Miami has matured into a cultural capital. What's next?
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Miami has matured into a cultural capital. What's next?
Mark Handforth and Dara Friedman next to his piece, “Lipstick Yellow,” in the outdoor studio at their home in Miami on Nov. 17, 2023. Thirty years ago, the city was barely a blip on the art world’s radar. Now, partly because of Art Basel, it has become a global hot spot. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times)

by Brett Sokol

MIAMI, FLA.- Their move overseas from London was all set. “We were both 23 years old, right out of art school,” recalled experimental filmmaker Dara Friedman of that moment in the summer of 1992, with her then-boyfriend, now husband, sculptor Mark Handforth.

“Where could we go that was inexpensive where we could start being artists?” The unlikely answer was a city the art world had deemed a cultural backwater: Miami.

That dismissal of Miami as a merely tropical getaway has shifted. This week sees virtually all eyes within the contemporary art milieu turn to South Florida for the 21st annual Art Basel Miami Beach fair, an event that draws well-heeled art collectors, dealers and curators from around the world. The Basel fair, open to the public Friday to Sunday and featuring 277 galleries hosting booths inside the Miami Beach Convention Center, is only part of the attraction.

As Basel unfolds, satellite fairs, pop-up exhibitions and splashy art-themed corporate branding exercises will appear throughout greater Miami. All of this artsy activity falls under the Chamber of Commerce-blessed moniker of Miami Art Week, though virtually everyone attending any chunk of it simply refers to it as Art Basel.

Basel’s spotlight has also helped catalyze a year-round art scene for the city by putting its homegrown talent on an international stage and convincing locals and out-of-towners to pay attention.

Miami has established itself as part of the constellation of cities worldwide known for their arts and culture. Paris, London and New York — also home to major art fairs — had a head start getting into this elite club, with their storied museums and centuries-long commitment to arts. Other cities that started hosting art fairs more recently, including Hong Kong and Seoul, South Korea, are newer arrivals to the party.

But no one has made an entrance quite as striking as Miami’s. In the perception of many, the city has recently eclipsed Chicago as the third American art city after Los Angeles and New York. Accompanying this transformation have been charges of art-fueled gentrification, as previously low-income neighborhoods fill with new museums and galleries, and fears that post-Basel growth is unsustainable.

Concurrently, the cost of living has soared — a recent Miami Herald-led study found the average monthly rent on a one-bedroom apartment had increased by 80% since 2019. Only Boston, San Francisco and the New York City area had higher rents.

A look at separate generations of successful Miami artists whose careers came of age before, during and since the 2002 debut of Art Basel illustrates the impact of the fair and the challenges ahead.

Dara Friedman and Mark Handforth

Daily expenses were foremost on Friedman’s mind as she planned her and Handforth’s 1992 move “from art school into the world.” Raised in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Germany, Friedman was eager to return to the United States. A scouting visit that spring sold her on Miami’s affordability.

“Fast cash from the ATM in New York City was $100 and fast cash from the ATM in Miami was $20,” she explained. Miami’s film and fashion industries offered gig work, and she said she had already lined up an apartment in an art deco building on Miami Beach for $350 a month. Best of all, the Slade School of Fine Art, Handforth’s alma mater, had just awarded him a 4,000-pound travel grant (about $11,000 today). “I remember thinking, ‘We can do this!’”

The Slade’s grant administrators were less convinced, Friedman said. “When they found out Mark was going to use the travel grant to go to Miami, they revoked it. They said ‘Miami is not a serious art place.’ We were supposed to go to Paris or Berlin. But Miami? Not so fast.”

Three decades later, now ensconced in a greenery-shrouded home in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, Friedman and Handforth have had the last laugh. The city figures large in both Friedman’s short films, with their loving focus on otherworldly moments within misleadingly ordinary lives, and in Handforth’s playfully tweaked street objects and fluorescent light tubes. And both artists have enviable CVs packed with museum shows, public art commissions and private collection placements.

Handforth credits Miami as key to that success. It was the city’s notorious hurricanes that first shifted his own thinking about art, he said.

“It was not just having a lamppost down in the street. It was this idea that within a very short period of time, everything that seems so solid could suddenly become so flexible.”

And it was the cheap rent of the ’90s that gave the couple freedom from full-time day jobs to put their art-making ideas into practice, he added. By the time Basel’s circus rolled into town, they were already positioned to take full advantage of its opportunities for further exposure.

Hernan Bas

The local hoopla surrounding Basel was still in the future in 1996, when Hernan Bas graduated from the New World School of the Arts, a magnet high school in Miami, and left for Cooper Union in New York.

“Miami had such a small, kind of nonexistent art scene,” Bas recalled of that period, “you just felt like you needed to go somewhere else to make anything happen.”

He lasted only a single semester, though, expelled for “not going to classes,” he admitted with a sheepish laugh. “We were painting nude figures and 90% of the kids in the class had never done that before. I’d been doing that back at New World since the 10th grade. There were other factors, like my just being young. But generally speaking, I think I’d had my fill of art school.”

His two roommates, fellow art students also from Miami, were outwardly sympathetic, Bas said. “But they told me later that when I got kicked out of Cooper they said to each other, ‘Oh, he’s going back to Miami, and that’s a death sentence. He’s never going to get anywhere now.’”

Not quite. Bas is now arguably Miami’s most sought-after painter, with his homoerotically charged portraits of waifs and dandies attracting critical praise and steady sales — if you can manage to buy one from his galleries. Demand remains so strong, and supply so tight, that Bas’ work regularly commands mid-six-figure prices at auction; in November 2022, one particularly large painting sold for 11.2 million Hong Kong dollars (about $1.4 million) at Christie’s in Hong Kong.

His new show, “The Conceptualists,” 35 portraits riffing off his signature evocation of lithe beauty, is timed to open for Basel at Miami Beach’s Bass Museum.

Fredric Snitzer, Bas’ gallerist in Miami, cites the artist’s innate talent — he began showing his work several years before Basel arrived. But it was the fair, Snitzer said, that catapulted Bas from a local to a global sensation. “I thought Hernan was the poster child for Art Basel.”

Miami’s preeminent art collectors had already begun to buy Bas’ work in 2001 and early 2002, Snitzer said, but Basel “was the rocket. Because if a handful of people got led to the work before, now thousands of people paraded through the fair and said, ‘Who’s this guy? It’s all sold? Put me on the waiting list immediately.’ So there began the whole bigger game.”

Bas’ rise also marked a generational break. Snitzer had made his name in the early ’90s by exhibiting a group of Cuban-exile artists freshly arrived in Miami, concentrating on reflecting the trauma of daily life in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and the poignant loss associated with escaping from it.

But in late 1998, when Bas and several kindred young artists — Naomi Fisher, Bert Rodriguez and Shannon Spadaro — pitched Snitzer on a group show, their outlook was something altogether new.

“They were Miami kids, they were born and raised here,” Snitzer explained. “If they were Cuban American, like Hernan, they weren’t born in Cuba.”

Their art reflected that change.

“It was simply responding to Miami” — a new Miami of daytime film sets and neon-bathed nightlife. The result was November 1998’s “Fashion Issue: four simple steps towards younger looking skin,” a show, Snitzer explained, “about growing up in the shadow of a fashion community and the impact they were feeling from South Beach with all of its photo shoots and models.”

The young artists’ collective spirit took a beating after Basel’s ensuing gold-rush mentality. Bas began spending much of his time in Detroit.

“I had to get away from Miami and the whole scene,” he said. “There was a sort of semi-competitiveness that turned me off.” He recalled the steady stream of collectors and art advisers who tried to sidestep his dealers to buy a painting directly.

“It had gotten so crazy during the early fair years that people were coming to the studio and knocking on the door without an invitation,” he said. “‘No, you can’t just come in! Go away!’”

Bas is now back in Miami year round. He’s made his peace with the fevered state of his market, but he’s also grateful for it.

“Miami is just ridiculously one of the most expensive cities,” he said. “I still live here. I don’t dislike it. But my God, if I didn’t have the money to afford it. …” He trailed off silently.

Jared McGriff

It’s not only Miami artists who have been closely tracking Art Basel’s local impact. Jared McGriff was watching from the San Francisco Bay Area, where he worked in finance and then tech for almost two decades, carving out time to quietly paint on the side.

His Instagram handle, @watercolorbrother, perfectly captures the engrossing fugue state his paintings can inspire — ethereal scenes of Black life suck the viewer in, only to reveal deeper layers and troubling narratives. Yet his brushwork remained largely hidden from public view, until 2017 when he finally “pulled the plug” on his old life and moved to Miami.

“I knew I needed to move to a place where other people were making work all around me,” the self-taught artist said. Visits to Art Basel led him to the satellite Prizm fair, focusing on work by artists from Africa and the African diaspora, which, McGriff said, “unlocked this understanding of the breadth of the Black art-making community here.” Miami, with its network of arts organizations, felt not only supportive, but — at least compared with the Bay Area — financially manageable.

Local response came fairly quickly upon his arrival. A 2019 solo show at Spinello Projects sparked a flood of purchases by influential collectors, which then led to marquee exhibitions at the Rubell Museum Miami and the NSU Art Museum. This year’s Art Week sees him included alongside a who’s who of contemporary art stars in the show “Gimme Shelter” at the Historic Hampton House, a segregation-era Green Book hotel remade into a cultural center. With Spinello and another Basel exhibitor, Vielmetter Los Angeles, also featuring his work, he seems poised to continue his ascent.

“The pace at which it all occurred was surprising,” McGriff said. Although based on his own experience, he added wryly, “it takes 20 years to be an overnight success.”

Artists and Other Endangered Species

At the Emerson Dorsch gallery, which began as a living-room exhibition space inside its founder’s walk-up apartment, and now occupies a customized warehouse in the Little Haiti neighborhood, business is booming. The gallery’s director, Ibett Yanez del Castillo, said the pandemic’s surge of moneyed new Florida residents had brought “new eyes and new collections, it’s definitely given us a fresh sense of energy.”

Yet her phone calls from young artists are no longer from New Yorkers curious about relocating south. Instead, they are from the gallery’s own stable of local talents who are anguished over whether they’ll be able to remain in Miami.

“There’s been this push for welcoming a new tax bracket,” she said of Miami’s city officials, “and that’s definitely making it difficult for the working class.”

There have been calls from several corners of the local art world for a new focus on housing. The nonprofit Oolite Arts added a housing stipend to its core studio residency program, hoping to set an example, while art collector and real estate developer Craig Robins (who was a key force in bringing Basel to Miami), said in an interview that affordable rentals weren’t enough.

“The great thing political leaders can and should do is put financing behind ownership projects,” he said. So far though, like the plans to address the sea level rise that threatens to submerge much of the coastal area in a matter of decades, there’s little agreement on — or funding for — a comprehensive program.

“I feel like we’re on the cusp,” Friedman said. “Miami’s notoriously immature, but its art scene is no longer the new kid on the block. So what’s it going to do now as it hits middle age? Well, it’s Miami, so it’s going to go to the gym, get a face-lift and buy a fancy car. And then maybe find a moment to reflect. Maybe.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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