Miami's art scene is changing the game

Interactive installations, avant-garde performances, and celebrity-driven festivals are transforming Miami into a mecca for creatives.

WORDS Francisco Alvarado
July 2017
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Dressed in swimming trunks and a green hospital smock, I’m standing in line at the shallow end of the pool of the Standard Spa Miami Beach hotel. About a dozen other people stand on either side of me wearing similar attire. We’ve all been handed tendril-like flotation devices and snorkeling masks that have been blacked out with spray paint. Miami visual-performance artist and filmmaker Jillian Mayer waits on the deck near the deep end. Behind her, a powerboat cuts across Biscayne Bay. Two voluptuous models pose for a photographer on the bow.

Mayer is wearing a white flowy dress and beckoning us into the water, like a siren from the deep blue sea. Pantomiming with her hands, she instructs us to put on the masks and go under. My head is completely submerged as I float facedown. Through an underwater speaker system, the artist’s soothing voice rushes my ears for roughly 16 minutes as I float around with the others like a school of manatees gathering around a dock.

“A ripple,” Mayer says. “A current. The very longest swell in the ocean I suspect carries the deepest memory; the information of actions. Free floating. Free data. Intertwined in the invisible, but the important. Thanks for your attention. Breathe in. Breathe out.”

To a casual observer, this may seem like I’m participating in some new-age spiritual-cleansing session and that Mayer is my introspective guide to a better sense of self. Actually, this is a performance piece that Mayer created for the O, Miami Poetry Festival, an annual event that devises quirky ways to present the literary form to the city’s masses. It also speaks to the transformative power of Miami, a place that has been shape-shifting since its founding more than two centuries ago.

In its current iteration, Miami is fast becoming an international cosmopolis where art — you must check out the Pérez Art Museum — fashion, sports, architecture and music intersect at the highest levels, providing a vibrant palette for ingénues like Mayer to tell stories about the city without having to leave it for the bigger lights of New York and Los Angeles.

“It’s a city that is bubbling and fomenting in wonderful ways,” says Ellen Salpeter, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Miami. “It’s become a place for an exchange of ideas and a new hub for trends.”

After more than 20 years working in New York, Salpeter took the helm at ICA Miami in December 2015, at a critical moment for the nascent museum. Construction is underway for ICA Miami’s new 37,500-square-foot building, designed by Spanish firm Aranguren + Gallegos Arquitectos and local architect Wolfberg Alvarez. The site, in Miami’s Design District, will also have a 15,000-square-foot sculpture garden when it is finished next year.

Being on the ground floor of a new arts institution as Miami continues its cultural revival, Salpeter says, influenced her decision to leave the Big Apple. “I am interested in places that are not just about cultural consumption but also cultural promotion. ICA is clearly an opportunity to create an institution that will be valued globally and that will also really be a local amenity and local resource. People are very excited everywhere I go.”

Its location in the Design District allows ICA Miami to create a synergy with private art galleries like the De La Cruz Collection. There is also a growing roster of luxury brands in the neighborhood, including Armani, Burberry, Lanvin, Piaget and Valentino. “We have a relationship with the private collections,” she says. “We are also looking forward to working closely with the retailers, many of whom have long supported the arts in other markets.”

The Design District also offers a thriving food scene, inspired by celebrity chefs like Michael Schwartz and Dena Marino, whose MC Kitchen has become Salpeter’s go-to spot. “It’s across the street from our temporary home,” she says. “It’s the place I visit most often.”

Not far from the Design District, in the burgeoning neighborhood of the Upper Eastside — where Miami Modernist architecture (MiMo) reigns — you’ll find P. Scott Cunningham, founder of the O, Miami Poetry Festival and another major player in Miami’s cultural evolution. From its 2011 inception, the organization has sought to move Miami beyond the tired tropes of the 1980s, when people viewed the city as a crime and party town.


“It really is a dynamic place that is misunderstood in the same way that poetry is dynamic and misunderstood,” Cunningham says. “We try to incorporate people into the festival as creative anchors, not just as passive audience members.”

During its five-year run, O, Miami has hosted the likes of Anne Carson, W.S. Merwin, Patti Smith and Kevin Young. In addition to the festival, O, Miami also sponsors a visiting writer’s series in partnership with The Betsy-South Beach hotel. The residency requires the visiting writer to give a public reading and participate in an outreach program with a Miami school or community organization. Last year, O, Miami launched a book imprint, Jai-Alai Books, to provide a publishing outlet for aspiring Miami authors.

Through funding from the Knight Foundation, O, Miami is able to put on avant-garde performances like Mayer’s submersion meditation at the Standard. But it’s not just hipsters wallowing in O, Miami’s offerings. Last year, the organization sponsored a three-month program that taught spoken-word poetry to inmates at a local state prison in Homestead, Florida.

“I feel what we try to do with O, Miami is show more of what constitutes Miami,” Cunningham says. “[Just because people] don’t have money to buy up several blocks and create their own arts district doesn’t mean they are not cultural producers or creative people.”

Lately, when he needs a break from Miami’s poetry scene, Cunningham unwinds at The Anderson, a piano bar in the Upper Eastside that combines kitschy ’80s glam decor with the smoky, sultry feel of the locale’s former incarnation, Magnum Lounge. While the original red couches, mirrors and house piano remain, new flooring and animal-print wallpaper scream Duran Duran chasing Rio.

“Magnum was this little funny hole-in-the-wall piano bar,” Cunningham recalls. “It seemed like a place anyone could go and feel accepted. [The new owners] did a good job of paying homage to what made Magnum great but also making it their own.”

On The Anderson’s island-themed patio, you’re likely to run into another of Miami’s rising creative stars, Jason Fitzroy Jeffers. “I really feel at home, because it is kind of styled like a beach shack in the Caribbean,” he says. “They play choice vintage reggae that I have in my personal library, but I don’t hear much when I go out.”

Jeffers arrived in Miami from Barbados in 1998, a fresh-faced journalist and aspiring musician. After a decade writing for local publications like The Miami Herald and Ocean Drive, he found his opus in the ancient art of Haitian machete fencing. Using his own money and a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign, Jeffers and his production partner Keisha Rae Witherspoon made Papa Machete, an 11-minute documentary that profiles machete-fencing master and aging Haitian farmer Alfred Avril. The movie made its debut at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and was also featured at the Sundance Film Festival and the Miami International Film Festival in 2015.

“I don’t think it would have been possible to make this film 10 years ago,” Jeffers says. “People are -activated here in a way they have never been before.”

To shoot the film, Jeffers turned to local director Jonathan David Kane of Borscht Corporation and enlisted Richard Patterson as director of photography. “Through Borscht, I have started with other film projects and become a part of the local filmmaking community,” Jeffers says. “It really snowballed from there.”

Jeffers’ own collective, Third Horizon, which produced Papa Machete, is focusing on developing more films about the Caribbean. “There is no better place than Miami to do it from,” Jeffers says. “It is one of the most genetically cultural places in the world.”

Arts and film aren’t the only creative enterprises blossoming in Miami. Over the last decade, the city’s music and fashion industries have become major players globally. It’s home to the Ultra Music Festival, a three-day electronic extravaganza that has featured appearances by Madonna and Justin Bieber alongside international superstar DJs like Avicii, Skrillex and Diplo. More than 50,000 revelers pack into Bayfront Park in downtown Miami from Friday to Sunday in mid-March to take part in the festival.

Hip-hop and R&B artists have also planted flags in Miami. Since 2014, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs has hosted his annual REVOLT Music Conference in nearby Miami Beach. The event is more than just nightclub parties headlined by stars like crooner Robin Thicke and rising 
rapper Post Malone; it’s an intense seminar-driven conference that has featured some of the music industry’s biggest tastemakers, from Roc Nation co-founder Jay Brown to Maverick Records founder Guy Oseary.

“It really is a mecca, especially for music,” says Michelle Puccio, a Miami-based DJ and nightlife socialite. “Everybody is recording down here. Everybody is shooting videos down here. Everybody does appearances down here.”

Puccio, who goes by DJ Michelle Pooch, has been a mainstay on the city’s party scene for more than 15 years, parlaying her hosting skills into a lucrative second career cutting songs together at star-studded parties from Florida to France. “Tonight, for instance, I am DJ-ing a private party for GQ and for [New England Patriots tight end] Rob Gronkowski,” Puccio says. “The party is here in Miami. Later this year, I’m going to be the resident DJ at Cosy Box, the hottest place in Cannes, for the film festival.”

Born and raised in Miami Beach, Puccio is no stranger to celebrity hobnobbing. Her circle of girlfriends includes Larsa Pippen, wife of former Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen, and actress Gabrielle Union, wife of Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade.

“I am selling the sexy-Miami-girl DJ vibe who can play just as well as the boys,” Puccio says. “My management sells me as this Miami socialite-nightlife-guru-turned-DJ. And I am always with a gang of girls.”

After a three-month training session at Miami’s Scratch DJ Academy six years ago, Puccio used her nightclub connections to land gigs at big venues like LIV at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach, where she still is a resident DJ. She says being in Miami also opened the door to making her own music.

“I have been doing a lot of producing with other DJs,” she says. “I also have a single that is going to drop in the summer. I sing on the track and produced it as well. The song is more R&B pop. We are going to mix the track into different formats for EDM and stuff like that and get it out to the other DJs.” While the recording industries in New York and Los Angeles have always garnered the most media attention, Miami definitely holds its own. It’s home to Hit Factory Criteria, a studio frequently used by Justin Bieber and Timbaland.

The fashion scene has also blossomed, Puccio adds. She points out that the city now hosts three fashion weeks during the year. The most well-known event, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, is held every July at The Raleigh Hotel, which underwent a renovation since fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger purchased the art deco property. “That has blown up to a whole other level,” Puccio says. “You have all the supermodels down here in July.” In addition, a new property is going up in the Edgewater community in partnership with Italian fashion house Missoni.

At the end of the day, Miami offers culture for everyone’s tastes. “It has evolved in a good way,” Puccio says. “You can go where you find the vibe that fits you.”
 

Miami’s High-Rise Boom
 
The $20 million renovation of The Palms Hotel & Spa in Miami Beach six years ago signaled that South Florida’s real-estate market had begun bouncing back. Record construction in greater Miami and the surrounding coastal communities will add more than 8,000 new condominium units by the end of 2017, according to the city’s Downtown Development Authority. In addition, Brickell City Center is going up downtown, and local rental agency Synergy Workspaces is also playing a substantial role in the community.

New residential towers under construction include Gran Paraiso, Brickell Heights, One Paraiso and the SLS Lux. Developers are teaming up with luxury brands to create high-end skyscrapers such as Auberge Residences & Spa Miami and Hyde Midtown. The Ritz-Carlton Residences Miami Beach will include a private art studio. Developers in the area are even staking claims in western Broward County, where Terra Group is building Botaniko Weston, a 125-mansion community.

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