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How Miami Became an Artistic Mecca

Date:
July 2, 2018
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It’s 1895. A historic coastal European city is looking for new ways to redefine and rejuvenate itself.

To that end, it launches a festival to celebrate contemporary art in an unprecedented way, and it invites the world. The rest, as they say, is history.

The city? Venice. The festival? The Venice Biennale, which permanently rejuvenated the city’s identity through art. It was a bold bet and an immediate success. To this day, the Biennale remains among Venice’s most celebrated events, cultural or otherwise.

Perhaps more important than the Biennale’s local influence was its global impact: it showed the world that a so-called small town could punch above its weight class through a committed embrace of the transformative power of art and culture, hatching a new model whose influence is still felt today.

More than a century later, this model has helped to shape another coastal city: Miami, Florida. It’s a market that, over the last few decades, has enjoyed exceptional growth–much of it attributed to the city’s commitment to the arts from residents, city planners, and real estate developers alike.

Similar to Venice, one key catalyst for Miami’s renaissance was a recurrent cultural happening: Art Basel Miami, the North American edition of the famous Swiss modern and contemporary art festival.

Throughout its history, Miami has never lacked a unique charm; remarkable art deco buildings, lively Latin influence, and legendary beaches have made it a tourist magnet for decades.

Throughout the eighties and nineties, Miami would witness the birth of an impressive number of cultural facilities and institutions, including the Miami City Ballet, New World Symphony, New World School of the Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Miami Book Fair International, and Miami International Film Festival.

But if the city’s creative scene had smouldered quietly for decades, it was not until the arrival of Art Basel in 2002 that it truly caught fire, according to Books Bischof, co-founder of Primary, a Miami-based arts organization known for its bold mural projects around the city (and now across the world). Bischof was quick to note the impact Art Basel had on the Miami arts community.

“Before Art Basel,” says Bischof, “we had a pretty well-respected art scene, and people had been travelling to Miami for a while. Insert Art Basel, and now you have this world stage. People started to see Miami as this exciting new melting pot of cultures with great potential and a great community. You have to give credit to Art Basel for raising the bar and bringing 40,000 extra art lovers to the city.”

Just fifteen years later, the festival welcomes more than double that number; in 2017, the fair broke all previous records, with 82,000 in attenance, over $3 billion in artwork sold, and an estimated economic impact of over $500 million for the city.

Those are impressive figures, but in some ways, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. In the wake of Art Basel, a larger art and entertainment scene has emerged in Miami that has helped fuel the growth in property value, which has in turn unlocked an accompanying rise in world-class, high-end real estate development. Miami is now known as “the beach that went boom.” And that boom, which is ongoing, has maintained a very tight connection between arts and development. This is the true legacy of Art Basel.

Bischof says that since the early days of Art Basel, art festivals have become a year-round affair in Miami–even during the blistering Florida summer months. Design Miami, for example, runs in the middle of June and has become a world-renowned venue for collecting, exhibiting, discussing, and creating collectible design from all over the world.

Art Wynwood, which runs a month after Art Basel over the President’s Day long weekend, is another high-profile festival that brings collectors from around the world for the opportunity to view and purchase some of the most important works of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It’s sponsored by Christie’s International Real Estate, in large measure because the firm knows that high-profile buyers aren’t just looking for new artworks in Miami; they’re looking for spectacular new places in which to house them.

As the city’s star-studded festival scene continues to expand, all eyes may usually be on the celebrity attendees, but, in reality, many prominent art buyers are real estate investors and developers. From Dacra’s Craig Robins and Starwood Capital’s Barry Sternlicht to Miami native Jorge Pérez of Related Group, the tie between art and development in Miami is inescapable.

Pérez is well known for high-profile art purchases for both his personal collection and Related Group’s headquarters in Miami. Pérez’s name is literally synonymous with modern art. He is the titular benefactor of the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), one of the city’s most popular and influential modern art collections; he is also an ongoing supporter of the arts.

While Pérez is perhaps Miami’s most notable investor in both real estate and art, he’s by no means the only one; every developer, whether local or not, seems to grasp the special relationship between real estate and art in this city.

“For a developer,” says Bischof, “you quickly come to the conclusion that you can’t just build here; you need to participate in Miami by really investing in its art scene.” Bischof notes that there have been some missteps–understandable, given the sheer pace of growth–but he feels that developers are getting it right overall, and they’re doing so by paying attention not just to the immediate needs of the development but also to the larger cultural identity of the city.

Much of that identity is a deep-seated tradition for dreaming big and thinking differently, which is a huge opportunity for innovative developers. “There’s so much room to experiment down here,” he says. “I hope we can build complexes that, like art, can challenge people and have them say, ‘Wow! Did you see that? Unbelievable.’”

This sentiment could certainly be applied to Miami Beach’s monumental Faena District, a complex completed in 2016 that encompasses not just hotels, residences, shops, and restaurants but also a 43,000-square-foot cultural centre known as Faena Forum. Deliberately referencing the Roman Forum, it’s designed to accommodate Miami’s cultural events and gatherings of all sizes.

In the Faena District, culture isn’t an add-on or afterthought but an integral part of the project’s philosophy–it’s in its very DNA. Even the main parking garage at 1111 Lincoln speaks to this: designed by the award-winning Swiss firm Herzog and DeMeuron, it is in and of itself a spectacular work of public art.

Another large-scale project, touted as the city’s biggest yet, is Miami WorldCenter, a 27-acre, $2.7 billion project that will span half a dozen city blocks by the time it is completed in a few years. The complex will include a 60-storey condo tower, an office tower, and a 1,700-room hotel, which will incorporate a rooftop electric race car track.

Again, art and culture will play a key role in its success. “Miami WorldCenter is going to bring something amazing to the downtown area,” says Bischof. “The developers are really focused on bringing great art to their properties.”

In fact, they were doing so even before the project officially broke ground: in 2013, Bischof’s firm, Primary, was commissioned to curate the first instalment of Words Travel Fast (WTF), a large-scale mural project, in collaboration with Miami WorldCenter. Primary’s objectives with the piece were to explore the relationship between text, visual art, and geography, provoke thought and discussion, and beautify an area in transition as it was readied for development. “Our organization is a big believer in public arts being impermanent,” explains Bischof. “Impermanence has great value; it’s like water–always rushing, staying fresh.”

There are numerous other world-class projects planned or underway all over Miami, but according to Bischof, it’s not just in these large-scale developments that the impact of art on the city’s geography can be felt. “The paradox is that the art community helped make neighbourhoods like Wynwood and Miami Design District cool, which, of course, made them attractive to developers. But that popularity drove prices up, so the artists had to move to another district. For artists in cities everywhere, that’s kind of a typical vicious cycle.”

And yet, Bischof continues, Miami has managed to buck that global trend in a unique way. The year-round popularity of Miami–for which developers, planners, local artists, and arts festivals can take credit–has given artists the stability they need to invest in the city’s real estate scene themselves.

“Over the last four years or so,” he says, “a lot of Miami artists have, for the first time, found themselves in a position to buy their own property and become stakeholders in the community, and a lot of the gallery owners now have their own properties.”

This is particularly true of the Little River/Little Haiti area, where Primary’s offices are located. Bischof sees this breed of smaller investment as a necessary complement to the larger ones being made on projects like Miami WorldCenter; it’s something that will encourage the local community not to fear growth but to embrace it with enthusiasm.

It’s for this reason that Bischof is bullish about the city’s future, suggesting that its can-do, optimistic attitude might best be summarized by the phrase depicted in artist Kenton Parker’s mural at Miami WorldCenter: “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

Although Miami has always been known for its casual exuberance and love of spectacle, there’s a growing sense that the interconnection of culture and development is one that must be taken seriously to ensure the city retains its unique character as it continues its explosive growth.

As former mayor of Miami Manny Diaz declared at his 2014 Mayor’s Ball, “Show me a city that does not promote the arts, and I’ll show you a city without an identity. Through paintings, sculpture, books, architecture, music, dance, we show our creativity, our expression, who we are–it is how we remain alive. Art connects us to the past and is a legacy we leave for the future.”

Festivals like Art Basel have helped take an already incredible city into a new stratosphere, and both artists and developers are responding by bringing every bit of their energy, imagination, and investment to the area, year after year.

“I want builders to keep making the most monumental structures they can make,” says Bischof. “And I want Miami to continue to kill it when it comes to fresh new ideas and contemporary art.”

If the record number of festival attendees and construction cranes in the city’s skyline are any indication, Miami is well on its way to its own Biennale renaissance.

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