Unlike most metropolitan cultural centers, with long-established institutions and histories, Miami-Dade is an ever-transitioning city, and until the last few decades, one without much of a cultural groundwork. But with a spurt of growth in almost all arts genres, the days of second-cast companies performing retreaded work are past. The touring companies that do land here — such as the Cleveland Orchestra, which makes an annual appearance — are world renowned. More often, South Florida audiences are sampling some of the most diverse homegrown experiences offered anywhere in the country.
Much of the recent evolution is due to the $29.6 million investment made by the Knight Foundation over the past decades. Those dollars have bolstered established institutions and made it possible for new — and sometimes more experimental — groups to get on their feet. As a result, Miami has spawned the nation’s only symphonic training orchestra — the New World Symphony; the classical-with-a-twist Nu Deco Ensemble; Miami City Theater’s City Shorts short-play festival; the internationally recognized Miami City Ballet; flamenco festivals; the national teen-artist support program YoungArts; made-in-the Magic films from the Borscht Corporation; the Seraphic Fire chorale; the country’s largest book fair; architecturally notable parking garages, poetry festivals, youth arts organizations and high quality theater companies that often perform commissioned works.
Another key factor: Miami’s world-class private collectors, including Norman and Irma Braman, Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz, Martin Z. Margulies, the Rubell Family and the family of the late Tony Goldman. Their influence contributed to the decision by organizers of Switzerland’s Art Basel fair to choose Miami Beach for their December fair. In the 15 years since it launched, Art Basel in Miami Beach has spawned an annual week-long frenzy of installations, activations and commercial fairs and brought ongoing international attention that, in turn, has translated into support and acclaim for the area’s public museums.
“Miami’s art scene, known for creativity and authenticity, is also prolific,” says Victoria Rogers, vice president of arts for Knight. “What other city has launched several art museums, a major science museum, a performing arts center and a new home for a symphony in a decade? The quality of the arts here, the growth in recent years and the diversity of offerings that authentically reflect Miami are all what make Miami special.”
In its latest Miami arts initiative, Knight has designated $500,000 for “ground-breaking, innovative works of dance, theater and music” open to choreographers, playwrights and composers based in Miami and those with strong Miami connections; the works must premiere in Miami. Knight has also funded development of Commissioner, a digital platform launching this month that aims to connect local artists and emerging collectors via micro financing. These efforts, a new residency program by YoungArts and funding announced this year by ArtCenter/South Florida are designed to bring more heft to the made-in-Miami brand.
Shaping the Only-in-Miami style is the come-one-come-all attitude that continues to draw immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East — even New York and California. “Miami is such a unique place. It’s a city of immigrants and the children of immigrants,“ says president and CEO of the National YoungArts Foundation, Carolina García Jayaram. “Artists aren’t afraid to take risks, merge cultures and practices, and create something new that uniquely examines place and identity, leading the way for ideas that transcend boundaries and influence artists nationally.”
As a result, the city’s art scene has taken on a vibrant and distinctive contemporary presence far beyond most cities of similar size. To Miami residents and regulars, it’s no surprise that the Huffington Post has dubbed it “the new arts capital of America.” Those not yet in the know need only read the explanation offered recently by digital culture publication Observer: “Why savvy philanthropists are investing big in Miami’s cultural boom.” The results speak for themselves.
Since the arrival of Art Basel, the visual arts have powered the region’s cultural explosion and thrust it into the international spotlight. Contemporary museums, art institutions, private family collections and innovative galleries have helped fueled the surge.
“Visual-art production is uniquely 305,” says Dennis Scholl, collector, filmmaker and newly installed president and CEO of ArtCenter/South Florida, which supports and promotes local artists. “First, the private collections of world-class contemporary art that are made available to the public in Miami exist like no other place on earth. And it is a cornucopia of the best, freshest cutting-edge art one can hope to see.”
In just the past few years, Miami has opened a spate of new museums. This year, the Miami Dade College Museum of Art + Design opened refashioned galleries in the Freedom Tower; last year brought the launch of the privately funded Institute of Contemporary Arts - Miami’s Design District museum and the reopening of the renovated Bass museum on Miami Beach. New directors have come on board at North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum and the Frost Museum-FIU. And just five years ago, the Perez Art Museum Miami opened its signature Herzog & de Meuron-designed home; since then it has hosted close to 1.6 million visitors.
Public institutions have built on a foundation created by some of the world’s most highly rated private collectors who — unlike in other cities — open exhibitions to the public. That has enabled locals and visitors alike to see a vast array of extraordinary works, including rare paintings by Donald Judd (Institute of Contemporary Art-Miami), a massive show of sculptures by contemporary German master Anselm Kiefer (Margulies Collection at the Warehouse), works by Mark Bradford, Félix González-Torres and Alex Katz (de la Cruz Collection) and a disturbing exploration of humanity in the Artificial Intelligence era (Rubell Family Collection).
And of course there are the contemporary museums and art spaces, which tend to be the focal point for locals and tourists alike. They include artist-founded Locust Projects, MOCA in North Miami, the newly renovated Bass in South Beach and the jewel on the bay, the Perez Art Museum Miami — all of which feature local artists throughout the year.
This summer and fall, for instance, artgoers can explore works by Karen Rifas (at The Bass), collaborators Geddes Levenson and Annie Blazejack (at The Deering Estate), William Cordova and Lynn Golob Gelfman (at the Perez Art Museum Miami), Sebastian Spreng and Sheila Elias (at the Lowe Museum of Art), Mira Lehr (at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami) and Jill Peters (at Unscripted Bal Harbour). The Frost Art Museum-FIU is showing 12 local artists in “Deconstruction: A Reordering of Life, Politics and Art” through Sept. 30, while Locust Projects has just concluded a fast-paced rotating show of 20 local artists in 20 hours.
Also coming up at PAMM will be a look back at the ground-breaking public art of Christo and Jeane-Claude, international artists whose 1983 installation swathing Biscayne Bay islands with pink fabric graced international magazine covers. “Only in Miami, and only at PAMM, can you see and hear the international art star Christo,” says PAMM director Franklin Sirmans. “You can learn about the symbolic beginning of contemporary art in Miami as we commemorate ‘Surrounded Islands’ in its 35th anniversary year.” The anniversary coincides with the founding of PAMM’s predecessor, the Center for Fine Arts.
Endemic to MIami’s art scene are themes that have taken on global importance: immigration and climate change. Works responding to immigration, assimilation and diaspora are part of nearly every local exhibition. Increasingly, so are works relating to ecology. Artists in Residence in Everglades, known as AIRIE, has invited artists from around the world to explore the unique Everglades ecosystem. Several local artists have developed practices relating to our endangered environment, including Xavier Cortada, who has focused his science-based work on such issues as the endangered mangroves and coral reefs. The art-science collective Coral Morphologic also emphasizes the ailing reefs in images and huge projections, for example the colorful swirling coral video that was shown on the giant outdoor screen at New World Center.
In a city where real estate values continue to rocket, studio space is a at a premium. That’s where low-cost spaces in Little Haiti’s Fountainhead and Wynwood’s Bakehouse come in. Leading the way since its 1980s creation has been ArtCenter/South Florida; it recently spread its wings with residencies that extend beyond its South Beach digs, works displayed in Walgreens’ windows, and just this year a new grant program called the Ellies, awarding an astounding $500,000 to local artists.
Founded in 1985, Miami City Ballet put the dance world on notice when it lured superstar Edward Villella to the Magic City as its artistic director; it is now led by Lourdes Lopez. Over the years, the company has reshaped some of its programming to reflect semi-tropical sensibilities, often commissioning new work. One amazing example was the re-imagining of George Balanchine’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” thanks to a collaboration between Miami-native dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney (of “Moonlight” fame) and Miami-born artist Michel Oka Doner, who relocated the story from the European woods to an underwater aquatic dreamscape. MCB also gave the classic “Nutcracker” a facelift, with bows to South Florida and a live orchestra.
MCB alumni have spawned their own companies. Among them is Dimensions Dance, founded in 2017 and based at South Miami-Dade Cultural Center, which emphasizes local talent and contemporary renditions.
Other companies adhere to a classical bent. Arts Ballet Theater concentrates mainly on dances from the turn of the 19th century Russia and Europe. The Miami Hispanic Classical Ballet showcases exiled Cuban dancers — dancers from the island are often trained in a classical tradition that Western dancers no longer are — and it holds the annual International Ballet Festival.
Contemporary dance is also developing a MIami twist. Throughout the years, Dance Now!, a resident company at Little Haiti Cultural Center, has created site-specific dances in museums, galleries and spaces with architectural merit that play off the art or structure of each place. Karen Peterson and Dancers is one of the nation’s few critically acclaimed companies that involves dancers who are both able-bodied and those with disabilities.
Given our Caribbean connections, it feels only natural that Miami is home to several companies with island ties. Among them is Peter London Global Dance Company, led by a native of Trinidad and Tobago. Brazzdance was founded by Augusto Soledade, who hails from Bahia, Brazil; like many locally based troupes, it serves as a Miami ambassador as it performs internationally. Such is also the case with Puerto-Rican-born hip-hop choreographer and performance artist Teo Castellanos, who won the Fringe First award at the Edinburgh, Scotland, Fringe Festival in 2003 for his tale of Miami, “NE Second Ave.”
For flamenco, Miami has become a home away from its Spanish home, perhaps with more performances than anywhere else outside the Iberian peninsula. Though some come from companies based elsewhere, Miami has developed its own scene, often mixing traditional Andalusian flamenco with contemporary flair.
One such company, Siudy Flamenco Dance Theater, founded by Venezuelan native Siudy Garrido, mixes dance and musical styles, both from the traditional Andalusian roots to contemporary interpretations. Another is Siempre Flamenco Festival de Cante, founded a dozen years ago by Paco and Celia Fonta; it takes place at the Arsht Center and features international stars.
The city has long catered to film lovers through well-regarded festivals. The best known is the Miami Film Festival, launched in 1984 with a heavy quotient of Spanish and Latin American-influenced films. Others include a Jewish festival and a Gay & Lesbian (renamed the OUTShine) fest.
In recent years, the city has become more than a place to watch film; it’s also become a foundry for telling unconventional, 305-focused stories via the screen. That’s in large part due to the Borscht Corp., a collaborative of local filmmakers who also stage a semi-annual festival of locally made films that have been shown at 400 festivals worldwide. Its founders introduced Miami natives, playwright Tarrell Alvin McRaney and filmmaker Barry Johnson, who collaborated on the Oscar Best Picture “Moonlight.”
Newest is the three-year-old Third Horizon Film Festival, which screens films from the Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora.
And the ArtCenter just launched the Cinematic Arts Residency, an initiative to strengthen the indie film community, and will offer two Miami-Dade filmmakers $50,000 to make a feature film.
“The creative excellence of short films has risen to a level that has local filmmakers and collectives such as Borscht and Third Horizon showing up year after year in the best film festivals in the world,” says Scholl. “And the weird and wonderful stories we tell could only come from a city that has given us Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry, from a shark brought onto the Metrorail to a Haitian machete fighting expert.”
One of Miami’s true gems, and a perfect example of only in Miami, is the New World Symphony. Led by conducting ubermeister Michael Tilson Thomas, the NWS is made up of graduate students preparing to transition to professional symphonies. But over 30 years, NWS has become anything but amateur hour: they are a symphony destination all their own, and unique in the country. Their high-tech home, the glamorous Frank-Gehry-designed New World Center on Miami Beach, has drawn thousands of new aficionados with outdoor Wallcast projection of indoor concerts, presented in real time with astonishing sound clarity.
The beat doesn’t stop there. Seraphic Fire, an innovative choral ensemble founded in 2001, was nominated for the 2012 Grammy Awards. For 25 years, Subtropics, experimental sound art organization that holds festivals and small listening sessions, brings in sound artists from across the globe. Newer four-year-old hybrid Nu Deco Ensemble, which has drawn new (and SRO) audiences bridging classical and contemporary music in match-ups that have included such disparate sounds as David Bowie and Gershwin, Stravinsky and Shostakovich.
OFF THE PAGE
Miami is, undeniably, unique — and naturally home to quirky initiatives that don’t quite fit into the usual categories. Like the month-long O, MIami poetry festival that takes place across the county, indoors and outdoors, placing verse on bus stops and walls, and inviting everyone to play poet — or just learn to enjoy them. Or the semi-nomadic EXILE Books, which produces Zine fairs at various locations and promotes independent publishing by local authors and graphic designers. FUNDarte’s Out in the Tropics highlights LGBTQ performances and edgy theater out of Cuba. The Rhythm Foundation has brought World Music to our shores for decades, and Miami Light Project gives room for local multimedia performers to develop their craft, most notably with the Here&Now Festival.
We’ve also had a solid theater scene for some time, with top-notch companies such as the granddaddy of them all GableStage, newcomer Miami New Drama and Zoetic Stage, which often produces work by local playwrights. There are also more off-the-beaten-path theater companies such as Mad Cat and the black company founded in 1971, M Ensemble.
“Miami arts organizations are responding to new audience demands, while sharing the distinct spirit of the city,” says Rogers of Knight. “In the past year, ‘Moonlight’ came out of Liberty City to land Best Picture at the Oscars; Kishi Bashi premiered an original commission with the homegrown Nu Deco Ensemble about Miami; and New World Symphony produced Project 305, a symphonic work with crowd-sourced sound and video. More and more, we are becoming a city for bold, creative collaborations and risk-taking in the arts — a city where art is at its core.”