It was close to midnight and Lincoln Road was quiet and deserted. A typical night for the area back in the late 1980s. The silence through the architect Morris Lapidus’ designs was broken by a group of young artists that had recently taken over storefronts on Lincoln Road, as they jumped into the fountains in the middle of the road thinking they were Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni in “La Dolce Vita.”
For these artists, a Morris Lapidus fountain in Miami Beach transformed into the Italian Trevi Fountain, and no one cared they were there. In the mid 80s, the historic pedestrian road became the home and work office for many local artists. The possibilities were endless.
The cultural energy during that time was growing so much that Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine did a story on the emerging scene.
“Miami Beach had what New York was losing,” said Carlos Betancourt, a visual multidisciplinary artist in Miami who started his career on Lincoln Road. “If you knew the importance of having a community, you could feel what was happening around you.”
During this period, Miami’s art community found a home on the beach and slowly transformed Lincoln Road from a “cemetery road”, as a Miami native called it back in 1986, to the thriving cultural and commercial area most people know it as today.
“You could’ve come in 1987 and fire a shotgun from one end to the other and not hit anything,” jokes Dennis Scholl, the new director of the ArtCenter/South Florida. “We used to celebrate whenever we would see a model rollerblading around the area.”
The South Florida Art Center and the New World Symphony are two of the remaining institutions that took a chance on the abandoned pedestrian district a few decades ago. But when they started, artists were the regular residents around Lincoln Road and embraced a community that was open to sharing and learning from each other. This environment attracted many visitors like Celia Cruz, David Byrne, Paloma Picasso and Octavio Paz.
“You would go up and down Lincoln Road and it was artist, artist, artist, drag queen, cutting-edge design store,” recalls Betancourt, who had his studio Imperfect Utopia between Meridian and Euclid Avenue. “You were so excited to walk any day there because you didn’t know what you would see or what conversation you were going to participate in.”
But the roots to this cultural energy can be traced back to a few people and institutions. In 1983, environmental artists Christo and Jean-Claude sparked locals and outsider’s curiosity with the Surrounded Islands project, wrapping 11 islands in Biscayne Bay with huge strips of pink fabric.
This international project hired local volunteers, many who were young artists. Betancourt was one of them. At only 17, he remembers staking out the Leslie Hotel, where Christo was temporarily living, with other young artists and waiting for him to come out. That’s when these teenagers started to get exposed to Miami Beach.
At the same time, an underground scene was emerging at clubs near Lincoln Road, like Fire and Ice, that served as an experimental space for artists.
Some of those formed Artifacts, an artist group that did installations and painted walls. Betancourt remembers having a fake-id and getting into that club to experience performances and “different things that you could do with art.”
“There was already a form. It was architecture,” said Betancourt about Miami Beach’s cultural energy. “There was already something palpable that didn’t need to be created, it just needed to be cleaned and credited for.”
The artistic force kept expanding, and in 1984 ceramic artist Ellie Schneiderman saw the need for affordable studio space for artists.
Lincoln Road was available, empty and had lots of cheap space to rent. So Schneiderman launched South Florida Art Center and in less than five years, there were over 100 artists working full-time in the area.
“Artists are doing what the Chamber of Commerce types couldn’t, reviving Lincoln Road as a bustling colorful arts district in the spirit of New York’s SOHO,” read a story on The Miami Herald on August 31, 1986.
The Art Center continues to provide affordable studios to artists in residency, at only $100 a month in an area where renting a space could be worth over $1000. Exhibits, cultural events and even art classes are also hosted at the center.
“We provide artists with tools to go out and execute,” said Scholl. “That’s what was happening back then and happening now.”
Artists were also a part of the broader community by hosting Resident Nights, which still take place, where the public is invited to visit studios and talk to artists.
“All those conversations are invaluable,” said current resident Anastasia Samoylova. “The exchange of ideas that’s happening and the dialogue is open.”
The Russian artist has been calling Miami Beach her home for the past three years. Living and working near Lincoln Road and the beach influence a lot of her work, like her current project Flood Zone.
She recalls visiting Lincoln Road a decade ago and thinking it was just “a bunch of shops” and walked past the Art Center without knowing its existence. It wasn’t until she moved to the beach and went to the center’s events and open studio nights that she experienced the history and work done there.
“There are some serious concepts being investigated here,” said Samoylova. “That’s what drew me to the Art Center and just being part of the community of breathing and living artists who most are nationally exhibiting.”
Betancourt, who is an alum of the center, credits the artistic energy of the 80s and 90s to the diversity of people. But just like many art hubs across the country, developers and commercial companies started paying attention to the area. He remembers when the first Burger King and GAP opened. In the late 90s rents started to get more expensive and artists slowly moved out.
“Artists are always pioneers,” said Scholl. “They let us know when a place that fell on hard times is about to get interesting again. So artists had a significant leadership role in what South Beach became.”
Lincoln Road may not have the number of artist studios as it did 30 years ago, but it still nurtures culture and artistic expression that’s inspired by Miami’s people and issues.
The 80s marked an important cultural point that added to older artist’s work like Morris Lapidus, Bunny Yeager or Christo and inspired the new generation that continues to put the city on the map with its artwork. It may have even paved the way to having Art Basel every year in Miami, hints Betancourt.
“There’s a group of people in the art world that came here to honor the history of this place and add to it,” he continues. “Why can’t we honor it ourselves and give the merit it deserves?”