Who'll save Wynwood from itself? That was the question on many minds at Books & Books in Coral Gables Tuesday night, when ARTtuesdays/MIAMI presented a panel to discuss the future of the district that's become so successful it's actually a problem.
As New Times reported in 2011, and then the Miami Herald restated earlier this week, Wynwood's community is bursting at the seams, and gallerists are complaining about vandalism, food trucks, poverty, budget shortfalls, artistic displacement, and the neighborhood's new party atmosphere. Those are just the core issues brought up during the hour-and-a-half meeting that looked more like a high school debate class gone wrong.
The five-member panel included moderator Helen Kohen; realtor and neighborhood developer David Lombardi; arts marketing consultant Ilana Vardy; Wynwood Business Improvement District (BID) project director David Collins; and Wynwood gallerist Fredric Snitzer. The event, one of ArtTuesdays' regularly scheduled events at Books & Books, drew a sizable turnout; a Books & Books representative guessed attendance was in the hundreds.
ARTtuedays/MIAMI opened with a call for $10 donations to support the arts, and discussion broke as soon as Kohen finished passing around the collection basket.
"I just want to set up a couple of concepts for all of you to keep focus tonight, and we have to remember this is Miami, and we recognize and encourage arts neighborhoods, but we also profit, so remember that," said Kohen, art historian and program member of ARTtuesdays/MIAMI.
Next, David Lombardi took the microphone. President of Lombardi Properties and key member of the Wynwood Arts District Association (WADA), he's played a major role in the development of Wynwood equity.
"There's seven new food and beverage places being created in Wynwood. There are three breweries being built in Wynwood, one of which is being backed by Sam Adams out of Boston to create its own Miami brand of beer... There are new retail shops coming in. It's never been better," Lombardi said.
He also explained he took the bad-mouthing of businesses in Wynwood by its own gallerists in recent media as personal attacks, confronting panel member Snitzer for his comments in the Herald.
Vardi, an art consultant and program member of ARTtuesdays/MIAMI, countered Lombardi's optimism with concern for the survival of galleries as the district becomes more a space about entertainment and less about art. Snitzer complained Wynwood is no longer the place it once was.
Collins, executive director of the Coconut Grove Business Improvement District (BID), was brought in by WADA as a consultant in hopes of implementing structure in Wynwood by creating one of its own.
"Until you find a reason for a BID to exist, which is normally to solve problems and enhance strengths, you have to identify all that stuff or you're just making it up," he said. "My impression for Wynwood is that their problems are all solvable. A lot of them are solved by money, which businesses can put together by asking property owners to self-invest and pay a little more in assessments than they do now and to communally share better security. Wynwood is a place of incredible energy; it would be a huge mistake to not recognize this."
As the panel continued, however, that initial optimism dissipated into rising tensions. An audience member told the panel, "[Property] owners need to get together. They're all cats. They're just going in their own direction. We need to create commonality and give a voice to infrastructure."
That brought the possibility of creating a BID back into question, an idea supported by WADA and Tony Goldman's legacy. Joseph Furst, managing director of Goldman Properties, was awkwardly singled out from the audience by Kohen and asked to speak on behalf of the late Goldman, Wynwood's beloved art crusader.
"Tony Goldman's legacy is what we're going to deliver in Wynwood, so when I sit around and listen to people talk so poorly about the neighborhood we're trying so hard to revitalize -- we have people coming from all over the world as a world-class destination for art, culture, food, and beverage to take in public art in a way they can't any where else in the world -- it's a little bit disheartening," Furst said, after expressing discomfort for being singled out.
The panel went back and forth about local government's lack of involvement, infrastructure landscaping, and questions of intent arose. Snitzer voiced concerns about the BID trying to gentrify Wynwood without paying attention to issues like the homeless and lack of order in the surrounding areas. Lombardi, visibly frustrated, said the BID would help fix those problems, but Snitzer wouldn't know it because he's never attended a single BID meeting. In addition to this, he addressed Snitzer's complaints about graffiti taggers, telling him Wynwood's "not for the faint of heart.
"The problem is the galleries don't communicate with each other ... There is an elitist, nauseating mentality that doesn't promote business. There's the 80-20 rule: 20 percent of these galleries are doing 80 percent of the business ... They don't work together and cross pollinate," Lombardi said, singling out Snitzer.
Nina Fuentes, of Hardcore Art Contemporary Space, spoke from the audience to defend Wynwood's galleries in regard to Lombardi's comments. In addition to providing a laundry list of her gallery's active participation in the community, she said, "We are always there, we only close once a week in the summer and one week in December." When she told Lombardi she never received any kind of phone call or news about his complaints from tourists about galleries being closed, he responded with a belittling mimic of her Latin accent: "It's not my yob, honey, to drive traffic." Under breathe oohs were heard from the crowd.
The confrontation is just another example of lack of communication and hostility between those who hold stakes in Wynwood and should be working with each other but aren't.
More audience participation and calls for representation flew back and forth the room as attendees hoped to settle their fears about Wynwood's problems. One young man pointed out, "You built it and they came." The audience then turned to Collins for answers to planning.
"Part of my job... is simply to convince Wynwood that the city will work with the community," Collins said. "Part of Wynwood's job, and I agree with everybody who has agreed and disagreed in this conversation, is to work as a community. When this group of people understands that a lot of what you're saying is really cliche -- genuine, but cliche -- and uses that as an impulse to reach out to Joe Furst or Dave Lombardi or to other communities and see what they've done, this can be solved. This is really simple stuff. What's not simple is establishing Wynwood as a worldwide destination. There's so much to work for here," Collins said.
Audience members continued to engage. One man called for a public/private sector study in order to bring together key players and make them problem solve realistic main issues. Another, David Geller, who said he specializes in adaptive reused buildings like those of Wynwood, rallied the crowd to applause after speaking.
"I think you have a terrific problem here, so fantastically successful that it now needs to be guided, managed. Unfortunately, there will always be a segment of the art world that will continue to seek out less expensive undiscovered places for low rent," Geller said. "That's where they need to be, but if you miss the opportunity to get all the stakeholders in Wynwood, the people that made Wynwood have the energy that it has right now, you won't create what your vision was. It has to be a commitment by the landlords to keep the district with the mix of people and tenants that made it what it is right now. If you're only interested in the highest rent on the street, all the people that made Wynwood what it is right now will leave."
Attention went back to the panel as Lombardi discussed the ideal progress for Wynwood, which he affirmed the BID could help establish.
"As a group of property owners, we've been meeting for many years. We've enacted things that no other district has, doing it with our own money so people like us are putting our money where out mouth is and trying to create a great district. When it comes to a vision and what this neighborhood is, this is the cultural home for the creative entrepreneur, the creative artist, the creative individual," Furst said as he defended the plan.
Collins fought off interjection from Kohen a few times before he managed to finally get out that this is the "first time in America to try and figure out how the galleries can continue to survive and on what terms in the district, and I think that's the challenge in front of us. Please, work together."
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Jose Nava of WADA helped bring the raging public forum to a much needed close by explaining that these were not new problems being addressed, and that WADA has been working for quite some time to establish a course of action. "We are actually working to create this infrastructure that everyone has complained about. It's slow, but it's there," he said.
At the end of the meeting, Furst spoke to New Times. He addressed the Art Walk complaints, saying it's only "twelve days a year. We'll always do the best we can in terms of controlling the Art Walk, but to classify or generalize a neighborhood after 12 days a year is just kind of absurd. And my hope for the Art Walk is to expose the neighborhood. It's not a bad thing."
The end result of the panel: A fresh rehashing of the same old problems, resulting in petty in-fighting instead of viable solutions. Everyone invested in Wynwood has an opinion and no one has a concrete solution -- and it seems no one will until the Wynwood community actually tries talking to itself.