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Miami’s Art Scene Evolution

Miami— November 2, 2022 — In only a few weeks, collectors, artists, and art professionals will flock to Miami to be a part of the 20-year anniversary of Art Basel Miami Beach. Since Art Basel established its Floridian outpost in 2002, the city has seen a boom in its cultural growth like no other.  Today, the Miami Art Week counts with over ten satellite fairs, including Design Miami, Untitled and NADA; multiple private art collectors open their doors to the public such as the Margulies Collection, de la Cruz Collection, Debra and Dennis Scholl Collection; and local art museums such as the BASS Museum, the Perez Art Museum Miami, the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami present blockbuster exhibitions among other programs. Economists have estimated $400-$500 million annually in related economic impact as a result of the fair¹. Miami’s development into a booming art scene is the result of a community working together, a community we feel proud to be part of.

In anticipation of Miami Art Week 2022, we want to take this opportunity to share a thoughtful article² by art critic Laurie Rojas on the evolution of Miami’s art scene, recent history and where we might be heading:

Seismic changes are well underway in Miami. The recently reelected mayor, Francis Suarez, has become famous for his efforts to lure big tech, banks, hedge funds, and venture capital to the city, and setting the stage for a new era that he has dubbed ‘Miami 2.0.’ As a result, the real estate market in South Florida, from Palm Beach to South Miami, is in what many are calling ‘super-boom mode’ –  and this, of course, is intertwined with the artworld.

Although Miami is known for its boom-bust cycles – especially given its backbone economies of real estate and tourism – Suarez says the city has reached a ‘tipping point of economic diversification and stability.’ Goldman Sachs has gone all-in to create ‘Wall Street of the South’ in Miami, and high-profile galleries such as Pace, Lehmann Maupin, Paula Cooper, White Cube, and Lévy Gorvy have all set up shop in (mostly West) Palm Beach, just 70 miles north of the city.

‘That would not have happened 20 years ago,’ says Dennis Scholl, a veteran Miami-based arts patron, ‘because our cultural institutions weren’t as mature – some of them didn’t even exist.’ Scholl, who was instrumental in courting Art Basel to the Florida city more than 20 years ago, says that high-net-worth individuals from Silicon Valley and New York are attracted to the high quality of life that Miami and West Palm Beach’s cultural ecosystem provides. Many of these institutions now boast starchitect-designed buildings, such as Herzog & de Meuron’s bayfront Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) and Frank Gehry’s high-tech New World Center, plus others by Zaha Hadid, I.M. Pei, Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, and Norman Foster, all of which boost the city’s image as a top-tier cultural destination.

When Art Basel arrived in 2002, Miami was still largely a city of small businesses with a few nascent art museums and no major tradition of cultural philanthropy. This placed the task of arts funding in the hands of a few entrepreneurial individuals who had become world-renowned collectors during the economic boom of the 1990s, such as the Rubells, the Bramans, the de la Cruzes, and Martin Z. Margulies.

But as Art Basel in Miami Beach grew and generated increasing revenues for local businesses (economists have estimated USD 400 million to 500 million annually in related economic impact as a result of the fair), so did attention on Miami as an art city with still-untapped potential. In 2005, the Knight Foundation – a national organization with headquarters in Miami that was established in 1950 to support journalism and community engagement – began supporting various Miami-era arts endowments. (The arts had been identified as a quality-of-life marker through long-term studies of Knight Cities – municipalities where John S. and James L. Knight owned newspapers.)

The support started slowly, according to the foundation’s CEO Alberto Ibargüen, with USD 12 million being granted to various cultural institutions. But endowments kicked into high gear in 2008 with a USD 40 million grant initiative, half of which was distributed among three vital institutions: The Miami Art Museum (now PAMM) received USD 10 million to fund art education programs for public school students at the museum; USD 5 million went to the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami to fund shows featuring artists including Bill Viola, Anri Sala, Cory Arcangel, Jonathan Meese, Rita Ackermann, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Tracey Emin. Beyond the spotlight that Art Basel had been shining on the city since its launch, the infusions had a powerful psychological impact on local communities: ‘These were some of the early endowment gifts that made Miami think of itself as a place of culture,’ says Scholl.

The Knight Foundation’s arts program also acted as a catalyst by supporting grassroots organizations – such as the nonprofit Locust Projects and the Fountainhead Residency – and uniquely, individual artists and projects. The main innovation of the 2008 grant initiative, which has now become part of the Miami arts scene’s DNA, was a USD 20 million community arts challenge, to which anyone with a big idea about transforming the arts could apply.

‘It made a big difference,’ says Lorie Mertes, executive director of Locust Projects. ‘It gave access to the artists and small organizations that usually don’t have access to funding.’ Since 2005, the foundation has invested USD 165 million in the arts in South Florida, including the 384 projects supported by the community arts challenge.

The local scene has also grown from one of Miami’s more recent developments. In 2014, the ArtCenter/South Florida decided to sell one of its buildings in South Beach for USD 88 million to expand its community activities. The organization, which in addition to mounting exhibitions, ‘helps artists help themselves’ through free studio spaces, art classes, and project grants – rebooted as Oolite Arts. (Oolite is sedimentary rock –  Miami’s bedrock –  formed by shells, coral, and other organic material). Headed by Scholl as CEO, it’s since become one of Miami’s most significant art centers, and an array of emergency artist grants were disbursed here during the earlier phases of the pandemic. Oolite Arts also gives direct grants through its annual Ellies awards, with local artists receiving amounts ranging from USD 2,500 to USD 25,000, and a new headquarters is scheduled to open in 2023.

Governmental giving is a factor, too. The various municipal governments from Miami-Dade County to the city of Miami Beach allocate significant sums and see art as a huge economic multiplier. Mayor Suarez has even boasted that more private jets land in Miami for Art Basel in Miami Beach than during the Super Bowl. Hybrid public-private models are a cornerstone of neoliberal cultural philanthropy, but what stands out about South Florida is that so much funding goes to grassroots organizations that are modest in size but impactful in their community.

Miami’s risk-friendly, pro-business approach creates an environment where artistic freedom can flourish on all levels. Philanthropists and funders have learned that ‘the quickest way to build a dynamic scene is to take risks with organizations and artists that have the potential to grow quickly and to a larger scale,’ Scholl says. It might be a good thing that Miami neighborhoods such as Wynwood emerged as art hubs and then faded, only to be taken over by Silicon Valley techies working for Peter Thiel’s USD 6 billion Founders Fund. Maybe Miami will finally succeed where art dealers in other cities have mostly failed: to get big tech and startup people to become serious art collectors and philanthropists, not only during Art Basel in Miami Beach’s always-buzzy run, but the rest of the year as well.

The joining of art and tech, cryptocurrencies, governments, and cultural institutions seems inevitable, and Miami is innovating in all areas at a fast pace. As Art Basel in Miami Beach returns to its Florida home this year, it’s too early to tell if tech-collector fantasies could be realized, but it sure feels like Miami’s magic potion is brewing up to be something good.

Laurie Rojas is an independent art critic based in Berlin and Miami.


¹Miami Beach City Commission. “Commission Memorandum,” Agenda Item C7 AH, NovusAgenda, Accessed October 25 2022.

²ArtBasel. “Why Miami’s art scene is entering a new era. Art meets tech in Miami 2.0,” Article, Accessed October 25 2022.