From Range Rover shop to arts space: How two locals created the Miami Urban Contemporary Experience

Miami’s art scene has experienced a kind of rebirth in recent years, as museums from North Miami to Coral Gables showcase groundbreaking work from local and international artists, and host important discussions. 

But as art spaces have become pricier, and harder to maintain, in areas like downtown Miami, Wynwood and South Beach, there’s also been a push for artists — especially artists of color — to carve out their own spaces in overlooked communities.

That’s what the co-founders of the Miami Urban Contemporary Experience have set out to do in Little Haiti. Local creatives Ashlee Thomas and Bart Mervil opened the events and arts space in January and have hosted everything from vegan takeovers to drum circles at the MUCE campus.

We chatted with them about how the space came to be, the artists they want to showcase, and what they hope to do in the future.

THE HISTORY: Ashlee and Bart both grew up in Miami and pursued different creative endeavors: she studied dance and theater and he was involved in film and production. They happened to connect when Bart was planning an exhibition at the Jazz in the Gardens music festival.

He was looking for sponsors and reached out to Ashlee, who was running marketing for Liberty City’s African Heritage Cultural Arts Center at the time. They connected to make the event happen and then started to receive offers from other event producers to do pop-up exhibitions. From there, they decided to start their own business.

“Had he not walked into that space, I would have been in New York or Los Angeles,” Ashlee said. “But the right person walked in and said, ‘Hey, do you want to try something new?’ And that’s all she wrote.”

They put on their first big event in Little Haiti at Chef Creole during Art Basel in 2015. Shortly after, the duo became resident artists at the Little Haiti Cultural Center.

MUCE moved into its current space, 246 NW 54th Street, in July 2018 and officially opened to the public this past January.  

“It was a Range Rover mechanic shop that was transitioned into an art space,” Ashlee said.

WHAT THEY’RE HOPING FOR: The co-founders hope that MUCE can provide a showcase of what they call Miami’s “heritage neighborhoods.” They define those as “overlooked or inner-city communities” like Liberty City, Overtown, Goulds, and Opa-locka, with untapped potential and creatives looking for a safe space to show and develop their work.

“One of the challenges in Miami is workspace for artists and a location where people can have privacy and host events,” Ashlee said. “I think the culture, to say it bluntly, can get shut out of a lot of different places.” 

They also place an emphasis on showcasing art and culture from the African diaspora, including African American, Caribbean and Afro-Latin artists to West African creatives. 

“For us it was about filling in the void to make sure we have a voice,” Bart said.

WHAT THEY’VE DONE SO FAR: In the past four years they’ve hosted multiple pop-up exhibits and events from South Dade up to Pompano Beach, including three shows during recent Art Basel festivals called “Now or Neverland.” Each year the shows focused on different themes including: recasting city life through childlike eyes, showcasing how art and politics intersect, and an ode to hip-hop and art’s role in that culture.

And since opening their Little Haiti space they’ve hosted drum circles, vegan food takeovers, full moon parties, and several shows featuring artists like: muralist Nate Dee, photographer Woosler Delisfort, artists Sandra Dessalines and Alix Gaulcghier, and many more. 

They’ve also continued their pop-up exhibits at events like the People Matter Fest earlier this year. Bart says they’re proud to continue that work but really get joy out of building and developing the MUCE campus. 

“We produce shows for others but we decided that we need to bring that here to our community,” Bart said. “You know they say ‘If you build it, they will come’ and this is a true testament to that.”

HOW TO CHECK IT OUT: You can follow MUCE on Facebook, and Instagram. And check out their latest exhibition “Nate Dee: Indompte” running through Aug. 23.