On the corner of a gritty strip of Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard, Maximo Caminero’s art studio lies inside a nondescript white building, protected by a gate with bars. Rows of canvases line one side of the room, and on a wall are scribbled such sayings as “Van a tomar los locos el control,” or “The crazy people are going to take control.”
When Caminero grabbed a precious Ai Weiwei vase and smashed it to the ground at the new Pérez Art Museum Miami last Sunday, the action that Caminero called a “protest performance” sent shock waves through the art world.
Across the country, museums, galleries and art lovers have been horrified at the defiant act. Even his friends say they are scratching their heads. Others who had never heard of him have wondered who he is and what would have led him to commit such an act.
The incident has also sparked wide conversation about the region’s level of support for artists, and whether the region nurtures creative pursuits as actively as it could or should.
Born in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, Caminero, 51, moved to the United States in 1984. He spent his early 20s in New York, then Texas, before moving to Miami in 1988.
“I wanted something closer to my Caribbean heritage,” he told the Miami Herald this week.
Since that time, he has worked as a full-time artist, displaying his work in galleries and museums throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. His work also has been shown in local gallery shows, though only once in a South Florida museum. Dozens of his paintings, with such names as “El Libertad de Ser,” (The Freedom to Be), “El Mentirosa” (the Liar) and “Dejame Sonar” (Let Me Dream) are priced on the website artelista from $12,000 to $29,000.
On that website, Caminero defines his art as “a reflection of thought, where we wander in a world more real, beyond what [is] man-made, everything is philosophy … man creates his dreams.”
A father of four children ages 4 to 25, Caminero says he is a self-taught artist. He was always interested in art, as well as writing, he said. He studied journalism first in the Dominican Republic, then in Miami.
“They are different types of expression,” he said. “With letters you can describe better whatever you are trying to communicate, but with paintings it is uncertain, more free and more open to the spectator to interpret.”
A week ago, Caminero visited PAMM and its politically charged exhibition of Chinese culture and history — Ai Weiwei: According to What? — by dissident artist Ai Weiwei. The show includes a collection of vases, dipped by Ai in paint. Another component of the exhibit features a series of three black-and-white photos of the artist, in protest mode, as he holds a Chinese vase and lets it smash to the ground.
According to a report from Miami Police, Caminero picked up one of the vases and refused a security staffer’s order to put the piece down. Instead he smashed the vase on the floor, landing himself an arrest charge of criminal mischief; he is out of jail on bond.
Caminero told the arresting officer that he broke the vase “in protest of local artists and that the museum only displayed international artists’ art,” according to the police report. His attorney John de Leon said on Friday that Caminero had not yet been formally charged with a crime.
Ai told the Associated Press in Beijing on Wednesday that he did not agree with Caminero’s tactic. “Damaging other people’s property or disturbing a public program doesn’t really support his cause,” Ai said.
Caminero has apologized. “I have not the right to break his piece. I feel sorry for that,” Caminero said. “I’d like to apologize for all the inconvenience I caused Mr. Weiwei. I have no right to break the piece of someone else.”
Caminero said he has no problem with the artwork displayed at the museum. “I was never against the art they were showing at the PAMM. I never said that. I have no problem with international artists showing here.”
But, he said, “the public is not involved in the artist’s life, so they don’t understand much about art, they don’t understand what is a performance. I cannot say too much about what is a performance. A performance always has a meaning,” he said this week. “I am a humanist. I mean I care about others,” he added. “I apologize to Mr. Weiwei. I used his installation to make a protest performance.”
Daisy Baez, a friend of Caminero’s for six years, called him a talented and serious artist, who takes his art to heart.
“The Maximo Caminero I know is an extemely generous, kind, considerate person. He is the one who volunteers his time and effort to help the community. He has donated his artwork for causes, to institutions that can sell it to use the money to benefit children and disadvantaged individuals,” she said. “I was very very surprised at what happened, I think we are all still scratching our heads, wondering.”
Yokasta Vasquez, an official for the Dominican Republic’s consulate in Miami, said Caminero is well known in the tightly knit Dominican community in Miami. “We know him as a Dominican artist and he has had exposure in many galleries around the city,” she said.
While visual artists citywide have decried Caminero’s action, many have welcomed the public dialogue about support for artists, with some praising the local embrace and others wishing for more.
“Overall, Miami is still a very young city, so we have plenty of growing to do, and we have been growing rapidly in our support of the arts,” said Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs. “We have gone from zero to 60 in record time in support for the arts.”
Much of the credit goes to the Miami-based Knight Foundation, which has invested $86 million in grants to the local arts community during the past six years, from small grants to individuals to multi-million dollar awards to organizations like the New World Symphony, which opened a Miami Beach concert hall in 2011 featuring a giant outdoor screen displaying free concerts.
“The Knight Foundation wants art to be general in Miami, so that you can experience art in your everyday life,” said Dennis Scholl, Knight’s vice president of arts. “We try to help with that by providing funding to support the organic momentum that is taking place in the South Florida Arts community.”
Local artists have long complained that few are included in the highly selective Art Basel in Miami Beach fair that brings the world’s top collectors to the county each December. But increasingly, the December agenda has expanded to include visits to local artist studios, and local galleries show regularly at satellite fairs like Art Miami and February’s Art Wynwood.
The impact of the Art Basel fair has clearly raised the community’s appreciation of culture, at least as it relates to the economy and real estate values. Once considered a non-essential amenity, a thriving arts-and-culture scene has now become a selling tool for high end real estate developers, and is a critical part of Miami’s appeal as a business hub, says Larry Williams, CEO of The Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County’s public-private partnership for economic development.
For years, PAMM — until December 2013 known as Miami Art Museum — has regularly included exhibitions by local artists; this year’s roster includes shows by Edouard Duval-Carrie and Adler Guerrier. Miami-Dade Museum of Art + Design and North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art also frequently showcase Miami talent. The Art in Public Places program features many local artists, and organizations like the nonprofit Locust Projects promote Miami artists during Art Basel and throughout the year.
Conceptual artist Agustina Woodgate, who came to Miami in 2004 from Buenos Aires, said she has felt support from the local community ever since she arrived here — from artist colleagues, museums, galleries and others. Woodgate, whose work is shown at the gallery Spinello Projects, was awarded the South Florida Cultural Consortium Fellowship in 2013. Her works also have been exhibited at such places as the Bass Museum, the Fort Lauderdale Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Locust Projects.
On Miami Beach, the Bass Museum currently is showing works by two local artists, Manny Prieres and Hernan Bas, along with outdoor sculptures by Christy Gast, Emmett Moore and Jim Drain. During the last few years, the museum also raised funds and made arrangements for three artists from Miami to have residencies in Berlin and Paris, said director Silvia Cubina.
“All of this is a lot, but there is always room for more,” Cubina said.
Not all disciplines enjoy the same support as in-vogue visual artists.
“Artists of color — particularly African Americans in South Florida — don’t receive the regard of major institutions and collectors because the production of artists of color is done through a certain aesthetic that is different than the mainstream,” said artist Gary Moore. PAMM and the Knight Foundation have moved to address that with the recent creation of a museum fund earmarked to purchase artworks by African American artists.
And a caller to Friday’s WLRN Radio’s Friday Roundup complained about the lack of support and venues for musicians — and assertion that Sweat Records founder Lauren Reskin said rings true.
“There is less support for music than there is for art or film still,” she said. “It would always be nice to see more.”
Now that the region has become more culturally aware, it’s time for it to become more culturally sophisticated, suggested Guerrier, whose photography, drawings and sculpture will be shown at PAMM in October.
“We are in a place right now in Miami, where there could be more institutions with specific focus, with different artists with all types of work, all genres of work,’’ he said. Not just to show the work, he said, but “to have their work properly considered in terms of artistry and scholarly measures.”
Babacar Mbow, an art scholar who has shown Caminero’s work in his Multitudes gallery, said the need for support for local artists is obvious, no matter how much has been done already.
“One doesn’t need to break a vase to make that point.”
Miami Herald staff writers Howard Cohen and Jane Wooldridge contributed to this report.