2006: Skywalkers by Friends with You in South Beach during Art Basel Miami Beach.
Pre-1983: A harbinger of things to come: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, 1983.
Two decades ago, the words “Art Basel” would likely have evoked some sort of exotic herb salad for most Miamians. Wynwood was a netherworld of warehouses, and artists were more drawn to places like Manhattan’s East Village. The 1983 installation Surrounded Islands (PICTURED) was the most renowned art happening in recent history. Now look at us: December’s Art Week is an unbridled extravaganza of Art Basel Miami Beach, sundry satellite fairs, and countless parties; Wynwood has chockablock monthly art walks; and Miami boasts several great galleries, actively evolving museums, and outstanding private collections. So, to paraphrase David Byrne, “How did we get here?”
It may have all started with a neighborhood. In 1993, there was no Wynwood in terms of an arts district. Some people, however, were prescient enough to move into the area. Don and Mera Rubell bought a warehouse there that year to showcase and expand their trove of contemporary art: the world-class Rubell Family Collection/Contemporary Arts Foundation, which today is also run by their son, Jason, and Juan Roselione-Valadez.
“We were looking for something that resembled a modernist Bauhaus structure, and we found it in Wynwood,” Mera Rubell says. “When we first entered the building, it felt haunted. You could sense the remnants of seized cars, cocaine, and money—all the Miami Vice stuff.”
Galvanized by the Rubells’ arrival, eventually other key players followed, spurred by the cheap volume of space and opportunity. Pioneering gallerists such as Brook Dorsch, Bernice Steinbaum, Damien B., Fredric Snitzer, and a trio of artists (Elizabeth Withstandley, Westen Charles, and Cooper), who founded the experimental, avant-garde nonprofit space Locust Projects, began inhabiting the neighborhood as early as 1998.
Prior to that, Miami’s gallery scene had been focused in Coral Gables and driven by Cuban artists. It took years for the Wynwood neighborhood to gain momentum; Art Basel’s arrival in 2002 pushed it forward—and Miami’s evolution into a viable art hub. The Rubells—who are celebrating their 20th anniversary in Wynwood this year and will be releasing a new catalog to commemorate 50 years of collecting and marriage—urged the fair’s heads in Switzerland to consider Miami as a sister site. They even took then-Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin and former Commissioner Nancy Liebman to the original Basel to convince them about the economic impact such an event could have on our coastal city.
Much of Wynwood’s progress should also be attributed to the late Tony Goldman, his son, Joey, and daughter, Jessica. They bought real estate in the area more than six years ago, and in collaboration with Jeffrey Deitch unveiled The Wynwood Walls, a series of murals by prominent global street artists, in 2009. The Goldman Warehouse—once a Wynwood annex for MOCA and now a center for the innovative performing arts nonprofit Miami Light Project/The Light Box—has been a boon to the neighborhood, and restaurants, bars, and lounges around the Northwest Second Avenue stretch have helped to attract an audience.
Yes, Miami has suffered its share of braindrain (with artists relocating to LA or New York), yet for young talent, there are reasons to stay. Bhakti Baxter, previously represented by Snitzer and now by Nina Johnson-Milewski of Gallery Diet, has been here for 14 years. “Space is affordable, creative people in the community are supportive, and collectors play no small role,” he says. “Miami is also conveniently situated geographically. Easy travel allows for increased cultural input.”
Locals have built the scene, yet would it be where it is now without the arrival of Art Basel?
“Basel didn’t make the art scene, but before, there wasn’t the attention or critical mass needed to put Miami on the map,” says Jessica Goldman. “It woke up both the local and international communities to help shape Miami as a real art destination.”
The Miami art scene has been a long, fascinating ride.
1990: Developer Craig Robins offers free studio space to artists in the Design District, leading pioneering galleries to begin looking at nearby Wynwood as a place to establish themselves.
1993: The Rubells buy a warehouse in Wynwood to showcase their art collection. They are the first art patrons to move into the area.
1996: After outgrowing its original space and with more public demand, the Museum of Contemporary Art relaunches in a new building in North Miami. Chief curator Bonnie Clearwater becomes its director in 1997.
2002: Art Basel debuts on Miami Beach, bringing more than 25,000 attendees and putting Miami’s art scene in the international spotlight. Smaller alternative fairs, such as Scope, begin to set up shop during Art Week in December.
2003: The Wynwood Arts District Association is created, marking the beginning of a fully organized community centered around the creation and promotion of art in Miami.
2009: The Wynwood Walls launches and transforms empty warehouses into art canvases; the de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space opens in the Design District, highlighting Wynwood’s growing influence in the surrounding neighborhoods.
2013: The Pérez Art Museum Miami (formerly Miami Art Museum) opens in its new Herzog & de Meuron-designed space in downtown.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY WOLFGANG VOLZ/1AIF/REDUX (islands); COURTESY FRIENDS WITH YOU (skywalkers)