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When David Lombardi first chugged into Wynwood six years ago, the real estate broker/developer had no idea the rundown warehouse district was about to take off like a runaway freight train.
"When I came to the area, the Rubell Collection and Dorsch and Locust were the only spaces open, and neither of the galleries had signage," Lombardi recalls. "Now there are over 70 spaces on the Wynwood Art District's map."
Today he owns 40 properties in the area and credits Art Basel as a catalyst for Wynwood's radical turnaround. The Margulies Collection and the Fredric Snitzer and Bernice Steinbaum galleries were early anchors, Lombardi says. Other top-rank dealers who have recently relocated from Coral Gables and the Design District to Wynwood also reflect the fact that the area has become ground zero for the visual arts in Miami.
"Kevin Bruk now has a space here, as does Diana Lowenstein. Gary Nader who told me he would never leave the Gables four years ago bought a five-million-dollar compound and moved his operation here last year. Emmanuel Perrotin and Luis Adelantado opened spaces in Wynwood last year, and both of them are rainmakers on the international scene," Lombardi observes. "Even the Museum of Contemporary Art opened an annex here last year."
Lombardi recently told New Times he was juggling calls from curators, artists, and dealers from South America, New York, and Los Angeles, all scrambling for exhibit space just days before the fair. Because the price of a booth at the Miami Beach Convention Center the official staging ground for Art Basel averages $40,000, and stalls range up to $10,000 at some of the satellite fairs, Wynwood has become the locus of overheated attention, Lombardi says.
"People are clamoring for ten-year commitments for temporary spaces two weeks out of the year and taking anything they can get their hands on. It's crazy," he marvels. "I have a tenant who is an interior designer, and I just got her $10,000 for two weeks from a gallery that wants to hang paintings on the walls of her showroom during Basel. For her that represents three months' rent."
Eric Gonzalez, one of Lombardi's associates, found himself hustling like a dirt pimp to accommodate clients eager for any patch of land where they could set up exhibitions and siphon the pockets of fat-cat collectors in town for the fair.
"I'm getting calls from as far away as Oregon and Paris," Gonzalez crows. "A club promoter contacted me looking for a warehouse space where he could have a fancy garage sale for paintings, furniture, and sculpture. He wanted to install the stuff in a loungey atmosphere with music, DJs, and a bar."
Typically the few available spaces Gonzalez was trying to fill commanded anywhere from $3500 to $10,000 for two weeks, depending on the condition of the space, but unlike most of the fairs that exercise some type of quality control, the only criteria that mattered was cash on the barrel head.
Lombardi points out that in 2003, Wynwood galleries were still struggling to attract Basel crowds, and many resorted to lavish blowouts to gain attention. That year several galleries pitched in to rent buses to ferry people from the convention center to their spaces, but the shuttle service was a flop. The galleries were spread too far apart.
He expresses amazement that, within a span of two years, nearly 50 galleries and artist studios had opened their doors in the warehouse district, with several international players launching second venues in the area.
Last year the NADA and Pulse fairs drew huge crowds to Wynwood, and this year they'll be joined by Scope Miami and Photo Miami, promising to raise the buzz of activity to a boil in the gritty nabe.
Lombardi says the satellite fairs have amped up the market's interest in the area, generating a stampede of art speculators that has been good for business. "Right now every space we have is full; we have no vacancies at all." New art spaces, he says, are sprouting like mushrooms in a cow pasture after a flash summer rain.
"At the Wynwood Lofts, six galleries have opened since October, and another one is opening at the Terminal Building in time for Basel. Some of our clients who are renting temporary spaces are considering permanent commitments to the area," the broker boasts.
InterFlight Studio and Seth Jason Beitler Fine Arts are among the handful of recently inaugurated spaces at Lombardi's five-story Wynwood Lofts, which comprise mixed-use units.
During the recent Wynwood arts crawl, the group of galleries attracted sizable crowds.
"Unlike many other areas in the neighborhood, where the galleries are spread out, we have a bunch under one roof," gushes Seth Beitler, who organized the shindig. "We have ten shows booked for Basel and will have an open bar on each of the building's five floors. We are going to hang a 30-by-10-foot banner on the side of the complex to draw attention to the project. Elle magazine is sponsoring our event."
Wynwood pioneer Brook Dorsch says if one takes into account the "fly-by-nights," more than 100 spaces in the warehouse district will be organizing exhibits during Art Basel, almost doubling the number of venues from last year.
"Because of Basel, the whole area is snowballing and [has] grown to a mass that should carry on through the whole year," Dorsch says. "The references to Chelsea are there, and this has basically become the center of the art scene in Miami. We are definitely getting more foot traffic. Now all we need is a café."
Lombardi disputes that the gallery-going public will translate to increased pedestrian traffic year round, and cautions that only an infusion of young, lifestyle-oriented home buyers as well as the goods and services to attract them will make a long-term difference.
"Sure, many of the galleries are busy during the season. But the rest of the year, the momentum doesn't carry, and it's like a mortuary science experiment. What we need is for people to move into the area and that the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers join them. That's what's coming next," opines Lombardi, mentioning that the recent opening of the big-box retail stores in midtown Miami are a boon.
The developer says that even though the residential market has slowed, the condo crash is not as severe as many people think. He expresses little doubt that the area's real estate inventory will be absorbed.
"You have a lot of first-time home buyers who want to escape the sphere of pain that comes from a long commute downtown. This is an instant-gratification society, and instead of looking at a house in the $600,000 range and emptying a bank account, people will take a luxury condo with the fancy kitchen and beautiful view," Lombardi posits. "Then you have people in Miramar, Plantation, and Coral Springs, whose kids are out of the house, and are willing to sell their homes and relocate so they don't have to sit in traffic all day."
And then there is the continental wild card Basel adds to the fray: foreign visitors who come to the fair and are enticed into purchasing a second home in Miami.
"The euro is still strong, and Europeans get a twenty percent discount when they buy here," Lombardi says, also noting that artists are often stalking horses for real estate development. "The wealthy always follow artists to appear hip and cultural."