April 1st, 2009
The Design District As Art Magnet
by Victor Barrenechea
When people talk about art in Miami, the Design District usually takes a backseat to the gallery epicenter that Wynwood has become. While the Design District has a significant gallery presence, its claim to fame has always been its design and furniture showrooms. When some of the district's foremost galleries, such as the Moore Space and the Bas Fisher Invitational, closed down last year, it got even harder to argue for the area's preeminence in the South Florida art world.
But all this seems to be changing now, with new galleries and new collections opening in the area, as well as a few key galleries reopening their doors. The Design District is becoming an exciting place for art again.
"I definitely see that it's growing," agrees Tiffany Chestler, manager and curator for the Craig Robins art collection. "There are a lot more galleries coming into the area." The Design District still has a commanding commercial design presence, Chester acknowledges, but there's an increasing synergy with the arts community. "The culture of this neighborhood was always about design," she says. "The focus was always to bring that back. It started with sort of rehabilitating the neighborhood."
Indeed 14 years ago when Craig Robins, chief executive of Dacra Development and now the premier mover and shaker in the district, set out to revamp the dilapidated textile and furniture showrooms that comprised much of the commercial space in the area, few could have foreseen its transformation into the upscale neighborhood it has become. Rumblings of art activity began as far back as 2001 with "HUMID," a group show put up in the Moore Building (the year Art Basel Miami Beach was postponed after the September 11 attacks), curated by Dominic Molon of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, with 26 local artists participating.
Since then many galleries have moved in and out of the area, as well as prominent artists in search of work spaces. However, restaurants and retail shops have tended to overshadow the production of art. "I think Craig is really making an effort to change that," says Debra Scholl, a noted art collector and chairwoman of Locust Projects. "He's trying to make it into a total culture community."
Locust Projects' not-for-profit alternative space was a major pioneer on the local scene, opening its doors in Wynwood well before Miami's contemporary arts boom. Come May, Locust will move into a new 3300 square-foot property in the Design District, at 155 NE 38th St., near the work studios of some of Miami's leading artists. Prompting the move was mainly unhappiness with the condition of the previous building, Scholl says. But she also expresses some disillusionment with what the Wynwood neighborhood has become.
"Art walk," Scholl says, referring to the monthly second Saturday, self-guided art tours centering mostly on the galleries in Wynwood, "is not so much about seeing the art. It's about the social experience. I think it's still vital, but I do think maybe this town is getting bigger in terms of artists and galleries.... I'm hoping that because we're a nonprofit and kind of edgy and different, we'll make this area [the Design District] a little more interesting."
Locust will use its move to break down some conventional notions of what constitutes an art space, Scholl suggests. Its inaugural exhibition, a performance by New York artist Kate Gilmore, will not even take place in the new gallery, but rather in one of the other vacant buildings in the Design District. Locust's subsequent show, by the TM Sisters in September, will also take place in a different location.
"One of the things Locust wants to do is not stay in a white box," says Scholl. "I think you have a landlord in Craig who owns a lot of buildings and is willing to think outside the box." Because of an abundance of commercial vacancies in the area, Locust and other artists and curators have a unique resource to put on satellite shows, allowing artists to express themselves in nontraditional spaces rather than the usual four white walls of a gallery.
Dacra chief Robins plans to use these extra spaces for temporary exhibitions of works from his personal collection. Quite a few of his pieces can now be found in the lobby of the Dacra offices on NE 2nd Avenue. Robins wants eventually to follow in the footsteps of other local collectors like Martin Z. Margulies and the Rubell family and house a permanent collection of his own in the area, though those plans are a few years away.
Construction is already well under way, however, on a building at NE 41st Street and N. Miami Avenue to house Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz's famous collection of contemporary art, which will be finished and open to the public sometime this year.
Also new to the area is the Wolfgang Roth & Partners Fine Art Gallery (201 NE 39th St.), which opened its doors during the last Basel/Miami with a photo exhibition by the internationally renowned David LaChapelle. Tiffany Chestler calls it "one of the hidden gems in the Miami art scene." Other newcomers include 101/Exhibit Gallery (101 NE 40th St.) and Arno Valere Art Gallery (3900 NE lstAve.).
Also returning to the neighborhood is one of the most prominent artist-run alternative art spaces in Miami, Naomi Fisher and Jim Drain's Bas Fisher Invitational (180 NE 39th St., suite 210). The gallery was opened in 2004 by Fisher and Hernan Bas, who later handed the reins over to Drain. The artists transformed their studio space (then donated by Dacra) into a laissez-faire showroom for challenging and unique artists' projects. "We're really just giving artists a space to do whatever they want," is how Fisher sums up the gallery's philosophy.
The gallery closed last summer, as Dacra had plans to lease out the space, but thanks to a grant from the James L. Knight Foundation, they now have an opportunity to reopen their doors at the same location with an expanded program, if Fisher and Drain can match the $150,000 allotted to them.
The new direction of the gallery includes a Website, not only for keeping records of exhibitions but also to give the gallery the ability to connect with the art world at large. The gallery is bringing in a new manager, Kathryn Marks, who has plans to curate monthly movie nights and to open a small bookstore/reading room within the space.
Bas Fisher has also recently been the site of weekly salon-style discussion groups, called Theory Nights, spearheaded and hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art's assistant curator, Ruba Katrib. Here people get together in a laidback atmosphere to discuss everything from art to philosophy to current affairs.
As part of these weekly theory groups, regular attendees have recently banded together to bring in guest speakers. "It's really important for us to be connected with colleagues," says Fisher. "We want to know what people in other places have to say, people who are doing what we're doing. We're definitely a work in progress but we're really psyched about our potential. I think Craig is pretty committed to keeping it a really creative and vital neighborhood."