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."
After Chaez's Death, Miami's Venezuelan Artists Consider the Future
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.
"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.
Ascanio's story echoes those of many other Venezuelan creatives who have relocated their craft to South Florida.
Born in Villa de Cura in 1953, Ascanio planned to study medicine before switching his major to economics. But he was part of a generation that came of age as Venezuelan artists such as Jesús Rafael Soto, who made a name with kinetic art pieces, put Caracas on the international stage in the '60s and '70s.
When a teenage Ascanio landed an internship with Alfredo Boulton, owner of a multinational corporation and one of Venezuela's biggest art critics, his path was set. "[He was] a cultural historian and accomplished photographer who was instrumental in developing the nation's modernist and contemporary art movements," Ascanio says.
Boulton introduced him to artists such as Soto and Cruz-Diez and helped him start Ediciones Macanao, which published literature about Venezuelan art. Ascanio later founded Estudio 1, a gallery solely dedicated to Soto's work, and became Soto's agent and legal representative. Soon he opened his own, larger gallery and became one of Caracas's most important dealers.
Which is why his decision in 2005 was so difficult. He'd spent his life fighting to promote Venezuela's art scene. And suddenly he realized Chávez's politics left no room for him. "Before Chávez, the Venezuelan cultural community had never suffered such restrictions to the free expression of artistic activity," he says.
Ascanio, who had been traveling to Miami each December for Art Basel, began exploring a move to Wynwood in 2006. His eponymous gallery opened in 2010.
When he arrived, he found many of the best and brightest from Caracas already making Miami their own. Here are some of them:
• The Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) is a world-class downtown collection that began in the early '00s to showcase the works owned by Ella Fontanals Cisneros. She then began an ambitious commissioning program for contemporary Latin American artists.
• Milagros Maldonado, another Venezuelan mega-collector, purchased the historic Dorissa Building in Wynwood in 2009 and began buying adjacent properties to show works from her vast collection. In 2010, she announced plans for a Miami Biennale, another major art fair, with its offices housed in Dorissa.
• Writer Jesus Rojas, who began covering the Miami art scene on What's Up Miami, and publisher Noor Blazekovic, with her Irreversible Magazine, founded in 2006, showcase rising South Florida talent.
• Curator and dealer Jorge Hulian focuses on nomadic exhibits such as "Reverón's Dolls," which was on view at the now-defunct Tachmes Gallery. The show, featuring haunting photographs by Venezuelan Luis Brito, earned Miami New Times' Best Art Exhibit honors in 2010. Since then, Hulian has opened two frame shops with in-house art galleries in Miami Beach and South Miami.
• Venezuelans own and operate numerous galleries in Miami, including the Durban Segnini Gallery, Hardcore Art Contemporary Space, Curator's Voice Projects, and the Ascaso Gallery.
South Florida's Venezuelan community was thrown into turmoil when Chávez died last month. As crowds gathered in Doral and Weston to celebrate, many like Ascanio were left wondering what the future would hold for their homeland.
Ascanio, who travels back home frequently, has no plans to leave Miami. Instead, he's working to offer more of his compatriots a chance to open galleries in Wynwood.
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"Right now I feel profoundly content," he says. "There exist in Miami diverse factors and opportunities, such as the presence of Art Basel, that have indisputably planted a seed for cultural growth."
Others echo that sentiment. While the urge is strong to return home and rebuild the creative scene that's been Miami's benefit, Venezuela's prospects are too uncertain for many in the art world to consider it seriously.
"All we can do now is rescue and reconstruct the history of the past 15 years in Venezuela, where the museums were the institutions that elevated art, and our artists were held to the most demanding criteria," Hulian says. "All that tradition was overturned, and it fell upon the private galleries to pick up the pieces." But in the end, he says, their efforts fell short because of the political environment that forced many of these gallerists to leave his homeland. "We now have to find a way to recover this lost history and join efforts to continue evolving."