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Did Art Basel Devastate The Local Arts Scene? Or Did NY Times Get It Wrong?

Al Diaz
Miami Herald

Under the headline "Those Artsy Early Birds Flew Away," the New York Times this week sketches a history of Art Basel Miami Beach as an ill-conceived money storm that transformed too much, delivered too little and ultimately devastated - and then scattered - the local art scene.

"The city's cultural milieu has been undeniably transformed," wrote the Times' Brett Sokol. "But beyond the splashy galas surrounding the fair's kickoff on Wednesday, and the expensive new centers for art like the waterfront Perez Art Museum Miami and the planned home for the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, many local artists and dealers remain deeply dissatisfied."

'Art Basel Miami Beach...transformed too much, delivered too little and ultimately devastated, and then scattered, the local art scene.'

Art Basel was to be a yearly festival that would also seed a year-round art ecology. Galleries would open. Local artists could exhibit to out-of-town collectors, not just at Art Basel's main site at the Miami Beach Convention Center but at any of the dozens of satellite fairs that radiated outward through South Florida.

But locals were frozen out of the main fair at the convention center, the Times asserts, and few collectors were interested in straying far from the continuous party in Miami Beach. The money was absolutely flowing, the Times said. But instead of enriching local artists, it eliminated their markets, gentrified their neighborhoods, priced their apartments and studios out of reach and finally drove them out of town.

The story presents a view of Art Basel as a parable of income inequality, a rising tide that lifted the one percent but visited calamity on the artistic working class.

The Times piece drew a hot response but not a full-on rejection from leaders of the local and state art bureaucracies. They agreed Art Basel may have arrived in Miami before its time, but they insisted the local arts scene is thriving and the Times hasn’t yet come to grips with the new itinerant lives of artists.

"It's the way of the world now," said Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade County's Department of Cultural Affairs. "Artists are going to move around, they’re going to look for opportunities in other places."

But he said the artists also come back, and he cited a recent Miami Herald story about artists re-populating the Little River neighborhood with new studios and workspaces. According to Spring, these are high-caliber artists with local and international reputations who have chosen to work in Miami.

Credit Al Diaz / Miami Herald
Miami Herald
TRANSPLANTS Art Basel has driven artists out of Wynwood, according to the New York Times. But Castillo, Aramis Gutierrez and Loriel Beltran have only gone as far as Little River.

"That really refutes the New York Times point of view that many artists are moving away because they can't make a living in Miami," Spring said.

But Spring's analysis of the Art Basel effect was less resolute. "We're stacked up against cities that have had hundreds of years to put their infrastructure in place. We're virtually in the first generation of life as a metropolitan area and an arts hub," Spring said. "So, we’re racing to put up the infrastructure to keep up with the phenomenal growth that's going on here."

Not that there is no infrastructure. Sandy Shaughnessy, director of the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, said the viability of individual artists is an actual state concern. Florida provides funding and fellowships and even offers "creative capital" workshops for artists to learn the basics of the art business and marketing their work.

"Without the individual artists, there is no theater, there is no museum, there is no performing arts center," Shaughnessy said.

During a recent visit to Miami, chairman Jane Chu of the National Endowment for the Arts suggested another boat that the New York Times may have missed. It's about art itself and how the perceived excesses of Art Basel and the physical paintings and sculptures that collectors buy and carry away may be beside the point of advancing modernity.

"The ways people participate in arts are expanding," she explained in an interview. "Most Americans participate through electronic media -- the creation of videos, photography, and even sending and sharing with others. So, if you look at arts in Miami in only one way, we don't get to see the breadth and diversity of how people participate in the arts."

"With arts comes a heartbeat and pulse of the area," Chu said. "Art Basel can bring the community together to feel the vibrancy."

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