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How Creative Types Survive And Thrive In South Florida

Dimensions Variable

Making the decision to become an artist, whether in South Florida or elsewhere, is sometimes not an option. Miami based visual artist Kevin Arrow explains, “every few months I promise myself to pack it up and take up knitting or building model cars.”

Arrow, who is showing at Dimensions Variable in November, says he doesn’t give up because, “being an artist is an affliction. I want to stop, but I have been at it too long.”

This is a sentiment often heard and spouted by creative people. Artists create work because they need to. But they do not need to live in Miami.

So why do those making artwork stay in sunny South Florida? And how do they manage?

The reality of being an artist is difficult anywhere. There are money and space concerns. As Miami turns its attention on cultural vitality this arts season and in general, it seems that becoming an artist here can be a particularly difficult path. The choice is fraught with pros and cons.

Role Of Money

Artist Bhakti Baxter who is in a group exhibition coming up at the Deering Estate, says, “Living and working in Miami is awesome, I don’t have anything negative to say about it but it’s never been easy.” And as Baxter explains, what isn’t easy is the money. “There are moments where you do well, but you have to hunker down because you have to learn to work through the lulls."

Credit Ocean Drive Magazine
Bhakti Baxter

Money is always an issue for creators. That’s where Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, and his team come in. Though it is an uphill battle, they offer a variety of grants that artists can take advantage of, such as the $15,000 Visual and Media Artist Fellowships, which Spring believes to be the largest of “any local government award[s] in the nation.”

The only requirement is that they participate in a group show of all the winners. There are other art grants available year-round through their website.

Need For Space

Spring believes that a network of support is the most important part to foster. This doesn’t only mean money, but it also means finding space. Miami is sometimes seen as problematic in this regard, as artists tend to get pushed around at the whim of the city’s developers.

Indeed, artists across the country have been deemed important by mega-developers to newly gentrifying neighborhoods. Miami saw it on South Beach in the 1980’s and then Wynwood in the early 2000’s and it seems to be happening now in downtown Miami with newer buildings such as the Downtown Arthouse or Primary Projects.

These venues are displaying and producing cutting edge art, yet when the time comes, they will have to pick up and move on. Being an artist is a nomadic lifestyle. Eventually the neighborhood will become too expensive. And it’s not solely a Miami problem, with the most famous example being Soho in New York.

Credit Claudia H. Munoz

Spring goes on to explain that, “everybody’s using everybody else. The developers are using the artists, the artists are using the developers. The developers win in the end, but in the short term, the developers are more or less giving the property at affordable rental rates, and the artists are taking advantage of that because they really need the space at literally next to nothing.”

Spring offers up property ownership as one solution, and his office does occasionally facilitate real estate sales for artists and arts organizations such as the ArtCenter South Florida on Lincoln Road and the Bakehouse Art Center in Wynwood. But he also warns that property ownership is not for everyone and can be fraught with a different sort of problems.

Role Of Galleries

A city's cultural affairs office has always had it’s work cut out for it. Spring understands the arts milieu and its many moving parts, stating that the best solution is, “to come at this from as many directions as you can to try to build an environment where a Miami artist’s work gets recognized, gets bought, gets appreciated and gets covered by the media.”

But Miami-Dade officials can’t sell the art. Gallerists across the city work tirelessly at selling and many established artists are lucky enough to have representation. This means a gallery sells their work which is the key factor towards their livelihood. The growth of the gallery scene in Miami has fostered the proliferation of local artists here, but to get over the hump, it seems the city really needs to attract international buyers that aren’t just in town for Art Basel in December.

Credit Miami New Times
Nina Johnson of Gallery Diet

“It’s a bit of an island,” says artist Patti Hernandez, referring to the connection between Miami and other big arts cities across the world like New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris.

Hernandez, who has helped put on more than 300 art events through her collective, the end/SPRING BREAK, over the past three years, most of which were free.

“It’s easy to have a practice, rent is affordable, and you can have a job that isn’t so taxing,” she says.

Hernandez herself works with a non-profit that assists convicted felons transitioning into the workforce. She will be working with the De La Cruz Gallery on an upcoming lecture series as well as a project called “Curating the Office Space,” a video series at her online radio website Electric-lunch.com.

Owner and operator of Gallery Diet, Nina Johnson, says, “whether you are in New York or here or L.A., if you’re not participating in a global market, its going to be difficult to have a long standing career as a gallerist.”

But according to Johnson, it’s not only the gallery’s responsibility, it’s more of a team effort. “They need to collectively do a good job, the artist and dealer, because just one of them working hard alone isn’t going to work,” she says.

Miami, It’s Pretty Nice

The greatest reason why artists decide to stay in Miami is the city itself. It’s not like the constant expensive and tiresome rat race of New York or Los Angeles.

Bhakti Baxter sums it up. “Phrenetic-wise, you’re not running around like crazy and you can work at a mellow pace. You get s--t done, you go on the boat, you catch fish and you eat it.”

Nathaniel Sandler is a contributing editor for the arts at WLRN. He is also the co-founder and Head Librarian of the Bookleggers Mobile Library, serving Miami with free books on a monthly basis at literary events throughout the city.
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