For What It's Worth

"There's something happening here," a Coral Gables gallery owner told me over lunch recently. "I'm just not sure what it is."
Me neither.
The infusion of new blood into renovated South Beach, Miami's growing reputation as a Latin American capital, local museum expansions, and the sudden arrival of a large group of accomplished artists from Cuba have, over the past few years, served as indications of an emerging art scene here. But while the international press dubiously cites the place as a hotbed of cultural trendiness, local artists and arts professionals understand that Miami remains a young city that, culturally at least, still is learning to crawl.

Newcomers with an interest in art hoping to find an energetic avant-garde will be disappointed when instead they encounter 1) art-dealers-cum-interior-decorators ("How about a blue one for over the couch?" I've really heard comments such as this; I couldn't make it up), 2) self-promoting artists with little talent but enough nerve to open so-called galleries, where a tedious solo show of their own work is always on view, and 3) institutions where curators drowning in backwater bureaucracy attempt to lure in members of a wary public with inconsistent exhibitions. And yet despite the best efforts of those persistent museum curators and administrators, as well as a handful of passionate gallery owners, opportunities to witness truly engaging art in Miami are few. It's the scarcity of such occasions that make them all the more exciting. They are small triumphs worth celebrating.

At New Times a regular page devoted to the visual arts never has been a priority, although the idea has been kicked around over the years. The decision to start an art column actually was made several months ago, long before its debut could be scheduled for this issue. This has more to do with available editorial space than the legitimacy of art as a subject, but the ambivalence about art implied by that lag time is fitting, because a similarly hesitant attitude -- as expressed by that Coral Gables gallery owner -- characterizes the city's art venues, and that includes the people who run them, the public that patronizes them, and the artists whose work is displayed in them.

Recently art has gained a more defined status -- as yet another tourist attraction. The city has been dubbed "Latin American Art Capital of the World" -- a title Coral Gables dealer Gary Nader went so far as to have copyrighted -- suggesting that the importance of such long-time Latin artistic centers as Mexico City, Buenos Aires, or New York City could be so easily dismissed. In Miami Beach, a tasteful brochure touting Lincoln Road's allegedly bohemian renaissance promises "an eclectic mixture of sensual pleasures" and exhibitions by a "noteworthy group of artists of regional, national, and international reputation." (Of course, we're left to guess what exactly makes these artists noteworthy and reputed.) And some South Beach club promoters have announced plans to hold an "alternative" art fair at the same time as the established, expensive Art Miami event in January. This new project offers visiting artists the opportunity to pay $1000-plus for the privilege of exhibiting their work in a hotel room for three days (welcoming cocktail party and continental breakfast included!).

Granted, Miami was founded on this sort of inspired hucksterism. But provincial bravado won't work this time. Publicists can buzz all they like, but the more interesting artists in the area continue to work secluded in their studios, largely unknown to their potential public. Works from local private collections too often remain behind closed doors. Museum attendance is shamefully low; museum employees don't endure. The two or three worthwhile art spaces on Lincoln Road and the growing Latin American art market (supported by Sotheby's, which opened an office here early this year) are certainly important steps toward ongoing, vital art activity here. But sleight-of-hand distractions cannot replace substance; we cannot pull an art scene out of a hat.

Will the pluralistic cultural experiment that is Miami ultimately yield a cohesive art movement? By its very nature, it probably won't. Miami's artists are as segregated as the rest of the local population, both from each other and from the general public. Art in Miami reflects the city's diverse lifestyles, languages, and political ideologies, its parochialism, bourgeois values and prejudices, its apathy, its ingenuity, its ability to reinvent itself. Add to this the symptoms of a brewing end-of-the-century crisis in the contemporary art world, and you get a form of cultural schizophrenia. Yes, something is happening here. No, it isn't a cohesive art scene.

Whatever is going on, it surely can benefit from some evaluation. Lively critical debate rarely appears in the local press, which with few exceptions A notably Miami Herald critic Helen Kohen A insists on promulgating a superficial image of good, clean art-world productivity. One example: an article in Miami Today's recent fall culture section plays up the bogus comparison of Lincoln Road to New York's SoHo, and Coral Gables to Madison Avenue. Enough of this tired charade.

The purpose of this column, scheduled to appear approximately twice each month, is to devote attention to art being made and exhibited in this place at this time. While I prefer to highlight artists who pioneer rather than profiteer, I do not propose to ignore the inextricable ties between art and commerce. The column's subject matter will vary: exhibition reviews, artist interviews, and reports on current issues in the arts. In a city as volatile as this one, art's relationship to other socio-economic-political aspects of life is inevitable: Bombs have threatened the Cuban Museum; Miami is one of the biggest international markets for forgeries; and city officials censor exhibitions simply by making "friendly" suggestions to paranoid dealers.

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