For five years, visual artists Leyden Rodriguez Casanova and Frances Trombly were happily ensconced in a rent-free studio in the Design District, adding to the cachet that helped the neighborhood boom as a cultural destination.
As their landlord and patron, developer Craig Robins, began transforming the area into a luxury shopping destination, the couple went looking for a new home. They tried Miami Beach, Wynwood and Little River before moving last summer to Miami’s next cultural frontier: Downtown.
Their studio-gallery, Dimensions Variable, is an anchor tenant in the DWNTWN Arthouse, a 20,000-square-foot building just south of the I-395 overpass on Northeast First Avenue. Its owner, Miami Worldcenter, a high-end residential-retail complex planned for the Park West warehouse district, welcomed the couple and other artists and galleries with free rent for two years. The company hopes that tenants like Casanova, Trombly and fellow Design District refugees Naomi Fisher, Jim Drain and their nonprofit Bas Fisher Invitational gallery will generate the same kind of attention and excitement that made areas north of downtown hipster hot spots.
Casanova and Trombly know they’re being used, but say the relationship works both ways.
“It seems like a lot of [artists] take on the victimization in this narrative, but there’s an exchange happening here, Casanova says. “We’re able to produce work in a space that would cost money otherwise, and have more funds to put into our work and the community.”
The familiar cycle of gentrification has played out in Coconut Grove, South Beach, the Design District and Wynwood. Artists move into rundown areas, lured by cheap rent and empty space. Their energy and creativity lure crowds, followed by developers, chain stores and rising real-estate values, which send the artists looking for the next cheap and happening neighborhood.
The latest version of this narrative is playing out a little differently, as developers and civic leaders seek out artists not only to encourage gentrification but to enhance downtown Miami’s profile as an arts center.
The process gains momentum this season as two cultural pillars, Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, are joined by the Perez Art Museum Miami, which opens in December, and the National YoungArts Foundation, which launches live programming at its new Bacardi Building home in November.
With three dozen buildings and more than 9,000 housing units in the works. the area is in the middle of a real estate boom. And the Downtown Development Authority has embraced the arts as an essential part of the mix.
“The first goal of the DDA’s master plan is to enhance downtown’s position as a business and cultural center of the Americas,” says Sonja Bogensperger, who heads the agency’s effort to boost the arts in downtown.
“To enhance and position Miami as a cultural center is the next logical step. There is a creative ecosystem downtown that is unique… and that will change the how the world looks at Miami.”
The Perez Art Museum opens during Art Basel with a performance and installation by the West Coast group Los Jaichackers and an exhibit by famed Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. With terraces overlooking Biscayne Bay and Museum (formerly Bicentennial) Park and an extensive slate of live programming, PAMM aims to be an important part of downtown – and Miami’s cultural life, says Emily Mello, deputy director of education and public programming.