Wynwood’s Cautionary Tale
HOW GENTRIFICATION MADE AN ARTS MECCA, THEN RUINED IT.
THE RECENT HISTORY OF THIS NEIGHBORHOOD FOLLOWS A DISTRESSING PATTERN: ARTISTS MOVE INTO A DEPRESSED AREA FOR CHEAP RENTS, THEN GALLERIES AND HIPSTERS FOLLOW, AND FINALLY COMMERCIAL INTERESTS EXPLOIT ITS POPULARITY, RAISE RENTS, AND DRIVE OUT THE ARTISTS.
Some people may remember the early years of Wynwood’s development as an arts district, the backyards and courtyards of the first galleries that set up shop in the rough neighborhood tucked between Biscayne Boulevard and I-95 just north of downtown. And some might say those outdoor spaces were the real germinators of a new arts and cultural scene that grew more quickly than the natives, the nation, and even the broader art world imaged.
Wynwood, and eventually the larger geographic and more substantial community, wasn’t a traditional arts center. It still isn’t. It’s had highs and lows that make it a uniquely Miami work in progress. It must be noted first that Wynwood wasn’t an empty quarter. It was a heavily Puerto Rican, working-class area with a thriving garment district that had fallen on hard times like so many urban cores in the 1960s and ’70s. And Miami always did have a contemporary art scene, though much smaller and less focused than today.
But for the moment, let’s concentrate on Wynwood as a place, and as a symbol of Miami’s burgeoning contemporary art landscape. And let’s step back to some of those early nights, sitting around a dimly lit old picnic table in the back of the Dorsch Gallery after closing time, when artists, musicians, and hangers-on would chat about the pros and cons of contemporary works, the merits of electronic music, living arrangements for the underpaid cultural creator, or just gossip.
Brook Dorsch opened his gallery, one of the first in Wynwood, in January 2000, at a time, he recalls, when “there were interesting noises of a few cars getting drugs from the bungalows across the street — and homeless people riding bikes on rims with no tires, and the random bullet casings found on the roof and sidewalk.”
The whole city, from north to south, became Art Basel’s stage, and developed into the largest art event in the Western hemisphere, what we now call Miami Art Week.
But those decrepit streets around the gallery added to the allure of finding and living with authentic local art, and the gallery filled in as a boho gathering spot for an area that had none. And the art was fresh and new, in a setting for Miami artists who previously had few outlets for showing their work.
The huge cleaned-out, cleaned-up Dorsch Gallery warehouse space was ideal for exhibiting big, sometimes brash sculptures and paintings. There were the large sculptures of Robin Griffiths, made with wood and quirky found objects, often with a mechanical feel or element (he’s a math professor). The similarly large works crafted from heavy materials like steel and even jet parts from Ralph Provisero, which nonetheless had a light, ethereal look, were exquisite. Jordan Massengal, whose broad brush strokes added to the unease of his narrative visuals, showed his early paintings there. All were at the time unknown and still mostly under-appreciated.
Brook Dorsch: “Since I lived in the space, I usually stayed open very late, and after a few hours, we’d shut the front door and a group of people would hang out in the backyard and have fantastic conversations under the stars.”
The setting added to the opening-night ambiance. “Since I lived in the space,” says Dorsch, “I usually stayed open very late, and….after a few hours we’d shut the front door and a group of people would hang out in the backyard…and have fantastic conversations under the stars.”
The space was large enough to accommodate other events — like dance, music, and films. Recalls Dorsch: “There was a New Year’s Eve party with DJ Le Spam that drew over 400 people.”front door and a group of people would hang out in the backyard…and have fantastic conversations under the stars.”
The gallery was a work of love, he says. “When I first looked at the space, it was filled with junk and debris. The roof had been leaking, and everything was moldy. You could barely move…. It was perfect! And the deal included the house next door.”
That abode was actually a crack house, and after the tenants finally departed, Dorsch gave it over to some memorable performance art, including David Rohn’s transvestite real estate agent, Gretchen Bender, who tried to “sell” the property.
Weston Charles was co-founder of the area’s very first gallery, the artist-run Locust Projects. He was, in fact, no stranger to the neighborhood; his grandfather owned a lighting supply and manufacturing place in Wynwood, and Charles himself got his first art job working as a sculptor for a restorer who had a little shop there.
But even he was still wary of the location. “It was dangerous, and filled with homeless,” he says. “People only went there looking for trouble.”
But Charles, along with fellow recent art-school grads COOPER and Elizabeth Withstandley, found a nondescript rectangular structure with bricked-up windows for about $500 a month that would suffice and give them a chance to let young artists show in an otherwise small, closed, and cliquish art world. From its inception, Locust Projects was much loved for the alternative, exciting art it featured.
Locust had no backyard per se, but the adjacent empty lot served the same purpose for congregating and mingling. Those early pioneers might have been conjecturing about the efforts of the interventionist architectural collective from Rome, Stalker, which made a model of the Miami River from dominoes that could be manipulated and rerouted like a game. Charles recalls that Stalker handed out cups of coffee at drawbridges over the river and across causeways, calling these acts “mean time” interventions — instead of getting mean while waiting for the bridge, you relaxed. Charles laughs and says he’s not sure people would trust such handouts today.
One of his favorite initial exhibits, a happening, really, was a VW bus transformed into a mobile radio station that broadcast throughout the night. “Was anyone listening?” he says. “Who cared? It just took place and it was cool.”
They also may have discussed some of the first shows from Miami artists like Luis Gispert, the TM Sisters, Tom Scicluna, Ivan Toth Depeña, and Jason Hedges, who would later become mainstays. Charles recalls that the young founders had no blueprint as to what and how they would exhibit; they just wanted to give opportunities to artists closed out of the traditional system. And, he says, they simply wanted to be around art.
Rocket Projects was another gallery that featured local artists who hadn’t had a voice before — and it too had a backyard with a funky late-night vibe and an indoor lounge. Back then, partying with the art wasn’t like it would later be, with swarms descending on Wynwood mostly just to drink. It was more of a place to hang out and talk; the beer and wine were part of the conversation. (Okay, there may have been more beer than discussion of art history, but the point was, these gatherings opened up a new world vastly different from the clubs of South Beach.)
Rocket Projects founders Nina Arias and Nick Cindric also wanted to be around art, to invite others to talk and learn about it, and to show new works. We got to see the plastic “gardens” of decaying matter from Cristina Lei Rodriguez, who would later show nationally and internationally; and works from now familiar names such as Daniel Arsham and George Sanchez. One memorable installation came from the now defunct dynamic trio Jason Ferguson, Christian Curiel, and Brandon Opalka, who collaborated under the name FeCuOp. (They reunited this past September for a performative piece for the 21st Locust Projects anniversary.)
“With everyone hanging out in our backyard,” remembers Cindric, an art dealer, “and discussing art theory on their lunch breaks to everyone who’d made it to one of our openings, Rocket was special. It created a groundswell of energy and manifested more creativity.
“That may sound like a bold statement,” he continues, “but I still have people stop me at an event to talk about it fondly, 13 years later.”
Rocket Projects closed in 2006.
Bernice Steinbaum, recognized about town for her outsize glasses and personality, and her multicolored Asian smocks, became enamored of the natural surroundings she found when she moved to Florida, and built one of Miami’s most respected galleries, located at N. Miami Avenue and 36th Street. Bernice Steinbaum was another early gallery pioneer in the neighborhood, but she brought some experience with her. Coming from 20 years as a gallerist in New York, she already had a number of artists and collectors following her. She also showed work that Miami had never seen, with an emphasis on women (sadly, still underrepresented). She brought us, for instance, the acclaimed work of Maria Magdalena Campos Pons and Carrie Sieh.
She also began to change her emphasis and started showing art with environmental underpinnings made from recycled materials. “People here go outdoors” for inspiration, she explains, not inside, like New York; and the fragility of the natural world was something she wanted to explore in art, bringing visitors with her on her mission.
“I want everyone to do something, give something, for god’s sake, learn something,” she says, in art and in life. “I want us to be transformative.”
Other transformative commercial galleries were populating the neighborhood, including the David Castillo Gallery, Diet Gallery, Anthony Spinello, Ingalls & Associates, all featuring both local and international artists. The granddaddy of them all was Fredric Snitzer, whose artists would become some of Miami’s biggest exports and emissaries: Hernan Bas, José Bedia, Bert Rodriguez, Naomi Fisher, and many others.
Along with the powerhouse private collections of the Rubell family and Martin Margulies, and short-lived more experimental spaces — the strange and wonderful TransEAT comes to mind, where Spaniards Montse Guillen and Antoni Miralda introduced us to the art of food and having fun while soaking up culture — Wynwood was the undisputed destination for new and often compelling art.
That migration clearly caught the eye of developers, and not just to rent cheap space to galleries and artists, says Locust Project’s Weston Charles. “I remember them stopping by,” he says. “They were definitely seeing something.”
Nick Cindric of Rocket Projects remembers that “it was the beginning of something much larger” than we ever knew. He recalls huddling with about 15 other early Wynwood arrivals, “talking about how we could combine efforts and have a single gallery night walk.”
And voilà, Second Saturdays was born, something that became both a boon and a bane to the Wynwood art experience.
Developer David Lombardi didn’t wait for Second Saturdays before he moved in. He bought his first Wynwood building in 2000. “I just thought it was too cheap and too well situated to stay down for long. I liked that you could get to South Beach in seven minutes, downtown in five minutes, and the Design District.” He became a major player in the beginning, helping to shape the look and feel of Wynwood. But eventually he looked around and took note of another asset: art.
“I was surprised to learn just how many artists were working in the area because it wasn’t readily apparent from the streets,” he says. “As you know, anywhere there had been a window on these buildings, it had been blocked up in the 1990s, and every fence had barbed wire.”
That inspired Lombardi to open Wynwood Lofts, where artists and creatives could take an ownership stake in the neighborhood and purchase condos. He also built the big storage facility Museo Vault, an art infrastructural addition to the area, and later leased to some of the more popular attractions, including O Cinema, Wynwood Yard, and the Wynwood Social Club.
The most prominent and powerful developers, the family team of Tony Goldman with son Joey and daughter Jessica of Goldman Properties, had also targeted the area. Already known for helping to revive Manhattan’s SoHo and South Beach, the Goldmans bought up about 30 properties, then sought to loosen the liquor laws so some of those spaces could become bars and restaurants, which they believed could help transform Wynwood from an occasional gallery-hopping stop into a thriving entertainment scene.
The Goldmans persuaded the city to form the Wynwood Arts District, which would initially allow for 15 liquor licenses in a compact area, and relaxed parking restrictions. In a few short years, the once-deserted streets were filling up with people frequenting the new lounges and eateries that were occupying the warehouses, joined soon by retail stores and other commercial outlets.
But Wynwood truly exploded as the go-to hipster ’hood when Tony Goldman launched the Wynwood Walls in 2009, capitalizing, literally, on an already mushrooming — though more underground — street mural phenomena. While local taggers and writers had been covering walls for a number of years, legally and illicitly, when Goldman unveiled his assemblage of walls at 2520 NW 2nd Ave., he launched an entirely new chapter. Famed graffiti artists like Shepard Fairey, Os Gemeos, Ron English, Kenny Scharf, and Retna, among others, were commissioned to turn Wynwood into an international destination.
It worked. Now, along with night revelers who appeared for Second Saturdays, the streets were teaming with locals and tourists. Wynwood was morphing into the commercial center it is today, an arts and entertainment district, with emphasis on the latter.
Of course, new galleries, the bars and eateries, and the colorful walls couldn’t make Wynwood the attraction it would be by the new millennium without the most important game-changer: Art Basel. The art fair not only put Miami on the international map, it sprouted numerous ancillary events, from satellite fairs that took place in Miami Beach and on the mainland to pop-up happenings and home-grown one-off exhibitions.
The whole city, from north to south, became Art Basel’s stage, and developed into the largest art event in the Western hemisphere, what we now call Miami Art Week. There were extravagant parties literally on the sand at the beach, and in plazas all over town, some of which were not even VVIP. Stylishly dressed Europeans could be found wandering the streets around I-95 — walking, no cars.
Those Basel weeks in the early 2000s had a pioneering spirit, a feeling of fresh creation. I remember smiling to the whimsical Cars and Fish massive digital visual-and-sound installation, in which projections along Biscayne Boulevard of dancers and fish played off the walls of the newly inaugurated Miami Performing Arts Center (now the Arsht), accompanied by junkanoo bands, produced by Gustavo Matamoros and the late Charles Recher — with some 2500 attending the parade during Basel in 2005.
And intriguing was a sandcastle installation and performance by well-known Miami artist Carlos Betancourt, in a series of exhibitions that filled empty warehouse space, developed by Omni Arts. En La Arena Sabrosa referenced his memories of being at the beach “with my parents as a child and building sand castles out of Dixie cups with not a care in the world. In this installation, I re-created and re-purposed the experience, building these sand castles — around 6000 — again, not like a child would do, but like a grownup, [though] I brought my parents and some friends to help me build it…. It was illuminated with theater lights with sunset colors.” A couple of years later, in 2006, images of 101 of those friends and acquaintances appeared on stand-up cutouts in another warehouse for a piece called the The Cut-Out Army — naturally we all wanted to see if we were included.
Today there seems to be little room left during Basel for fun, experimental programming that makes us believe something on the cutting edge is happening. But as Betancourt points out, that was a different time, one that was destined to change.
“Like any city, there was less ‘noise’ back then, less distraction,” he says today. “But an artist should know how to avoid these anyway. There was perhaps greater communication among artists, but that was a result of less opportunities maybe. And back then [in the early Wynwood days], because of the absence of social media, the underground scene was still thriving — keeping all its secrets real tight.”
Change was hitting Wynwood at a breakneck speed, at least compared to the first decade of its art existence. There were novelty stores, outdoor markets, food trucks, photo shoots, and Second Saturdays seemed to go on all day. To avoid the crush of revelers, many galleries began skipping those Saturdays and hold their openings on Thursdays or Tuesdays — any day but that one.
In addition, rents were soaring, while art aficionados were dwindling.
It was too much for Bernice Steinbaum. “I found it a little shocking,” she now says about the crowds of partiers. “It was becoming a tourist trap, a social scene.”
Visitors were no longer really interested in art (unless it was pap produced by non-serious galleries, in her opinion), and after her husband died, she closed up shop in 2014. Others had left before her; high costs had forced Rocket Projects to shutter its doors permanently, and major galleries like the French Galerie Perrotin, Lyle O. Reitzel, and Kevin Bruk left for good as well. Snitzer, Dorsch, Diet, and Castillo all moved, mostly northward to Little Haiti environs; Castillo to the Beach; Snitzer south, closer to downtown.
About ten years into its run as an arts district, I wrote in these pages that Wynwood was becoming almost unrecognizable, and for the most part, not in a good way. Would these crowds of tourists upend efforts to foster a serious art town? Would the Wynwood era become just another Miami burst of activity, a flash in the pan?
If anything, the circus atmosphere of Wynwood has only grown. If you like bubble teas and truck shows, here’s your place. But at least, with the support of the Wynwood Business Improvement District, the neighborhood has also turned into a community magnet, with a gay pride parade and a performing partnership with Miami City Ballet.
Wynwood, however, is no longer the arts center. But around it a surprisingly solid arts foundation has been forming. Our museums are stronger than ever. Private collections, now including the De la Cruzes and the Bramans’ spectacular Institute of Contemporary Art, are part of the landscape. And serious funding, from the Knight Foundation and Oolite Arts, is making it somewhat easier to create and exhibit art.
Also, those who were at the forefront of the Wynwood marvel have not disappeared.
Locust Projects, for instance, moved to the Design District (pushed out, says Charles, by property values and “the crazy” atmosphere) and is now helmed by Lorie Mertes, an observer of Miami’s art development since she first followed Locust in Wynwood as curator of the MAM (now PAMM). She has noted its evolution: “It’s evolved from a scrappy, artist-run space to becoming a 501(c)(3) in 2001 with a board of directors to a nationally recognized alternative art space.”
Now with a full-time director and funding, Locust has become a hybrid, featuring national and international artists with an alt-art bent, and still including local representation.
“Locust has been a vital part of Miami’s art scene from the beginning,” Mertes continues. “It drew together all walks of Miami’s nascent art community. Even in the pre-air conditioning days, their Saturday-night openings, their space in Wynwood, was the place to be.”
Founder Weston Charles, who has remained active in his support of Locust after leaving it in the first decade, agrees that a 21-year-old Locust has landed on a happy medium, showing bigger-name national artists while continuing to give opportunities to overlooked and emerging locals.
Bernice Steinbaum runs a smaller version of her gallery from her home in Coconut Grove, and has had a prominent booth at Art Miami for more than a dozen years. Fred Snitzer and David Castillo are in the invitation-only Basel show at the convention center. Brook Dorsch and wife Tyler Emerson’s gleaming new gallery features nicely curated shows, often by locals such as Karen Rifas and Mette Tommerup.
Carlos Betancourt will exhibit On the Edge: The Hopeful Forest during Art Week in the main lobby of the East Hotel on Brickell — totemic sculptures that explore the crafting of found, recycled, and repurposed objects.
The Rubells have expanded west, to a larger space in Allapattah; and Oolite Arts will, in the next years, reopen in a block-long complex in the Little River neighborhood north of Little Haiti.
While most have given up on Second Saturdays, many of the Wynwood transplants and others have replaced it with a Sunday progressive brunch. The activity hasn’t died, just relocated, reshaped, revised.
Twenty years after Wynwood began as a nascent art center, it is no longer the desired spot for galleries and studios. In fact, it is often thought to be a hindrance. But unlike 40 years ago or 20 years ago or even 10 years ago, art is not bound by location — it can be found everywhere, from the Beaches to the mainland, north and south.
Is it all high quality? No. Have we developed respected and first-rate art schools? Not really. Is the foundation strong enough to cultivate and nourish a community that isn’t just about parties, egos, and haphazard backyards?
Guess we’ll have to check back in two decades.