Miami’s Art Scene: Don’t Believe the Hype

One of Dis magazine and MOMA ps 1's Kardashian look-alikes lifts from W magazine's photo shoot of Kim Kardashian with Barbara Kruger text. Image courtesy wmagazine.com.

Curvy young women in tight outfits sashay onstage in an attempt to impress the judges and take home a prize. Is this a scene from a beauty pageant or an artist-sponsored event at the second largest international art fair in the world? Art Basel Miami Beach 2011 featured a Kim Kardashian look-alike contest held by Dis magazine, MoMA PS1, and artists Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin. What does this kind of contest have to do with art? Nothing, aside from its attempt to bank on the popularity of last January’s art issue of W magazine, whose cover showed a nude Kim censored by Barbara Kruger’s iconic red block text reading, “It’s all about me/I mean you/I mean me.”

Perhaps the quick performance art gag by Liz Rywelski during the contest helped make it more “arty,” but to liken W magazine’s Kim photo shoot to, say, Andy Warhol’s screen tests of Susan Sontag or Lou Reed (i.e., talented/intelligent people, not people famous just for their body parts and sex tape) is laughable.

Kim Kardashian look-alikes at Art Basel Miami Beach. Number 4 is the winner. Photo by Todd Eberle. Image courtesy vanityfair.com.

The fact that the contest was held as a Basel event emphasizes something I’ve noticed about Miami—it tries to seem like an informed and world-weary art mecca when it is convenient to do so. Art Basel Miami Beach attracts thousands of visitors a year. Naturally, many of these visitors are respected dealers, artists, and collectors, but many are also art-illiterate party people hunting for free booze and the occasional celebrity sighting. Corner some average local Baselheads during this weekend and they could probably speak more about David Guetta than David Hammons.

“Every year more and more people flock to Art Basel Miami Beach, people who have no interest in art,” writes famed collector Adam Lindemann, who boycotted the event on principle. “They show up to go to parties, drink free cocktails—the whole boondoggle of free fun.”

Purvis Young with some of his work. Image courtesy browardpalmbeach.com.

Throughout the rest of the year, marketing for museum and gallery shows around Miami is scanty at best. This lack of publicity, combined with splashes of art apathy among the locals leads to under-attendance at museums and other art venues. The food trucks and cafes open during the popular Wynwood Art Walk are chief among the things that make the event a block party instead of a ghost town. A mural in the Design District pays tribute to late outsider artist Purvis Young but embarrassingly falls flat, as the dedication reads: “In Loving Memory of Pervis Young.” I’ll withhold my judgment as to whether this spelling error is quaint or lazy, but it certainly doesn’t lend much support for the city being a sharp urban playground.

Saying that not a single soul in Miami really knows about or cares about art would be hyperbolic and presumptuous, but the front that Miami puts forth during Art Basel week is obvious when you live in the city on the other 362 days of the year. Certain kinds of artists thrive in Miami, artists who refer to the tropical nature of the city and to the Latin American experience. The vox populi generally tends to embrace art that is bright, palatable, and devoid of critique or commentary. Why take the time to understand a work informed by literature, or history, or theory? That takes time and effort, which means less time for gingerly frolic in the sun.

“South Florida has problems with nepotism, allowing mediocrity to do well,” said David Zalben, a Miami Beach artist specializing in intricate wire pieces. “Artists also truly don’t work together here, whereas in Chicago and New York city, it is more of a cohesive community of artists.”

Perhaps the very landscape of Miami’s self-professed culture, the notoriously bad traffic, and scattered gallery offerings all unite to create a dog-eat-dog local artist community. The key place to see evidence of this problem is in the lack of variety in public art offerings. I applaud the efforts of such groups as the Miami Design Preservation League for keeping Miami Beach’s Art Deco buildings alive and well, but most of the public art that visitors and locals are exposed to here on a regular basis is vacuous and nauseatingly colorful.

Romero Britto, Mr. Welcome, 2004, Dadeland Station, Miami, Florida. Image courtesy britto.com.

For being such an alleged cultural melting pot and such a gateway to the Americas, the art offerings in the city do not match the hype the city has created for itself. For a clear-cut example of this imbalance, look no further than Brazilian neo-pop artist Romero Britto, whose background offers a paradigmatic Horatio Alger story. It is nearly impossible to go anywhere in Miami without getting a faceful of his art. It’s at hospitals and parking structures, on buildings and billboards, on luggage and even at the new Sun Life Stadium.

Part of the reason Romero Britto’s art is so popular in Miami is because it is so upbeat and nonthreatening, in both an intellectual and aesthetic sense. Just like Starbucks is popular partly because it lauds itself as a welcoming community space, Britto is popular because he lauds himself as a bearer of good news. Miami, after all, is a city long known for crime and corruption, and it was basically a geriatric’s beach town before the cocaine trade in the 1980s brought in more money and thus more industry. The city was built on rock, and I’m not talking about limestone. Because the American populace largely frowns upon drugs, embracing this part of Miami’s history would be too subversive, so it’s better for the city to focus on kaleidoscopic colors and continue to pump out the same derivative art and bad house music.

Britto’s art is a repetitive amalgamation of cubist forms and saturated colors. Like Jeff Koons, he embraces commercialism, but in a less ironic and more naïve way. He has said, “I make images to inspire people, not to make them depressed and scared.” Never mind that he also lists Warhol, Picasso, and Rauschenberg as influences, three artists famous for their sometimes biting social commentary—Guernica, anyone?

Romero Britto, Kendall Village Shopping Center (one of four sculpture of kids playing), 2001. Image courtesy britto.com.

To me, Britto is a glorified Stuart Davis without any musicality. If you haven’t seen his work, imagine if Dr. Pangloss and Pollyanna dropped acid and then painted their experiences. The art isn’t deep, and that’s why he’s so damn good at what he does. I admire his work ethic, but I admire more the fact that he picked the perfect city to thrive in: an unscrupulously shallow maelstrom of bad city planners, bad musicians, and bad politicians, all of whom have joined forces in order to make their city appear warm and welcoming to unsuspecting outsiders and myopic locals.

“I feel that Miami is trying its best to establish itself as a major art city. What it seems to lack is a definable characteristic, as it seems to be ever-changing,” said Brian Reedy, an Illinois native who creates memorable woodcuts that are inspired in part by Internet memes. “One [distinctive] aspect of Miami, which I view in an observational rather than a critical way, is that it is a fickle city. Miami seems to relish what is new and exciting, such as a winning sports team or a flashy hipster hangout. Unfortunately, these are not long-term love affairs, and what is lauded today may be easily forgotten tomorrow.”

But what about the unknown or aspiring starving artists living and working in Miami, ones who mean well and truly want to transform the landscape of the industry? Despite the city’s fabricated image, all hope is not lost. Zalben offers some practical educational advice, “Don’t get an expensive degree that enslaves you and doesn’t allow for freedom to be an artist. For me, being an artist is a way of life, and dedication to that lifestyle pays off—living humbly is rewarding creatively.”

Recognizing the nature of the art business in Miami is step one. Thereafter, Reedy suggests the following: “Exploit yourself to your maximum ability if you are willing to be a flash-in-the-pan artist and parlay your quick success into out-of-Miami venues where your talent may continue to flourish rather than wither in the local scene.”

It may seem bleak, but for artists looking to make it in Miami, the key is to try to establish a solid relationship in the Miami art scene, no matter how long it may take, and if possible try to cross over into the commercial medium. It may also help to buddy up with Britto.

Katherine Concepcion is a freelance writer living and working in Miami.


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Comment(10)

  • Jane
    January 21, 2012 at

    Katherine– Please let me know when you have time and I will glady take your round to see some of the more substantive venues etc that are worthwhile.
    I can be contacted at jane@artandculturecenter.org

  • Paulita
    January 18, 2012 at

    At the end of the day, really this blog or any blog, art organizations, collections of previews/exhibits and the likes have all contributed, in one way or another, to the decline of art as an acute display of skill or a sincere sense of self expression.
    Everyone seems swept up in the calamity of the industry. Gatekeepers? HA

    @ Katherine, now that I understand you struck your concerns for Britto from a local perspective I can totally understand, I have been saying the same thing since forever. I read your article as a post from an Atlanta perspective which makes it much different, speaking from outside the light. It’s a bummer that you see Miami as wack as you have profiled it, I had to get away, travel and live for years in other places to recognize the energy that is individual and unmatched in the city.

    Enjoy Miami, I miss it and hope to call it home again soon, Atlanta is just to mediocre.

  • Katherine Concepcion
    January 17, 2012 at

    @Jane Hart – I graciously accept your offer of a tour.
    I’ve visited local galleries and seen first hand the insightful and evocative
    art that a lot of artists displaying at Wynwood and other galleries have put out.
    The problem is not so much the artists, I am not attacking them or their vision.
    A big part of the problem is how Miami sees itself both politically, touristically and culturally.
    @Paulita – My apologies if my references to Britto seem like a “cheap trick.”
    I was born and raised in Miami and, save for the two years where I studied at FSU, I have
    lived here all my life. Is Britto a strawman? Sure, in a similar fashion to how JK Rowling would be. But I am not exagerrating as to the prevalence of his work in Miami.
    @artofmiami – Forgive me, but I fail to see what demand has to do with taste. Value is subjective, that goes for the arts as well as for economics. Frankly, I haven’t seen swarms of people rallying for more Britto public sculptures, and part of the reason why not is because they don’t have to. Britto is the candy darling of Miami’s hoi polloi. That does not mean I have to suck it up and not express an opinion on the matter (one which, by the way, is shared with essentially every art critic you can come across.)

  • ktauches
    ktauches
    January 10, 2012 at

    mainstream entertainment and visual culture totally dominate our world. to pretend otherwise is a serious act of denial.

    as a subculture, fine art can choose to build protective gates between itself and this other screaming, vapid and otherwise hype-driven visual circus. but then the gates must be guarded. energy must be spent delineating between worlds. and anyone worth their salt should be able to tell the difference, anyhow.

    Concepcion is astute to criticize such ridiculous spectacles in the name of fine art. but to experience a crude look-alike contest in the same context as, say, the nada art fair or the rubell’s 2012 curation is also a brilliant and poignant juxtaposition.

    I think of how venice or new orleans just rolls with absolute all-out tourism and yet these places can provide solace for the most refined artistic and philosophic experience. . .this is a typical contradiction in our globalizing world.

    -kt

  • Nathan Sharratt
    January 8, 2012 at

    “but to liken W magazine’s Kim photo shoot to, say, Andy Warhol’s screen tests of Susan Sontag or Lou Reed (i.e., talented/intelligent people, not people famous just for their body parts and sex tape) is laughable.”

    Or maybe Warhol closed that loop 50 years ago.

  • Paulita
    January 8, 2012 at

    Yes there are throngs of people who do not care about art making their way to Basel just as throngs of people who don’t really care about music make their way to Coachella or Bonaroo. This however is not at the heart of what matters when referencing the Miami Arts community. Clearly any individual with a sincere and concrete participation in art is not distracted by these trends…..
    Really, I could not agree more with Jane (above). And, I would say taking stabs at Miami seems a regular thing I hear in the Atlanta area. While I never really hear that coming out of Miami, San Fran or New York for that matter, instead I hear interest in what Atlanta has going on. Also, using Britto to represent Miami is a cheap trick and seems beneath any worldly art writer. As a group of art critics and writers representing for Atlanta, perspectives that may be a better choice would be, one of interest, comparison and relativity in place of snark and small town talk. I personally know many people working year round to build a world class arts community as well as I know some of the most impassioned artists who are in Miami living it all year round.
    Furthermore Art Basel is not the only time of the year when the arts are thriving in Miami, it is a sense of lifestyle for Miami all year round including an array of festivals, huge monthly art strolls, international collaborations with Galleries and Hotels and possibly most importantly an unbridled energy of culture and life with art and design being a key component.

  • Jane
    January 7, 2012 at

    This is an easy piece to write…much of what you focus
    on does in fact exist in Miami. But You could also
    scratch the surface a bit more and include some really
    superb contemporary art exhibits, artists, and venues
    that do help to make up the South Florida Art scene.
    As someone who has worked in the contemporary art world
    in NYC, London, Los Angeles and Miami for nearly 30
    years I say honestly say that Miami is evolving as a
    hub for some really great art and artists beyond
    Mr. Britto. (I do not even count him as a contemporary
    artist– he is a marketing and design factory.)
    While acknowledging as true some of what you skewer Miami
    for….I would urge you to spend some time looking
    beyond the glossy, superficial veneer to see a lot of
    substance. Care for a tour? I will gladly be your guide.

    Jane Hart
    Curator of Exhibitions, Art and Culture Center of Hollywood.

  • James Echols
    January 7, 2012 at

    You should check out our organization, Life Is Art. http://www.lifeisartfest.org. I believe we are doing exactly what you are asking for, working to build the art community in Miami.

    There are other organizations that are doing the same, More Than Art Group, Multiversal, Miami’s Independent Thinkers, LegalArt. You should really do some research to find the resources available to emerging artists.

  • artofmiami
    January 7, 2012 at

    Wow you did a great job putting down Miami. There are many that share your opinion and complain about art reaching the masses in Miami. But does are usually the stuck up social elites that are nostalgic about what once use to be the social hang out club for only them and their rich firends. Yes they are the ones that can only afford the art but that doesnt mean it not for everyone to look at and enjoy or dislike it or take part in it. And who says you need to be “art literate” to observe art. In Miami opinion art is is a visual language. If you need any back ground knowledge to understand your art piece then in my opinion your art work sucks!! And lay off Britto. I personally dont like Britto’s art but the people do. They demand it. His art work beautifies public spaces plain and simple. There are no artist at the time making any social statement except for maybe some of the guerrilla artists like Banksy. Instead of putting a city down thats trying to efforts to improve our economy why dont you give suggestions on how to go about pursuing our goal of becoming a cultural hub. Congratulations on your ill conceived article as it does promote dialogue.

  • chris
    January 6, 2012 at

    Miami’s art scene is above criticism in one respect. It produced a beautiful masterpiece of an arts writer.

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