Miami-Dade County

Who should pay for public art? Miami might make developers ante up millions

A view of one of the two sculptures designed by Alice Aycock at traffic circle on Segovia Street and Biltmore Way in Coral Gables in 2016.
A view of one of the two sculptures designed by Alice Aycock at traffic circle on Segovia Street and Biltmore Way in Coral Gables in 2016. Miami Herald File

An ambitious, controversial and long-stalled plan by Miami city planners to tap into private development to pay for a wide-ranging expansion of public art now appears poised for approval, though it remains dogged by objections from developers and some prominent skeptics in the local art community.

The proposal, which seeks to build on Miami-Dade County’s widely praised Art in Public Places program, would require developers to set aside a percentage of construction budgets of over $3 million to finance the installation of artworks at their projects or in other locations around the city. The long-established Miami-Dade program, like many others around the United States, already requires a set-aside from public and public-private partnership projects across the county for art the public can enjoy.

The city says that adding purely private projects into the mix would generate around $14 million a year within Miami’s boundaries, compared to just $440,000 if limited to projects using public money. Most of that, or around $9 million, would go toward the purchase of art, but the balance would also cover financial support for arts groups in economically challenged communities and grants for renovation of historic buildings.

Backers have pitched the expansion, in the works for more than a year, as both a source of cultural enrichment for the city and an economic-development catalyst that would boost the fortunes of Miami artists and the long-term value of real-estate projects.

“It takes us to the next level,” said Luciana Lamardo Gonzalez, the city’s assistant planning director. “It’s about creating the Miami we have always envisioned. It’s going to create a lot of opportunity for the city.”

Miami commissioners, after kicking back the original version of the proposal for revisions that would reduce the financial impact on private projects, approved a tweaked version in June on first reading. A second and final vote is set for Thursday. Early this year, the commission approved a plan to have the city take over administration of the county public-art program inside municipal boundaries.

Commissioner Francis Suarez, widely presumed to be the city’s next mayor because he’s running without significant opposition, has expressed reservations about the financial impact of the private development set-aside on the real estate industry as the market slows down. But all five commissioners voted in favor in June, though approval came in two separate 4-0 votes because the plan is split into two amendments, and Suarez was not at the dais for one vote and Commissioner Frank Carollo was away for the other.

Critics of the plan, including representatives of the building and development industry and some leading artistic voices, hope commissioners will hit the pause button.

In a letter to the city, Truly Burton, vice president of the Builders Association of South Florida, said the set-aside amounts to an “art tax” that would increase the cost of housing and commercial leases and impose new regulatory burdens on developers. Burton’s letter also notes that many developers already include art in their projects, and argued the city should instead provide “incentives” if it wants more of that to happen, but doesn’t provide specific measures.

Some in Miami’s art community have also raised doubts about the program. They include gallerist Nina Johnson and Books Bischoff, a partner in art organization Primary, both of whom played key roles in the rise of the Wynwood art district through support of emerging art and young artists.

Because the program establishes a high bar for valuation of art, they worry it could cut out young local artists without an extensive record of sales. Johnson also complained in an interview that city planners did not widely consult with Miami’s art community in designing the program, and that few know much about how it will work.

She also questions whether the city should have broad authority over the selection of art that developers will be asked to pay for. Proposed works of art would be approved by a board comprising experts and community representatives appointed by elected officials.

“I think it’s difficult to regulate taste, and it puts a tremendous burden on the private sector to ask that art they place in their private buildings be OK’d by a city panel,” she said.

Three different proposals could change the look of underpasses in several Miami neighborhoods.

Wynwood developers, meanwhile, have asked the city to exempt their neighborhood, which they note already includes substantial artwork in projects — but because it’s often mural art that is meant to be replaced doesn’t meet the program’s standards. The city agreed to allow the Wynwood Design Review Committee, which reviews development projects, to develop its own guidelines.

But the board of the Wynwood Business Improvement District, an autonomous city agency, voted to rescind its support of the program on Wednesday because the city would not guarantee it will accept those separate standards or permit neighborhood developers to choose their own brand of art.

The city plan does have support from some other prominent local art voices, including the Perez Art Museum Miami and Locust Projects, another pioneering Wynwood art organization, now based in the Design District, that promotes experimental exhibitions.

Locust Projects director Lorie Mertes said the program will in fact increase opportunities for young and established Miami artists. Projects could include several pieces by emerging artists, for instance, to satisfy the program’s dollar-value requirements, she said.

“I think it’s going to add exponentially to the cultural landscape of Miami,” Mertes said. “The opportunities for artists locally are absolutely built into the program. They’ve done a lot of really great research and it shows a lot of forward thinking.”

Several Miami-Dade municipalities have public-art programs that tap private projects, including Doral and Coral Gables. So do some major U.S. cities like Los Angeles, which Miami city planner Efren Nunez used as models for the city’s plan.

Gables cultural arts director Dona Spain said the city’s 10-year-old program has included both Miami and national-caliber artists.

“It seems to work really well,” Spain said. “There hasn’t been that much controversy from artists or developers.”

The revised Miami plan would require private developers to set aside a percentage of hard construction costs for both new construction and renovations, stepping up in tiers according to budget totals. Projects ranging from $3 million to $5 million would contribute half a percent, for instance, while those topping out at over $15 million would need set aside 1.25 percent.

Developers would have the choice of commissioning or buying art to place in their projects, or paying a lower percentage into a city fund that would finance public art to be installed around the city in accordance with a master plan that is still to be developed.

But one prominent land-use attorney who represents developers said most builders would simply pay the lower fee and avoid the complications of hearings and approvals inherent in putting art in their projects.

Attorney Steve Wernick argued that would have the effect of discouraging the incorporation of art in private buildings and leave too much sway over the selection of public art in the hands of the city.