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What has art done to Miami?

Look around at Miami’s built environment. Try to imagine what existed before the paved roads, the coffee shops, and the high rises. Lincoln Road was once a lush marsh. And the columns that hold up our highways were once mangroves. Essentially, everything south of the Okeechobee River was swampland, which over the course of a century of development would be dredged, filled, and transformed into a dry metropolis.

Lincoln Road in 1905
Land being cleared to create Lincoln Road in 1905. (Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

Xavier Cortada wants to share with you the memory of a South Florida you never knew. You could never know. Until now.

Over a decade ago, in a participatory art piece entitled The Miami Mangrove Forest, Cortada “metaphorically reforested” Downtown Miami, by painting mangroves on highway columns, reminding residents to appreciate the nature that once was. But he didn’t stop there.

With the help of more than 2,500 volunteers and hundreds of local businesses, Cortada went on to actually plant mangroves in the bay, reclaiming the waterways on behalf of the natural world. This was the beginning of a now six-year long eco-art project entitled Reclamation, using art as a medium to culturally and quite physically transform the city.

“I think art has a job to do. I know many people in the art world would hear that and scream, but art has a purpose. Whether it’s to inspire an individual or reframe the way you see the world, art has a job to do,” Cortada said. “Right now, the work that needs to be done in Miami is not in a trendy tent on South Beach.”

Beyond Art Basel

“I love Art Basel. As an artist, my career has been enforced by it. I have created installations for it. But, it’s a trade show. It’s about selling objects and along the way inspiring people like me. But at the end of the day, you sell objects to wealthy people who are collecting toys,” Cortada admitted. “Art can have that role, but art has a greater role.”

It’s no secret that Art Basel has significantly impacted Miami’s cultural and economic landscape. Each year, the fair brings in more than 75,000 visitors, who spend more than $13 million on hotels, meals, and other vacation expenses, according to the New York Times.

“Before Basel came to town, there just wasn’t this much excitement,” recalled Mikhaile Solomon, Miami native and founding director of Prizm Art Fair. “Basel has opened up the conversation on how Miami can start engaging in an international commerce community. I mean, think about eMmerge Miami and The Food and Wine festival. … A lot of that came from Basel energy.”

Basel, by design, caters to a more luxurious and transient clientele, but in its wake, it may have changed the landscape of the local artistic community in less tangible ways. “The fair didn’t somehow make an arts scene emerge … but it may have led to people to creating alternative spaces [for local art],” according to Gean Moreno, the artistic director at Cannonball Miami, an organization that provides legal resources to artists as well as community courses to spur critical conversations about how art can frame a city.

“I think there was also a silly and innocent fantasy of what the fair was going to do for Miami’s artists, and once they got over that fantasy, they started generating more grassroots stuff,” Moreno added.

The role of art

Art has transformed Miami in a myriad of ways, including the gentrification of neighborhoods, spurring a rise in real estate values, and creatively activating parts of the city that may have once been largely industrial.

In Wynwood, the accumulation of street art was fundamental in changing the quality of the neighborhood, Moreno said. The artists at Cannonball are currently exploring other ways in which art can interject into policy, and politically mold the city.

For example, some artists have been working on a project surrounding the proposed American Dream Mall in west Miami-Dade, which would become the largest mall in the country. “Artists have been tracking all the players, how land was conveyed, and … their hope is to intervene in policy making,” Moreno said. Artists are planning a series of tours and educational performances to ultimately engage in the actual public functions of the city.

“As an artist, you assume your own political identity, so artists should think about where on the spectrum they want to function. Do you want to allow yourself to be co-opted, or do you want to assert your political agency and try to intervene in public processes?” Moreno said.

Cortada’s latest art piece, entitled CLIMA, begins with a series of 12 panel discussions throughout Art Week and beyond. In hosting the event both during Art Basel and the COP21 Paris Talks, a UN conference aimed at producing a sweeping new agreement on fighting rising global temperatures, Cortada hopes to use art as a medium for engaging community members and scientists, alerting them to the recent news in sea level rise and global climate change.

For Cortada, whose husband grew up in Hialeah, the place to feature his piece is not at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Instead, he’s exhibiting it at the Milander Center for Arts and Entertainment in Hialeah, with the goal of reaching “people that don’t have resources or luxury. These are hardworking families that … have the most to lose from the impacts of sea level rise.”

“Choosing a place to call home”

The act of designing a city is itself a work of art, as architects and city planners think about how people are going to navigate and enjoy these spaces, Solomon said. “We don’t actively think about it, but we’re living in these places, and how we live is driven by art,” she added.

Phillip Pessar Seaboard Air Line Station
Seaboard Air Line Station in Opa-Locka (Courtesy of Phillip Pessar/Flickr Creative Commons)

As the city of Opa-Locka strives to rebrand itself, city planners are actively incorporating art in order to shed its reputation as dangerous, and instead replace that perception with the hope of place where people “like to work and play,” according to Willie Logan, president and CEO of Opa-locka Community Development Corporation (OLCDC).

Part of the process of transformation involves intentional creativity in designing built structures. For example, when building new bike racks in a local park, planners designed sculptures to provide a form of functional artwork for both cultural consumption as well as practical use.

Logan is insistent on developing the city from inside out by including community members in the conversations about change. “We’re trying to redevelop the neighborhood and improve the space with the people there, while also attracting new people into the community,” Logan said. “The difference in our work and what you see on South Beach or Wynwood … is that our development is coming from [within] the community.”

Which is why the OLCDC is hosting a number of events within existing structures in the city, including an exhibit for Art Basel entitled Art of Transformation, an exploration of blackness as something far more complex than just race alone. The goal of the event is to draw diverse communities to Opa-Locka, encouraging people to experience the city for themselves and “see that it is safe and interesting,” Logan said.

This isn’t the first time art has been used as a catalyst to transform a city. In a relatively new initiative known as creative placemaking, artists and policy makers actively inject cultural activities into neighborhoods to “strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood,” according to the LISC Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, a Chicago-based organization that works on community development in urban and rural centers. In perhaps one of the most dramatic efforts to transform a city with art, Detroit, Michigan, is slowly picking itself out of bankruptcy by offering cheap rent for artists, sometimes as low as just $100 for a house. This has created a thriving but complicated arts scene, according the New York Times, as parking garages have turned into street art hubs, and an old firehouse has been transformed into a contemporary art gallery.

And as art is built into a city, it transforms the lives of the people who live within it, according to Amy San Pedro and Justin Trieger, founders of Buskerfest, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving civic life through public street performance. “Music on street corners brings joy and a reason to pause in our otherwise busy lives. Because of those two things, it gives you an opportunity to interact with other humans you may have walked past,” Trieger said.

For San Pedro, the question is not what is art doing to a city, but rather what is the art saying about the city. “Art and culture is a direct expression of the city itself,” she said. There’s a misconception that places that are not in the limelight don’t have art and culture, and that couldn’t be more untrue.”

According to Trieger, the key is to nurture that culture. He noted, “As a young person hoping to establish himself in Miami for a long time, there’s nothing more important than culture when I’m choosing a place to call home.”

Who are you exploring Miami with during Basel week? Tag your Basel buddy and mention us on Instagram for a chance to win a signed copy of Xavier Cortada’s piece vincennes from his Ice Paintings: Antarctic Sea Ice series. The original, on display during CLIMA, was created at McMurdo Station with ice from the Ross Sea, sediment from Antarctica’s Dry Valleys, and mixed media on paper.

vincennes