4.4 / Miami

Dear Miami xo AP: an Introduction

By Art Practical Editors November 14, 2012
Interior view of the Corner, Miami.

This summer, Art Practical received the invitation to take up residency at Miami’s LegalArt (which, as of the time of this post, is hours from changing its name to Cannonball), with the proposal to produce an issue about the visual art scene in that city. The residency came to our attention via the video artist Jillian Mayer, who is currently one of the local artists in a yearlong residence at LegalArt. We met her last December, when Art Practical editors Patricia Maloney, Matt Sussman, and Tess Thackara had joined the Bad at Sports crew for several days of pirate broadcasting from the lobby of the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) fair during Art Basel Miami Beach; we didn’t need much encouragement to return.

Offered two months from August to October, we decided to split the residency into multiple parts: each of the participating writers would spend from one to two weeks at LegalArt, with two writers overlapping at either end of a stay to bring the incoming writer up to speed. Sussman, Thackara, and Maloney alternated with crystal am nelson and Renny Pritikin; our pioneering resident was Kara Q. Smith, who arrived in Miami just in time for Hurricane Isaac and the Republican National Convention. The weather cut into her stay, but she still managed to get her nails done by artist Rosemarie Romero as part of the Porn Nails project included in Female Hu$tle at Locust Projects, and her conversation with the artist couple Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt appears in this issue.

Smith also kicked off the public program series Art Pharmacology, a name appropriate to a city associated with both the unbridled art market and  the international drug trade (the two most unregulated commodities in the United States, coincidently). In this case, the doses were dispensed from Pritikin’s ever-resonant manifesto, “Prescriptions for a Healthy Art Scene,” which advocates for, among other things, social places to gather, opportunities for public art, adventurous art dealers and collectors, critical publications, and alternative spaces in the development of a strong visual art culture. Each roundtable focused on one attribute from the prescription and included the perspectives of local artists, curators, or critics, with audiences weighing in and sometimes taking the conversation where they pleased. The information we gleaned from these discussions permeates the issue; the audio recordings are available for your listening pleasure, as are some of the more casual observations we made and informal conversations we had.

The most productive conversations happened before or after these events, over a few beers. The obsession with artisanal, microbrew beer that pervades the Bay Area—and the hipster-catering bars of other, notably northern, regions of the United States—is almost absent in Miami. Beer drinking is prevalent in this languid, tropical city, but in choosing a beverage, consideration rarely extends to hops or grains. The only thing that matters is the coldness of your drink as you settle into a long, leisurely conversation, slouching into the preferred posture of elbow hooked back and leg extended as friends and the humid air press in around you.

Art Pharmacology roundtable at Lester's, Miami. Courtesy of LegalArt, Miami.

This is the nightly scene at the Corner, the downtown spot at the intersection of N. Miami Avenue and NW 11th Street that has become the nexus for Miami’s artists, curators, and on weekends, club goers. (The world-famous club Space is a block away; on Friday and Saturdays, the late night crowd wrapping up at the Corner gives way to those just getting started.) For visitors to Art Basel Miami Beach who want to catch a glimpse of the locale’s burgeoning art scene beyond the fairs, this is the place to start and end.

Miami artists often describe their city as the Wild West of the art world in the United States, and for good reason; it possesses a combination of necessary resources and unsanctioned, under-the-radar activities in equal measure. Miami is home to outstanding private collections, deep donor pockets, expanding museums, and a smart, knowledgeable assemblage of artists. But despite the fact that the entire art world descends upon its home turf every December, local artists are not inclined to play host to the visiting hordes or cater to the whims of the market. Miami has long been a cultural crossroads, and resident artists capitalize on the constant flux that characterizes their environs. They respond to the city’s fluidity and uncertainty with equanimity and are actively writing a history of contemporary art in their own vision, one that reflects the influence of the city’s insouciant spirit and love of spectacle, its political upheaval, ample capital, and continually refashioned skyline, its fusion of Latin, Caribbean, and European cultures, and, of course, the beach.

This cosmopolitan wilderness is reflected in conversations at the Corner, where we often found ourselves, either ordering drinks at the bar inside, where dark wood paneling and velvet-flocked wallpaper sets a cozy scene, or perched outside at the take-out window. Here we had an easy vantage point to view the brightly colored bamboo-patterned mosaic on the exterior of the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO), which houses and displays the collection of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros. Every year during Art Basel, CIFO hosts a Sunday brunch in its courtyard and premieres its annual exhibition of work from the collection, which has an emphasis on Latin American artists and international contemporary art.

Directly across the street from CIFO, in the same building as the Corner, is Cannonball, née LegalArt, which began ten years ago as a program to provide legal advice and services to local artists and now is in its second year of offering highly sought after yearlong live/work spaces to promising emerging artists. Cannonball—whose new name more readily conjures images of buccaneers than the cutting-edge artists who reside there—encourages collaboration and experimentation. It will also host an open house during Art Basel, providing visitors with an encapsulated look at work by visual and performance artists. These include Jillian Mayer, known for her absurdly mesmerizing video works; Patricia Margarita Hernandez, who collaborates with fellow artist Domingo Castillo to produce The End/Spring Break, a nomadic performative and pedagogical platform; choreographer and dancer Pioneer Winter; multimedia artist Jiae Hwang; and filmmaker Lucas Leyva. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse into the studio garage of Afrika, the parking lot attendant whose eclectic plywood paintings, stacked TVs, and mannequin leg–cum–ceiling fan combine into a fascinating hybrid of home decor and installation art that would render Thomas Hirschhorn speechless.

The downtown art scene continues a block away on NE 11th Street at Captain Harry’s Fishing Supply, the former home of a bait and tackle warehouse that now is the massive studio and exhibition space of several artist collectives. Each reflects the distinct collaborative sensibility and aesthetic of Miami. Despite the building’s current raw state, the new DWNTWN ArtHouse already resonates as a central hub of activity. Perhaps most notable of the resident collectives is the TM Sisters—Tasha and Monica Lopez de Victoria—who channel the energy of performative subcultures such as synchronized swimming, video gaming, and roller derby into exuberant interactive video installations. Their neighbors include alternative artist-run spaces Dimensions Variable, run by artists Adler Guerrier, Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, and Frances Trombly, as well as the Bas Fisher Invitational, which was founded in 2004 by artists Hernan Bas and Naomi Fisher and now includes Jim Drain, Kathryn Marks, and Agatha Wara. Between these two projects, visitors may encounter anything from site-specific installations to artist-led bus tours exploring corners of Miami far off the beaten path of tourist guidebooks.

The DWNTWN Art House echoes a legacy of underutilized warehouse and retail spaces on loan to artists for studio and exhibition venues that began over a decade earlier through agreements with the collector and real estate developer Craig Robins. His collection is on view at the offices of his Dacra corporation and is open to visitors during Art Basel. Located at NE 2nd Avenue and 38th Street, Dacra is in the heart of the now flourishing Design District, where the former artist studios will soon be home to designer boutiques. It is also the neighborhood where you’ll find the public venues for the Rubell Family, Margulies, and de la Cruz collections.

In Renny Pritikin’s essay, he observes how taste and wealth combine to produce these contemporary art spaces whose architecture and holdings rival those of many public institutions. While multiple artists make appearances in all three, there are distinct emphases to be found at each. The Rubell Family Collection, the largest of the private collections, offers an entire gallery of large-scale paintings by Colombian-born, London-based artist Oscar Murillo that were produced on-site during his recent monthlong residency there. The Margulies Collection includes the largest work by earthworks artist Michael Heizer in private hands and a beautiful sky-lit installation by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. The de la Cruz collection, the three-story, museum-quality space on NE 41st Street, showcases the art owned by Carlos and the ever-passionate Rosa de la Cruz. The couple pours equal energy into creating education programs for local art students and organizing exhibitions. It is the third floor that should not be missed; here are not only outstanding pieces by Gabriel Orozco, Jim Hodges, and Felix Gonzales-Torres but also a large group of photographs and sculptures by Ana Mendieta in a dedicated gallery and a vitrine of the collectors’ correspondence with Gonzales-Torres that reveals their close connection. 

Jiae Hwang. Breakthrough, 2011; vinyl installation; LegalArt, Miami, 2012. Courtesy of the Artist.

That sense of intimacy with the work gets replicated at the Michael Jon Gallery, directly across the street from the de la Cruz building but tucked away in a low-rise apartment complex. Founded by Michael Radziewicz, a Chicago transplant, the gallery occupies the apartment’s front room and bathroom, while an attendant hangs out in a closet-cum-office. The coziness and persistent domestic quality of the space belies the sharp curatorial eye of Radziewicz, who imports artists with conceptually driven painting and sculptural practices from Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere.

Leaving aside the fairs for the moment, it is these smaller-scale alternative spaces that prove to be the best conduits of exchange between the local and international communities of artists. Just around the corner from the Michael Jon Gallery is Locust Projects. Originally an artist-run warehouse space and now under the direction of Chana Budgazad Sheldon, Locust has a new location in the Design District that enables artists to experiment with producing site-specific installations. One example of this output is Theaster Gates’s Soul Manufacturing Corporation, which he discusses in the conversation here with Diana Nawi, associate curator at the Miami Art Museum. Locust’s programming extends beyond its walls to include commissions for public art by local artists on billboards and bus shelters around the city. The venue also hosts a regular roster of public programs, spearheaded by its development associate Amanda Sanfilippo. Her casual style of moderating enabled a rather raucous conversation in early October on the subject of the “Miami Vernacular.” The competing perspectives voiced by the audience during that talk and the resistance to the regional identity that crystal am nelson advocates for in her essay, only further underscore the community’s awareness of its emergent state.

From Locust’s location at NE 38th Street, one can head back downtown on N. Miami Avenue, but it is well worth the quick detour to stop at Plexihouse, which not only sells any piece of acrylic furniture you could possibly want but also immerses you in that particular Miami midcentury aesthetic of hard edges, shiny surfaces, exuberant curves, and futuristic longing. A different aesthetic prevails just south in the Wynwood Arts District, where most of Miami’s galleries are located. The neighborhood is worth the visit for the graffiti and street art murals and for the food trucks that will make their appearance in the vacant lot at the corner of NW 2nd Avenue and 22nd Street for the Saturday night gallery walk during Art Basel. Wynwood was also the neighborhood that alleviated any pining for the Bay Area during our stay, or at least for its coffee; Lester’s Miami, at NW 2nd Avenue and 25th Street proved to be the spot to have an espresso and catch up on art world gossip.

The galleries themselves are large in number but limited in quality offerings. This issue features Cara Despain’s shotgun review of work by Emmett Moore at Gallery Diet, run by powerhouse Nina Johnson, and Tess Thackara’s profile of the artist Agustina Woodgate, who shows at Spinello Projects (located outside of Wynwood on NW 7th Avenue). Both spaces are worth checking out, as are David Castillo Gallery, Fred Snitzer Gallery, and Alejandra Von Hartz. With the exception of Spinello, these galleries are in close proximity to the intersection of NW 2nd Avenue and 23rd Street, where you will also find World Class Boxing, the public venue for the Scholl Collection.

Exterior, LegalArt and the Corner, Miami.

As Patricia Maloney notes in her essay, what’s long been understood about Miami is that the collections are where it’s at and the museums are catching up. In the private holdings you see the genesis of a very fine institutional culture, depending on how generous the local collectors will choose to be and what their plans are for their own spaces. In the museums, you see the potential of what might be some exceptional spaces for viewing art five to ten to twenty years from now. This is true for all three museums that feature contemporary art: the Bass Museum, in Miami Beach; the Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Miami; and the Miami Art Museum, whose $221 million capital campaign has not escaped controversy. A $35 million gift of art and funds by the donor and trustee Jorge M. Pérez prompted the renaming of the institution as the Pérez Art Museum Miami, or PAMM, despite $100 million in pledged public funding. PAMM will anchor what is now considered to be the downtown arts district; as development encroaches, the Art Deco buildings get restored, and the gritty charm that currently pervades the neighborhood evaporates, nostalgia will surely set in for the more unfettered energy and insouciance that characterizes the community now. But it is hard to imagine that any of this will impact the evening reverie at the Corner, whose lasting currency resides in warm nights, cold drinks, and the desire to pull up a chair next to friends and revel in what Miami has to offer.


Our thanks to LegalArt, and especially the efforts of Dominique Breard and Christopher Cook, for hosting Art Practical as part of its residency program.


Support for this issue has been provided by the Knight Foundation. The Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.

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