Downtown Is Becoming Miami's Next Arts Destination

Art Miami and Context art fairs in their new downtown location.
Art Miami and Context art fairs in their new downtown location. Courtesy of Art Miami
Art Basel isn't just about Miami Beach anymore. Whether you Uber or, God help you, drive to the Beach, each year you have to ask yourself if the ever-increasing traffic is worth it. It makes sense that downtown, the real center of our city, after all, would emerge as a home for the arts. And with the emergence of major institutions such as Pérez Art Museum Miami, many have predicted that downtown will soon become the Magic City's cultural center.

This past weekend, the crowds at downtown art fairs and cultural installations proved the neighborhood is living up to the hype.

This year, Art Miami, the city's oldest art fair, and its sister fair, Context, catalyzed this movement by setting up shop in their new location at 1 Herald Plaza. (Both were located in midtown the past ten years, and before that at the Miami Beach Convention Center.) Situated between the Venetian and MacArthur Causeways, the fairs provided an unbeatable view of Biscayne Bay. Visitor statistics have not yet been announced, but gallerists and visitors onsite said attendance seemed unaffected, or even enhanced, by the move.

Diana Lowenstein of Diana Lowenstein Gallery has been exhibiting at Art Miami since 1991 and has experienced each organizer and venue of the fair. "I believe at this point, the fair and the organizers have reached a point of really a magnificent art fair," she tells New Times. She cites high attendance and visitors' surprise at the consistent level of quality across the entire fair as its strengths, which the new location further emphasizes.

"This [location] is perfect," Lowenstein says. "I believe this is such a special place, because of the grandiosity of the entrance, the lounge on the water that the Europeans fall in love with," she laughs. "I believe that if we can stay in this place for a long time, that would be fantastic.” With fairs such as NADA, Pinta, and Spectrumhaving moved nearby, Lowenstein says confidently, "We are equally balanced with the presence on the Beach."

"I think the new location is significantly better for many reasons," says Jason Rosenfeld of Rosenfeld Gallery, based in Miami and New York. He applauds the cleaner floor plan and buildout, which helps viewers see art more efficiently and less stressfully, as a key change, as well as the accessibility of downtown as a metropolitan center for more serious art viewers; he cites high sales and a high level of intellectual inquiry from visitors as evidence. He finds Miami Art Week's shift from just Basel to its satellite fairs to be a positive change for the city.

"I think it’s a friendlier environment here," he says, "that people are warmer and more willing to have a conversation [than at Art Basel]. I believe having Art Week in Miami then leads to people staying longer, thinking about opening galleries, studios, arts colleges... so I think it’s helped tremendously in this city.”

Jason Newsted, former bassist of Metallica and more recently an artist, says he felt like a newbie at the acclaimed fair and cited downtown Miami as a location that invites beginners to experiment and share, much like Context next door, which presents early-to-midcareer artists. "It's new to me," he says humbly. Newsted had kept his art private before this year. [It's cool] to be included in something where... I was a fan of [the artists] before I got to meet them, and that’s what happened in my music career too; over time I got to meet my heroes, and heroes become your peers.”

He presented several hundred paintings he created in his basement in California throughout the '00s. A couple of months ago, Art Miami director Nick Korniloff approached Newsted at his home in Jupiter to request that he bring his work to the fair. Half of all sales will benefit the Perry G. Cohen Foundation in memory of Korniloff's son, who was lost at sea in 2015.

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Large-scale fairs drew the majority of downtown Art Week visitors, but they weren't the only events helping downtown become an Art Week destination. While Art Miami and Context took over next to the bay, Mana Contemporary activated tons of locals-only spots across East Flagler in the heart of downtown.

Its most Miami-style activation was its purchase of the entire 777 Mall at 141 E. Flagler, a mall that long housed cash-for-gold stands and perfume stores on its white linoleum floors that look and sound like Miami in the '90s. The second and third floors housed Prizm Art Fair, dedicated to exploring the narratives of Africa and its diaspora through artistic dialogue about colonialism, displacement, and racism.

On the first floor, Mana hosted eight artists-in-residence from Puerto Rico for a new three-month residency program. After Hurricane Maria, their work gave new depth to the artists' project of illuminating the island's sociopolitical landscape for an American audience.

Down the hall, cool kids Dale Zine offered art zines, music from Jolt Radio, and goods from Miami creators and other artists and publishers from around the world. Nestled between them was Booktanica Jai-Alai, a tiny botanica storefront advertising velas, oraciones, and poesia and filled to the brim with sacred creations from Haitian and Cuban artisans, poetry books from Miami authors, and healing oils straight out of Allapattah. (This reporter volunteered at the Booktanica during Art Week this year.)

Booktanica was the brainchild of Melody Santiago-Cummings, operations manager of the poetry festival O, Miami and its book imprint, Jai-Alai Books. "It revitalized a moment in time," she reflects on Booktanica. "It was a timeline of Miami, and everyone was here at this one point in downtown Miami."

Unlike the famous fairs and expensive art for which Miami Art Week is known, the tiny Booktanica presented a different artistic ethos altogether. "Everything in the space was either thoughtfully made or thoughtfully curated and placed," Santiago-Cummings says. Each object was meant to be touched, smelled, felt, and given intention. "There really isn’t a difference between the fine-art object; the archival, paper ephemera; and these handmade, totemic spiritual objects.

"I think the combination of them all coming together in this genre-bending way in a small, intimate space where there was so different a shift in energy, people really savored it and sat and lingered in the space," she says. Patrons young and old, some healers themselves, told their stories and filled the small shop with their own artistic intention. Efforts such as this one are instrumental in catering Art Week to all of Miami, not just its wealthy visitors.

Back at Art Miami, a group of Gen Y friends hung out on the terrace, overlooking a glittering Biscayne Bay. They laughed about what's really important at the art fair, like the Yeezy pop-up and the convenience of good food and drinks at the cafés. "Transportation can be better — it is congested," Gaia Zoe said. "I really like being on the water, and one of the benefits is that there’s a lot of buildings around so people are able to walk a lot."

Courtney Rodriguez, an interior designer, disagreed bluntly. "Traffic has been a lot better, as opposed to the clusterfuck of midtown," she deadpanned. "Being on the water really represents Miami."

Though some tourists expressed some outdated concerns about the safety of the area, Rodriguez said she's happy that the Basel week festivities are floating westward to the mainland. "Downtown Miami has a bad rap, and having this here gives Miami a more modernized uplift."
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Stefanie Fernández is a freelance music and arts writer for Miami New Times. She received her BA in English from Yale University in 2017. She is always lying on the floor listening to the Replacements' "Unsatisfied."