How will Miami’s art scene weather the economic storm?

In the atrium of Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz’s house in Key Biscayne, several works by the late Félix González-Torres commune with each other. Two stacks of posters sit on the floor between a generous heap of candy and a glowing string of light bulbs. While one poster states, “Nowhere better than this place”, the other declares, “Somewhere better than this place”. The conflicted work seems to typify the high-low, grungy paradise that is Miami. One of the most culturally diverse cities in the US and the home of some of the best collectors of international contemporary art, Miami is a resort town with a cosmopolitan heart. But, at this strange economic time, how will it and the local art scene ride out the next few years?

Miami collectors Don and Mera Rubell are currently showing “30 Americans”, an exhibition of work by African-American artists drawn from their collection (Rubell Family Collection, until 30 May 2009). Frequent travellers, the Rubells have just returned from a marathon of art-viewing that had taken them to Beijing, Yokohama, Paris, Dubai and Washington, DC. “We like to think macro but only know micro,” say the Rubells. The owners of the Albion Hotel, Miami Beach, they can measure the effect of the rise of Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) and its numerous satellites on tour­ism. “In 1996, 80% of the visitors to the Albion were from the US. Over the past two years, 70% have been non-American,” says Mr Rubell.

Another consequence of ABMB has been that the Miami art scene “started seeing itself through the eyes of people coming from all over the world,” he says. Although there were always Miami collectors besides the Rubells and the de la Cruzes who thought big—Irma and Norman Bram­an, Marty Margulies and Ella Fontanals-Cisneros—“show­ing your collection to people from all over the world, including tribes of travelling art patrons, meant that you had to upgrade your collection and show at the highest level,” says Mr Rubell. “People can no longer limit themselves to New York and London.” The presence of international visitors encourages more globally minded collecting. “You have to follow the geography,” Mrs Rubell adds.

Even if an economic downturn dampens foreign travel, most Miami insiders believe that the international perspective is here to stay. Emmanuel Perrotin, the Parisian dealer who opened Galerie Emman­uel Perrotin in Miami in December 2004, expects that a decline in the number of art fairs around the world “will actually make Miami a more important gathering place”. Although he is taking a sabbatical from programming the gallery from January to December next year, he was keen to stress that he has not cancelled any shows.

Home grown

He had shown most of his artist roster, and he looks forward to coming back. Mr Perrotin has an affection for Miami. “One of my old dreams is that artists from places like Berlin can go every winter to Miami. Life is more fun when there are many artists in town. Someone should organise for 30 artists come to Miami every year,” he says.

Miami-born artist Hernan Bas thinks the local artistic community has grown in recent years. “It’s not hard to jump into the scene,” he says. “Once you know one artist, you get introduced to everyone.” He hopes that Miami will increasingly become “a place where people feel they can make art away from the hubbub of New York and even Los Angeles”. Certainly, life is more affordable and you can obtain a studio in Miami for a quarter of the price of a space in New York and half the price of one in Los Angeles. But, then again, nothing beats the property prices in Detroit where Bas has just bought a house and intends to spend his summers.

Bas attended the New World School of the Arts, the local, top-ranked, “art magnate” high school. The specialist school also runs the only notable undergraduate studio art degree in town and is rumoured to be considering a masters degree programme. With the Rubell Family Collection’s director Mark Coetzee and dealer Fred Snitzer involved in teaching, Bas says the staff of the New World is “better than ever”. But Bas hankers after a more intellectual local scene. “It wouldn’t hurt if we could have something close to CalArts or UCLA,” he says.

In the past, the hospitality of Miami-based collectors who welcomed strangers into their art-rich homes has been misinterpreted by some as a local tendency toward hedonistic partying. According to Rosa de la Cruz: “The art scene has to be about giving. If it’s about self-indulgence, it will be lost. It needs an activist purpose.” Cuban-born, Mrs de la Cruz and her husband fled to Miami in 1976. “We are exiles. So we know what it is to make and to lose,” she says. “We are not afraid of social contamination. We open the house to anyone who is interested—the Rotary Club, senior citizens, school children. You don’t have to be a VIP.”

The De la Cruzes are building a new space in Miami’s Design District. It will contain galleries devoted to artists including Ana Mendieta, Félix González-Torres and Gabriel Orozco, whose work they own in depth. It will also contain a library. The focus will be on their collection, which they started to assemble in 1991 during the last nadir of the art market, rather than loan exhibitions or events. According to Rosa de la Cruz: “We have too many events and not enough serious year-round involvement [in Miami].” Although she believes in access, she argues that the future should “not simply be about inclusion but participation”.

Bonnie Clearwater, the director of Moca Miami, has an international reputation for taking risks by exhibiting emerging artists. The art museum’s education programme and diverse community-building projects are perhaps less well known but they are a crucial contribution to the Miami art world’s infrastructure. Moca has always been run on a “shoestring” and recent grants from the Knight Foundation have given the museum a flexibility that it didn’t have before. Like the Miami Art Museum, Moca Miami is poised to expand, tripling the size of its exhibition space and including a dedicated education wing.

Consolidation

One of Craig Robins’ fav­ourite words is “opportunity”. The successful developer in South Beach and of the Design District, and the founder of Design Miami, says, “Miami has an opportunity to transform the transcendent first years of Art Basel and Design Miami into an institution.” As ABMB has just signed a three-year contract with the Miami Beach Convention Center, it would appear that Messe Schweiz is committed to see its art fair through to brighter times. Mr Robins expects 2009 will see a downsizing of the satellite fairs and less money for parties, but the activities of the first week of December are likely to “solidify into something like the Venice Biennale”.

“It is going to be a really challenging period for us all,” says Craig Robins. “One in which being creative will be much more valued. I’ve always been interested in creativity as a solution not a luxury.” With involvement in both the art and design camps, Mr Robins sees certain trends as staying the course. “Collecting art and design is more exciting than collecting one or the other. It’s geometrically expansive on the level of experience,” he says. He also thinks the days of “plop art—when a work gets plopped on a plaza”, are over in Miami. Public art will be about “site specific work that presents interesting challenges for artists to resolve”.

So, what next for Miami? Even with an increasingly vibrant artist community and a sturdier public museum scene, Miami is still likely to be lead by its collectors who will, no doubt, continue to acquire and display significant art in Miami. Most are planning to buy this season. In the words of Hernan Bas: “There is something different about the collectors here. Maybe they have a tinge of insanity. They are not just into art, but really into art.”

The writer is the author of Seven Days in the Art World

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