Mad About Miami's Snub From the Whitney Biennial? Blame Politics

Writing in the New York Times earlier this week, Miami-based journalist Brett Sokol interviewed Gean Moreno, Miami's advisor to the two curators for the forthcoming Whitney Biennial, about the lack of local representation in the coveted biannual NYC exhibition. Despite being the curator of programming at Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art and having deep roots in the art community here, Moreno couldn’t convince the two other curators that even a single Miami artist met the criteria needed to make the final cut of 63 Biennial participants.

And by what criteria were they evaluating their potential Miami artists? According to Moreno, they were seeking those that confront environmental issues, specifically sea-level rise from climate change. And yet here he was, reporting erroneously in the New York Times, that no such work of this kind was being produced in the 305:
“Who are the artists in Miami working on these issues?” Mr. Moreno asked. “It’s been taken up by the scientists at universities here, some journalists are addressing it, you’re seeing civic responses from some mayors. But I couldn’t name one local exhibit that has taken climate change seriously.”
But should it really come as a surprise that Moreno drew blanks on Miami climate change artists, considering ICA’s primary benefactor Norman Braman is a billionaire car dealer (and Marco Rubio’s sugar daddy)? Have we reached #peakirony when it is precisely the decades of Miamians spending countless hours idling in gridlock traffic on the Dolphin Expressway, belching tons of climate-warming CO2 into the atmosphere, that has allowed Braman to build a monument to the purity of contemporary art in the most sea level rise-prone city in the U.S.? Braman is fortunate to have found a complicit yes-man in Moreno who stands guard, if cooly-detached, at the gate — all while the planet warms, the ice caps melt, and Miami slowly submerges.

If social and environmental issues are suddenly de rigeur in contemporary art, clearly no one informed the ICA. This is the same program curator that helped bring the morally-bereft "The Inverse" to the museum, wherein the artist allegedly foisted a last-minute power trip over its low-paid female models (e.g. cash-strapped Miami artists) by pressuring them to insert the end of the exhibit’s rope into their vagina. Sadly, it appears Moreno and ICA’s curatorial priorities are less concerned about the future livability of the city, and more in line with perpetuating basic Miami art show stereotypes: that the promise of free drinks and female flesh at the vernissage will always supersede the importance of art with sober intellectual value.
Maybe I’m being a bit cynical, but by singling out climate change as the primary criteria of their judgement, Moreno appears to have made the politically genius maneuver of protecting the egos of his unselected local artist friends, while also deflecting any attention away from one of the most glaring socio-political elephants in the Miami contemporary art game room: gentrification and the use of young artists as pawns in what is essentially a real estate developer’s game.

The emphasis of socialite-ism over activism in Miami’s creative community is a serious hinderance to the intellectual development of its artists, curators, and citizens. Outsiders looking in on our environmental situation see a city consumed by vanity, too preoccupied with having a good time to notice the infrastructure slowing sinking. Meanwhile, our precarious condition on the Florida coastline has provided endless fodder to journalists from around the world looking to rain on our parade — while conveniently cashing in and getting a paid trip to sunny Miami.

If the number of alarmist articles written about Miami’s future is any indication, the world clearly delights in schadenfreude at what is perceived as our imminent drowning. Envy seems to underlie most hostility you find in, or directed at, Miami. Perhaps it is because our weather is too nice and our citizens too beautiful that the world wants to see Miami pay for its collective environmental sins. But in the meantime, the monied class can take comfort in knowing that gatekeepers like Moreno are in charge of velvet ropes, keeping out any independently-thinking artists whose social/political/environmental message might harsh the vibes of all those potential real estate investors coming to the Coral City this week to party in the VVIP.

Colin Foord is a marine biologist and one half of the art/science duo Coral Morphologic whose work in Miami was chronicled by Vice Media in the 2015 documentary Coral City.

A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that Gene Moreno was one of the Whitney Biennial curators. He is an advisor to the curators.

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