One Sunday in 2005, Oscar Ascanio opened his eponymous 3,500-square-foot gallery in the tony Caracas neighborhood La Castellana for a monthly art gathering that usually drew dozens of families to his outdoor terrace. Ascanio had been part of Venezuela's scene since he was a teenager, representing big names such as Alejandro Otero and Carlos Cruz-Diez and pushing his homeland's art onto the global stage.
But that sunny spring day, the crowds of spectators and journalists were nowhere to be found. At the time, Hugo Chávez had begun frowning on any but the most "socialist-minded" art and had declared the work of Otero, Cruz-Diez, and others national property. Just as damaging, the president had clamped down on the foreign currency deals that drove Ascanio's business.
"The atmosphere became a brutal one for those of us in the art business," Ascanio recalls. "Before Chávez, my gallery was always filled with buyers. All of a sudden I couldn't sell or transport the work of these artists without the approval of the Ministry of Culture."
That empty afternoon, Ascanio came to a realization: He had to leave Venezuela. Three years would pass before he was able to relocate to Miami, but when he arrived, he found he was far from alone. Among the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who've flocked to Doral, Weston, and Miami in the past 15 years is a bumper crop of dealers, gallerists, curators, artists, and culturati that has helped remake the Magic City's art world.
Now, with the death of Chávez, many are dreaming of returning to Caracas. Whatever happens, though, most agree the Venezuelan impact on Miami-Dade isn't likely to fade.
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"Chávez dissolved pretty much all the artistic institutions in Caracas," says Jesus Rojas, a 47-year-old freelance writer who in 2009 started the blog What's Up Miami.