Guccivuitton's first museum show, a self-titled exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art, opened with a flashy party. Visitors crowded the sidewalk along NE Second Avenue, jostling to get inside and milling around the venue's rooftop lounge to sip drinks to the sounds of a DJ spinning Pitbull tracks. It was the kind of swanky party you'd expect to find in the ultra-luxe Design District.
But the best part of exhibiting at ICA, according to Guccivuitton's directors, was seeing their work in bus shelters.
"We were more excited to find out that we're going to be on the bus shelters than about the exhibit," artist Domingo Castillo, one of Guccivuitton's three founders, says about ICA's plans to advertise the show at bus stops. "I mean, I'm a pedestrian. I use those shelters... It's going to bring [our work] to people who maybe have heard of Guccivuitton but don't know [our work], or people who didn't know about us at all" — essentially, he says, people outside the bubble of Miami's contemporary art scene.
That art scene has gained international attention over the past decade, with Art Basel attracting collectors from across the globe each year and grants from the Knight Foundation and others pumping millions of dollars into the city's cultural organizations. Everyone wants a piece of the action these days, from condo developers who commission artists to create pieces to decorate their lobbies, to advertisers who use Wynwood's murals as backdrops to sell clothing. But while out-of-towners are getting champagne-drunk at Basel parties, Miami itself is undergoing a different kind of transformation: gentrification in once-low-cost neighborhoods, and a culture that's increasingly focused on sales rather than quality.
At least that's how Guccivuitton founders Loriel Beltran, Castillo, and Aramis Gutierrez see it. Two years ago, Beltran remembers, "We were doing an interview for Site95. We were talking about these things — neighborhoods changing, local production — and we were like, 'Why don't we just open a gallery?'"
Soon they were moving into a midsize, high-ceilinged space along a stretch of storefronts in Little Haiti and dedicating the gallery to locally produced works that challenge prevailing trends in South Florida's art scene. It opened with "IRL (In Real Life)," a critical look at the intersection of art, branding, and internet culture by art collective ART404. One of the pieces on display was a re-creation of a real hacking effort that successfully took down major arts websites, including those of London's Tate Gallery and the Gagosian, a chain of galleries with operations in New York, Paris, Hong Kong, and other cities. In the years since, Guccivuitton has featured the sculptures of Chayo Frank, known in Miami as the architect who created the swirling, sea-creature-inspired Amertec building; Beltran's own "Rococo Chanel," including paintings that remix and reimagine images from luxury magazines; and an exhibition of works by the late Overtown artist Purvis Young.
"No one has been recording the history of the arts in Miami," Castillo says. "That's part of our mission." For the Young exhibit, he says, the goal was to present the work without a concentration on the quirky, folk-hero reputation the artist has among locals. "People say, 'Look at this crazy guy,'" Castillo points out. "But what if he wasn't crazy? What if he painted the way he did, what if he used the materials he used, because that was how he could survive?"
Even with all the added attention on the arts in South Florida, Gutierrez says, survival remains almost impossible for artists living here. "Another part [of our mission] is to educate collectors," he explains, in the hopes that visiting art patrons can learn to appreciate — and financially support — locally created work. "Success to me means that it's possible to make a living as an artist in Miami.
"Miami needs more artists," he adds, quickly clarifying, "Not art stars. Miami doesn't need any more art stars."
Guccivuitton and its philosophy soon attracted the attention of the Institute of Contemporary Art's deputy director and chief curator, Alex Gartenfeld. "I've learned so much from them about alternative spaces and from their interest in the complicated role of artist and gallery," Gartenfeld says. "I'm very much interested in the history and tradition of alternative art spaces, and I felt that they would be able to produce an exhibition that took that history to the next step."
A collaboration between the ICA, one of the few remaining arts institutions in the Design District, and Guccivuitton, whose name is inspired in part by the rapid development in that area, seemed natural. "A big part of our dialogue has been their interest in commerce as it overlaps with contemporary art, but also as it manifests in the Design District," Gartenfeld says. "I did think that there would be some important themes that would express themselves through this show."
He was right. Guccivuitton's ICA exhibit mimics the designer storefronts that surround the museum, with works of art hung behind glass enclosures designed for the space by architect and new Guccivuitton director Jonathan Gonzalez. The works themselves are sometimes blatantly critical of consumerism: A banner from Guccivuitton's 2014 exhibit "Luxury Face" proclaims, "Income rises/Sea level rises/Temperature rises/Twilight at noon/Final days." But the presentation is decidedly retail. The gallery even set up a website for the exhibit where each item in the show can be purchased. To the average Miamian, wandering the four floors of the exhibit might feel like window shopping; the artwork, like the luxury items on display in the Design District's neighboring storefronts, is close enough to view in detail but still inaccessible.
That feeling was intentional, says Gutierrez, who proudly remembers, "Some people were frustrated that they couldn't get closer."
The viewing experience inside Guccivuitton's Little Haiti space is decidedly different. With floor-to-ceiling windows that illuminate its works in natural light, the gallery sits next door to a storefront church and down the street from a fresh produce market and a strip mall populated by boutiques, a dry cleaner, and a travel agency.
Little Haiti has been called "the next Wynwood," as some artists and galleries have begun moving into the neighborhood to escape rent hikes in the former warehouse district. Cost is a factor in Guccivuitton's settling here too; its directors work day jobs to fund its operations. But they're trying to write a different story of change in Little Haiti — one where, instead of importing their own culture into a unique neighborhood, artists embrace and integrate into the one that already exists. For example, Guccivuitton's current exhibit, "Agency," by Christina Lei Rodriguez, has staged workshops that collaborate with neighboring businesses, such as a Mother's Day flower-arranging class using plants from Mimi's, the produce market down the street.
"[Gentrification] will be harder here," Castillo says. Unlike in Wynwood, "there's already a community established here. People live here. There are businesses here that have been here for 15, 20 years, and they're still running."
"I have had people thank me, though," Gutierrez admits. "They say, 'I own a house down the road, and I really appreciate what you're doing [for housing values].'"