Artist David Rohn has settled in and been priced out of 10 neighborhoods on two continents, from New York to Paris to Miami. In Miami, he now has a studio in Little River, the next “hot” neighborhood, and Rohn wishes it would cool down.
“When we moved to Little River, the last thing we wanted was for it to be Wynwood-ized,” says Rohn. “It used to take a long time to go from artist studio to artist bar to gallery. These cycles have gotten faster and faster, and now it’s a formula. Before Little River could be an arts neighborhood ... these developers have already moved in and swept up everything.
In the old days artists had community. Now we’re like a bunch of refugees being pushed from one neighborhood to another.”
Rohn’s dilemma was at the heart of Common Field Convening Miami, a gathering of 350 nonprofit arts groups, organizers and artists from across the country who met at the Little Haiti Cultural Center last week to wrestle with, among other things, the issue of gentrification.
This was once a relatively slow and organic process in which artists seeking cheap space settled in poor and/or semi-abandoned neighborhoods like Soho, the East Village, South Beach and Wynwood, drawing culture-seekers and nightlife. Eventually, developers moved in with chain stores and expensive condo towers, sending the artists to the next urban frontier.
Now artists and arts groups increasingly feel like drivers of their own demise, briefly used as window dressing to lend cultural cachet and boost property values in what has become a real estate formula. In traditional cultural capitals like New York and San Francisco, artists are often being priced out altogether.
Miami is one of the most-prominent examples of this shift. Artist-pioneered gentrification has resulted in the explosively profitable development of South Beach and Wynwood, Art Basel Miami Beach has drawn global attention and investors and culture is seen as a driver of growth from downtown to Doral. When Common Field organizers were looking for a place to host their second gathering, a Miami group’s proposal, which included gentrification as one of four primary themes, felt right.
“It was really obvious that the themes they identified were pressing around the country,” said Courtney Fink, co-founder and co-director of Common Field. The former executive director of longtime San Francisco arts group Southern Exposure, Fink was forced out of the area by its astronomically rising rents, and now lives in L.A. “We’re all dealing with the same challenges. We’ve all noticed that the cycle has accelerated. Some of us are moving every year. And artists have realized they’re part of the problem as well as part of the solution.”
Miami hosts were experienced at the complex dance of mutual exploitation between artists and real estate. They included artist couple Leyden Rodriguez and Frances Trombly, whose nonprofit exhibit space, Dimensions Variable, has had four homes in six years including the Downtown Art Center, owned by Miami World Center; they’ve now found refuge at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus. Also hosting was Locust Gallery, a nonprofit that was one of the first art spaces in Wynwood and has bounced around homes in the Design District; and Naomi Fisher of BFI, which has had developer-bestowed homes in the Design District and at the Downtown Art Center and is now “nomadic” — a romantic title for a homeless arts group that presents work when, where and how it can. That the convention was held in Little Haiti, one of the newest neighborhoods to be caught between the needs of a mostly low-income community and developers (and artists) hungry for new space, escaped no one’s notice.
“So much of what we do is obscured by Art Basel, but there is such a great community here,” Fisher said to the crowd gathered on the plaza of the Little Haiti Cultural Center at the conference’s opening last Thursday night. “We want everyone to know we’re all figuring it out.”
They certainly tried, in two days full of panels, discussions and an endless stream of talk during, between and afterwards. Approximately one-quarter of the 350 attendees were from Miami, according to Fink. The rest included people running arts spaces in small towns in Arkansas, Utah and upstate New York as well as New York City and Los Angeles. Also participating were newcomers pioneering in cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh and veterans like Martha Wilson, founding director of Franklin Furnace, a hybrid visual and performance space she launched in New York’s Tribeca in 1976 and ran for 20 years.
The gathering had a strong social activist streak. This was in part because of the participants, nonprofits driven more by ideas and creative vision than commercial galleries, and in part because artists find themselves in the uncomfortable and confusing position of feeling as if they have become inadvertently complicit in driving gentrification, even as they are also being victimized by the trend.
“We often find ourselves in the middle,” said Michelle Lisa Polissaint, programs manager at The Miami Rail, a nonprofit visual arts magazine, who organized the conference’s gentrication sessions with Ashley Ford of Cannonball Miami. “We’re in the same financial place as the community, but we have the power to infiltrate these spaces with the elite, though we’re not part of the elite. Are we responsible for this, and what role do we play?”
At a gentrification panel on Saturday morning, speakers talked about the importance of focusing on what people wanted in their neighborhoods, rather than assuming that artists would be welcomed. Germane Barnes, an artist and city planner in Opa-locka, followed residents’ wishes to build a park before a cultural center. Imani Jacqueline Brown, a founder of Blights Out, an activist group in New Orleans, drew applause for a manifesto that denounced artists’ “desire to blend into a system that revolves around us” with “our aesthetics that oozes gentrification.”
“What is to be done?” Brown said. “It’s our job to ask.”
That Common Field was confronting these issues was healthy, Wilson said. “The art world is guilty of talking to itself,” she said. “Now it’s talking to regular people.”
But asking could also produce some uncomfortable answers. In a smaller discussion on “Artwashing” — a term for adding a cultural sheen to a developing neighborhood — participants listened (via internet video) as an activist from Boyle Heights, an L.A. neighborhood in the middle of a gentrification battle, said she did not want galleries in her neighborhood.
This led to Kathryn Mikesell, a Miami arts philanthropist who with husband Dan Mikesell started the Fountainhead Residency Program. a subsidized Little River artist studio complex now owned by leading developer Avra Jain, to make a plea for artists still being the good guys. “What artists do is so important,” Mikesell said.
These are, of course, immensely complicated issues — wrapped up in still more complex questions about global capital, the fate of cities, inequality, race and other thorny economic and social problems. But for those at Common Field, talking about their plight, and potential responses, was empowering. Solutions ranged from the practical, such as buying, rather than renting, property (like the South Florida Art Center on Lincoln Road and the Emerson Dorsch Gallery, formerly of Wynwood, both of which owned buildings they sold to finance their future); to the idealistic, such as Rodriguez’s notion of galleries that pay artists a monthly stipend to experiment, accumulating a bank of new ideas instead of saleable work.
“Bringing [Common Field] was important in terms of developing a different narrative to being an artist and making art, not just getting an MFA, getting on the gallery circuit and becoming a star,” Rodriguez said. “How can we use technology and capital and new ideas to bring about markets that are more egalitarian?”
After all, if artists, in searching for a way to survive and create, could (inadvertently) invent gentrification, maybe they could come up with its successor.
“If an architect can change a city,” Rodriguez asked. “Why can’t an artist?”