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Emerson Dorsch Gallery in The New York Times

December 5, 2023

The New York Times

Brett Sokol

Gallery director Ibett Yanez del Castillo weighs in on the changes occurring within the Miami art scene.

Thirty years ago, the city was barely a blip on the art world’s radar. Now, partly because of Art Basel, it has become a global hot spot. But can it manage its growing pains?

Their move overseas from London was all set. “We were both 23 years old, right out of art school,” recalled the experimental filmmaker Dara Friedman of that moment in the summer of 1992, with her then-boyfriend, now husband, the sculptor Mark Handforth.

“Where could we go that was inexpensive where we could start being artists?” The unlikely answer was a city the art world had deemed a cultural backwater: Miami.

That dismissal of Miami as a merely tropical getaway has shifted. This week sees virtually all eyes within the contemporary art milieu turn to South Florida for the 21st annual Art Basel Miami Beach fair, an event that draws well-heeled art collectors, dealers and curators from around the globe. The Basel fair, open to the public Friday to Sunday and featuring 277 galleries hosting booths inside the Miami Beach Convention Center, is only part of the attraction.

As Basel unfolds, satellite fairs, pop-up exhibitions and splashy art-themed corporate branding exercises will appear throughout greater Miami. All of this artsy activity falls under the Chamber of Commerce-blessed moniker of Miami Art Week, though virtually everyone attending any chunk of it simply refers to it as Art Basel.

Basel’s spotlight has also helped catalyze a year-round art scene for the city by putting its homegrown talent on an international stage and convincing locals and out-of-towners to pay attention.

Miami has established itself as part of the constellation of cities worldwide known for their arts and culture. Paris, London and New York — also home to major art fairs — had a head start getting into this elite club, with their storied museums and centuries-long commitment to arts. Other cities that started hosting art fairs more recently, including Hong Kong and Seoul, are newer arrivals to the party.

But no one has made an entrance quite as striking as Miami’s. In the perception of many, the city has recently eclipsed Chicago as the third American art city after Los Angeles and New York. Accompanying this transformation have been charges of art-fueled gentrification, as previously low-income neighborhoods fill with new museums and galleries, and fears that post-Basel growth is unsustainable.

Concurrently, the cost of living has soared — a recent Miami Herald-led study found the average monthly rent on a one-bedroom apartment had increased by 80 percent since 2019. Only Boston, San Francisco and the New York City area had higher rents.

A look at separate generations of successful Miami artists whose careers came of age before, during and since the 2002 debut of Art Basel illustrates the impact of the fair and the challenges ahead.

Artists and Other Endangered Species

At the Emerson Dorsch gallery, which began as a living-room exhibition space inside its founder’s walk-up apartment, and now occupies a customized warehouse in the Little Haiti neighborhood, business is booming. The gallery’s director, Ibett Yanez del Castillo, said the pandemic’s surge of moneyed new Florida residents had brought “new eyes and new collections, it’s definitely given us a fresh sense of energy.”

Yet her phone calls from young artists are no longer from New Yorkers curious about relocating south. Instead, they are from the gallery’s own stable of local talents who are anguished over whether they’ll be able to remain in Miami.

“There’s been this push for welcoming a new tax bracket,” she said of Miami’s city officials, “and that’s definitely making it difficult for the working class.”

There have been calls from several corners of the local art world for a new focus on housing. The nonprofit Oolite Arts added a housing stipend to its core studio residency program, hoping to set an example, while the art collector and real estate developer Craig Robins (who was a key force in bringing Basel to Miami), said in an interview that affordable rentals weren’t enough.

“The great thing political leaders can and should do is put financing behind ownership projects,” he insisted. So far though, like the plans to address the sea level rise that threatens to submerge much of the coastal area in a matter of decades, there’s little agreement on — or funding for — a comprehensive program.

“I feel like we’re on the cusp,” Ms. Friedman, the artist, said. “Miami’s notoriously immature, but its art scene is no longer the new kid on the block. So what’s it going to do now as it hits middle age? Well, it’s Miami, so it’s going to go to the gym, get a face lift and buy a fancy car. And then maybe find a moment to reflect. Maybe.”

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