Despite moments of doubt and distress — and there are those — art matters to South Florida in ways that transcend Art Basel Miami Beach.
Where else, for example, would a city of factory-working immigrants who fled communism become the site of experimental “social practice art,” where process is everything and ordinary people contribute to the work?
“It’s not necessarily what a big-shot art collector wants to go see because there is no object to collect, but it’s an aesthetic rooted in community life,” says cultural anthropologist Ariana Hernández-Reguant, a Spaniard now living in Miami who studies the ethnography of Cuba and its diaspora. “It’s becoming a new trend in MFA programs and contemporary art. You don’t go in with your agenda. You let it emerge from the community’s creativity.”
She’ll work with conceptual Cuban artist Ernesto Oroza and the art collective HICCUP on the project — which Monday was awarded a $15,000 Knight Foundation Arts Challenge award — to re-invent, for example, how Chinese-made trinkets become uniquely Miami souvenirs in a Hialeah factory, or how bus benches might artfully shelter, or to bring murals and artist residencies to what is dubbed the second-largest Cuban city outside of the island.
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Oroza, whose work has been exhibited at Art Basel and other international venues, is best-known for installations that capture the ingenious way strapped Cubans on the island make do — “the architecture of necessity,” known in popular Cuban jargon as resolver.
To see how HICCUP affects a city that’s home to various generations of exiles will make for an only-in-Miami art experience.
And isn’t that what truly great art cities do — produce organic works as well as import the finest world-class contemporary art like Art Basel does, bringing European cachet as well as some of the world’s top art collectors to this shore?
Most Basel-goers never get beyond Miami Beach and Miami confines to appraise the breadth of the art scene, which is multilayered and multinational, young by comparison to other metropolitan areas, and a mirror of the region: vibrant, ever-changing, unpredictable, too often real estate-dependent — and sometimes flamboyantly apocalyptic, but seldom boring.
There’s always something fueling dramatic tension. One instance: This year, after a drawn-out power struggle between the city of North Miami and the board of trustees of the Museum of Contemporary Art, came the end of an era for MOCA — and a new beginning.
Before the disagreements over control and vision for the museum and the ensuing legal fight, MOCA enjoyed the patronage of some of the area’s top art collectors, and the highly stylized works of emerging and mid-career artists were exhibited there. In the recent settlement, the city kept the museum name and 70 percent of the collection, but the most powerful trustees left, along with significant artworks.
The departing collector-trustees have already created a new museum — the Institute of Contemporary Art, now in loaned space but soon to be housed in splashy new quarters in the Design District.
As a result, MOCA is sadly missing for the first time in 13 years from the official Art Basel Miami Beach must-see VIP line-up.
But this is survivor territory.
MOCA is shaping another brand of programming, one that the city feels is more in line with North Miami’s underserved and largely African-American and Haitian community, and the museum has a slate of new and old supporters. The last show was well-received, and on Monday night, MOCA held the Basel-timed opening of a new show by a Nigerian artist, Shifting Paradigm: The Art of George Edozie.
A Nigerian monarch, welcomed as a special guest, spoke of art as a force for community transformation.
MOCA’s new city manager-appointed director, Babacar M’Bow, had no qualms in expressing on the museum’s website that he’s no fan of the contemporary art world’s obsession with the famous French artist Marcel Duchamp, whose works are often required reference for American and European artists.
He believes the Edozie show “moves away from the rehashing ad nauseam of Duchamp’s exhibiting of a urinal without realizing that has lost all its subversive power.”
“This exhibition,” he wrote, “presents works that still retain the power of liberation.”
Words that may not go over well with the European and U.S. establishment, but that’s so irreverently Miami.
As for the defecting trustees, their privately funded ICA will surely be the new player to watch.
It’s expected to compete with the splendid year-old Pérez Art Museum Miami because ICA will showcase what PAMM lacks — the outstanding work amassed by top Miami collectors like auto magnate Norman Braman and his wife, Irma, who didn’t want to participate in PAMM, partly funded with tax money.
Of such growing pains — endings and new beginnings, arrivals and departures — this art scene has been made.
No matter how loud the naysayers who’ve made an art out of reducing Miami’s hard-earned place in the art world, we wouldn’t have it any other way.