Miami: Culture Beyond Beaches

By Fernanda Cohen   Monday December 5, 2011

Miami is popular worldwide thanks to its year-round warm weather, its great beaches and intense nightlife, though Art Basel Miami Beach, which ended yesterday, has managed to shift the city’s attention more towards the arts in the past decade.  

Celebrating its tenth anniversary this month, Art Basel Miami gets enough national and international press to be known by pretty much anyone interested in culture. Mimicking what happened around the Armory Show in New York, Art Basel Miami has also attracted a handful of art movements and venues that now expand on the fair’s scene, giving additional options to the thousands of visitors that flock to Miami each December.   


Left: Wynwood Walls art by Salee Oh; photo: Jeremiah Garcia. Right: Wynwood Walls Restaurant, art by Shepard Fairey; photo: Mark Roskams.

The Wynwood Art District has become Miami’s art scene’s latest extension, though not without some drama of its own. Up until 2002, when Art Basel first landed in Miami, the down-trodden area was home mainly to starving artists living and working on its shady streets. Quickly enough, however, Wynwood followed the inevitable urban gentrification scenario that tends to accompany struggling artists and ends up forcing them out of their no-longer cheap rentals. Art galleries, wealthy art collectors and eager developers took over the neighborhood almost overnight, leaving dozens of ex-Wynwood residents behind as they imported a band of street artists with name recognition. I guess history repeats itself once again, for better of for worse.

Primary Flight, founded in 2007 by graffiti artist BooksIIII Bischof to promote street art, is a great example of this phenomenon. The organization’s main goal is to create a sort of outdoor museum, inviting established artists like illustrators Saelee Oh, Jeff Soto and Tristan Eaton, as well as high-profile artists like Ron English and Shepard Fairey, to paint huge murals in the Wynwood Art District.      

Tony Goldman – the legendary real estate developer who decades ago turned New York’s Soho into what it is today, along with the successful former New York gallerist Jeffrey Deitch (now director of L.A MoCA) opened The Wynwood Walls art complex in 2009. The initiative, which also promotes street art, competes with Primary Flight’s programs and also happens to recycle quite a few of its artists. Wynwood Walls features a spacious outdoors space completely wrapped by twelve permanent, large murals painted by different artists from all over the world; a handful of Art Basel-oriented murals around the neighborhood; a big restaurant designed by Shepard Fairey (right down to the wallpaper, original prints, menus and stationary), plus the recent addition of Wynwood Doors, which features illustrative portraits on rather small murals that are randomly covered by graffitti-plastered garage gates as part of the installation. Some of Goldman’s artists include Aiko from Japan, Nunca from Brazil and Miami-based Friends With You.   

Neither Primary Flight nor Wynwood Walls actually compensates artists for their work, even though neither one is a not-for-profit. (For the sake of accuracy, Shepard Fairey did get paid for his restaurant design). What the artists get is some valuable exposure, especially during Art Basel, plus the supplies needed to execute their work. So, just to make sure I understand this correctly: (Former) graffiti artists are willing to work long hours for free, abiding by the laws, in order to decorate the façades of corporate buildings and becoming, in the process, part of the established art scene – is that right? Just checking…

Other big players that add to Miami’s ever-growing art scene include the impressive Rubell Family and Margulies Collections, featuring artworks by Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons; Frank Gehry’s New World Symphony; the magnificent Adrienne Arsht Center; the Miami Art Museum and the Bass Museum among so many others.

Fernanda Cohen is an award-winning illustrator who splits her time between New York & Buenos Aires as she teaches at the School of Visual Arts and University of Palermo, produces a lecture series at the Society of Illustrators of New York and writes for 90+10 magazine and DART. She's illustrated the cover of The New York Times Magazine, a line of designer tees for The Gap, campaigns for Coca-Cola, Target, MTV, DDB and BBDO and editorial work for Time, The New Yorker, Harvard Business Review and The Guardian.