last weekend my friend and fellow artist Jordan Massengale organized the exhibition Space in Wynwood, where he and artist Chris Meesey pretty much just asked developer David Lombardi to borrow one of his warehouses for a while. New art spaces of varying levels of repute seem to be springing up all the time, ranging from vanity galleries to Emmanuel Perrotin's latest gallery expansion. Artists generally find it necessary to have galleries elsewhere, and more than a few live and work here while showing out of town. One local artist tells me that when the fairs come through, she sells, mostly to people visiting from New York and Los Angeles. Museums support a handful of locals, but otherwise tend to fill their spaces with shows from out of town. The big, exciting story is taking place in Wynwood.

Wynwood, a historically Puerto Rican neighborhood with garment factories and assorted warehouses, became the subject of an arts revival purely on the basis of its cheap real estate. Galleries moved in and set up shop, putting the majority of the local art world into a 25-block-long area just north of downtown. Developers are now converting a former container yard in the area into a 3,000-unit condominium with mixed-used retail; I hear rumors of an Ikea. The way looks more or less clear to develop a disused portion of waterfront park nearby for a multi-acre expansion of the Miami Art Museum.

Wynwood is not pretty, unless you have a yen for boxy industrial architecture, concertina wire, and erratic trash collection. But because of the speculation, your average warehouse space is selling for $100-$125 per square foot and you can only live in it illegally. It's a different story if you want to do what Jordan did. Some of the most invigorating arts events, even during Basel, have happened in temporary venues - specifically, vacant commercial real estate and empty warehouses owned by art-friendly real-estate magnates. Miami's press, and sometimes its collectors and institutions, have paid attention to people willing to tread the unbeaten path. The scene is informal, egalitarian, and relatively open to newcomers. This is probably the nicest thing about the Miami art world. Hardly anyone is making money, but you can get your work shown, at least over the weekend, just by being the friend of somebody's friend. It's a nice vibe.

The flipside is Miami's youth obsession. I spoke with an artist in Brooklyn (whose name I shall withhold) about the New York art scene, and she complained of it being driven by 20-somethings who barely know what they're doing. If this annoys you, do not - repeat - not, relocate here. Miami gallerist Barbara Gillman tells me that during Art Basel, a couple waltzed in and asked if she had any young, emerging artists on display. This delusion about the inherent value of youth has become pandemic, and here it's as bad as anywhere.

Speaking of Art Basel, we remain unsure about whether it's affecting the scene for the better in all respects. We enjoy the activity, at least until our nerves fray, but one commenter on Artblog.net likened our situation to that of a tropical island where the local economy depends on rich foreigners trolling through town and buying up indigenous crafts. That arrangement tends to reinforce patterns of retrogressive behavior - in our case, the stereotype of Miami being a Cool, Fun Town Full of Emerging Artists rather than a serious place to make art.

Is it a serious place to make art? Well, we long for a museum like MoMA and a school like SVA, but the serious people find each other and we get by. Studio space leases at about the same price as an average Miami apartment (although most artists I know simply dedicate part of their living space to art-making). The relative friendliness of people down here means that you can find your crowd without too much trouble. If you can do without the cultural input that New York provides, you can get work done here as well as anywhere. If you flex your imagination, you can convince yourself that Miami is to New York as the south of France was to late 19th-century Paris; admittedly provincial, but pleasant, colorful, and bright.

Plus, as I write this, it's midnight in February and the current temperature is 63 degrees.

Word count: 1126

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