Monday, November 23, 2009

Public Art in Miami: Missing the Boat?

How is it that boring and derivative artwork by the alarmingly prolific Romero Britto and others clutter public spaces in Miami?

How is that artcentric cities in the Midwest like Chicago and Des Moines know how to invigorate urban spaces with an engaging mix of greenspace, art museums, architecture, and sculpture by noted contemporary artists?

Why is this not happening in Miami? It is exceptionally hard to understand, especially when we have spectacular public art in the collections of Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County. This paradoxical situation is even harder to understand when Art Basel Miami Beach and its satellite art fairs come to town. How can we truly think of our city as a significant art capital when, after these fairs depart, there is not enough civic awareness of these wonderful public art collections, and we still have too many uninspired public artworks cluttering our urban landscape?

This shortcoming is especially noticeable in the winter months, when Miami's already clogged expressways become even more hectic with visitors. Often they come here because they are charmed by our balmy winters. Yes, we are still the beguiling city by the bay "where summer spends the winter," as a tourist brochure once claimed.

Yet Miami is a city of rampant urban sprawl and suburbs so distant from downtown that they encroach on the Everglades. It's not uncommon to hear stories of alligators gobbling up small pets. Miami is a city aspiring to artful sophistication yet it tragically lacks intelligent urban design.

Why don't we have a network of pocket parks thoughtfully placed among the canyons of condos and office towers crowding downtown Miami? This would be a welcome use of greenspace for city dwellers, workers, and pedestrians. These pocket parks could be enriched by significant public art.

Downtown Miami should also be graced by a substantially artful public park, engaging and open to all. If this happens in the Midwest, why not in Miami?

I recently spoke with Dennis Leyva, Art & Entertainment Liasion for Miami Beach Tourism & Cultural Development, about the wonderful public art collections in Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County. We bemoaned the fact that all too often we see visitors to the Arsht Center downtown and travelers at Miami International Airport rush past astoundingly breathtaking works by Barbara Neijna and others. They are too busy trying to reach performances and planes on time to see the art.

But in their haste they miss one of the most memorable and ongoing performances in all of Miami--public art. "It's really an undervalued aspect of our community," says Leyva. He would like to see "more community outreach making people aware of what is around them. It's great public art."

A great idea would be to create a free application for iPhone and Blackberry with information about public art in Miami, with an interactive map like the Google one and a brief description of each artwork. The user, local or visiting, would download the application and have access to the information in a fast, friendly, and easy way. This could let more people learn about the art enlivening our streets, plazas, airport, and cruise terminals. The application could be promoted online and at the airport and cruise terminal.

A truly "killer app" in this case would be if specially-commissioned made-in-Miami music accompanied the information about public art--not to interfere, but to enhance. Perhaps music students at New World School of the Arts could assist?

We are fortunate that our city is graced by public art by contemporary artists like Roberto M. Behar and Rosario Marquardt, Michele Oka Doner, and Wendy Wischer. We also boast the art historical treasure of "Cheval Majeur" by Raymond Duchamp-Villon, on a plaza just steps from two museums and the Main Library.

Each one of these artists is clearly far more talented than the ubiquitous Britto. All the living artists I just mentioned have worked in Miami, a magnet for creativity. Artists like these should be supported with more public art commissions throughout the city. This is a lasting benefit for everyone who comes here to work and play.

These artists deserve more venues and funding for creating public art. Moreover, we must have sufficient funding to care for our outstanding public art, so that aging artwork doesn't decay. Then we all can share and enjoy Miami's artcentric wealth.

At last, we will be the art capital we have always wanted to be. We will not miss the boat on our own bonanza of public art.

Friday, November 6, 2009

When the Chips Are Down, Miami Plays a Dynamite Hand

Miami has always been a place alluring to folks who dare to dream on a grand scale and place equally grand bets that those dreams will come true. Think of America's Gilded Age titan, Henry Flagler, who slapped the lust for living large into Miami, once a muddy swamp at the turn of the 20th Century. Undaunted by huge challenges, he brought his Florida East Coast Railway to Miami in 1896, paving the way for countless visitors and riches to follow.

At the turn of the 21st Century, the heart of Miami is true to this spectacular tradition. Never mind the gloom and doom pervading the art world, with museums cutting budgets and staff and galleries closing everywhere you look. When the chips are down, leave it to Miami to play with a dynamite hand. As preparations around town gather speed for the arrival of Art Basel Miami Beach and its satellite art fairs, Miami art lovers and artcentric visitors can relish stunning offerings in their midst.

Stopping first in Miami is the traveling show "Guillermo Kuitca: Everything, Paintings and Works on Paper, 1980-2008." Co-organized by the Miami Art Museum and other institutions, it promises to be a remarkable survey of the multi-tasking talents for which this outstanding Argentine artist is known. Kuitca possesses a vibrant flair for melding music and mapmaking, theater and topography. Those of us in Miami merit a special treat: MAM is hosting "Guillermo Kuitca: Everything (else)" at Miami's Freedom Tower. This features his recent art inspired by Wagnerian opera and the dramatic fusion of light, space, and image.

An exquisite architectural landmark, the Freedom Tower offers more art this season with two shows providing incisive looks at the metaphorical and truth-telling powers of photography. "Tetralogy: Lies, Adaptation, Tracing and Duplicity as Identity" explores compelling photography recently created by María Martinez-Cañas. It is curated by Gean Moreno. As both artist and curator have long ties to Miami, the show reveals the city's deeply-rooted talents.

Then there's "Invasion 68 Prague." Documentary street photography by Josef Koudelka explores the historic 1968 week in Prague when Soviets crushed cries for freedom animating Czechoslavakia and the world. With images never seen before, this exhibit is co-produced by Aperture Foundation, Magnum Photos, and the Art Galleries of Miami Dade College. "We found that combining two different forms of photography from Miami and Europe becomes a very interesting mixture during Art Basel," says Jorge Gutierrez of Miami Dade College.

At the Bass Museum of Art is "Where Do We Go From Here? Selections from La Collección Jumex," drawn from the famed Eugenio Lopez Alonso collection in Mexico. Iconic images by Andy Warhol and Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss mingle with internationally-known contemporary art. Co-organized by the Bass with Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati, this show is a further example of how the Basel season in Miami becomes a dynamite hand for our city's artcentric natives and visitors. It is co-curated by Bass director Silvia Karman Cubiña. Of course, this much-anticipated show arrives here first.

But as superb art comes and goes from Miami museums in an era darkened by a historically battered economy, one exceptionally bright spot now gleams. This is the opening of the Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz Collection in the city's Design District. Three floors of richly varied art promise to lure art lovers and students long after art fairs depart. Special attention goes to artists with profound ties to Miami: Ana Mendieta and Félix Gonzalez-Torres. This collection, along with its library, is open to the public for free.

It has all the hallmarks of an outstanding community resource, especially in Miami where museums don't have space to show their permanent collections permanently. "I think people do like to look at a permanent collection," says Rosa de la Cruz. "I do not want to do shows. There's no curator here pushing any agenda. I think people are hungry to spend an afternoon looking at art just for the sake of looking at art," she adds. "It is going to make a difference in Miami."

Years pass, yet this is still the same eye-catching story: To make a difference sure to dazzle, people place spectacular bets on Miami.