MIAMI’S ART SCENE TURNS TO LITTLE HAITI
By Liz Tracy
Miami New Times
Chickens poke around in the grass as cars fly down NW Second Avenue past a bustling laundromat, botanicas packed with votive candles and cascarilla, and — just near 63rd Street — the neon-purple ampersand in a window that marks the contemporary art gallery on the corner.
The gallery is the brainchild of Kendall-raised, 26-year-old realtor Annie Berkowitz and her boyfriend, Jordan Trachtenberg. They opened &gallery in a building he’d purchased two years earlier to house his architectural design firm. Business is so good, they say, that they’ve even purchased a lot next door for parking.
“We’ve seen a lot of change, and a lot of it has sprung from stuff that we’ve done, at least in our little corridor,” Berkowitz says.
Though artist- and musician-run spots are nothing new in this colorful Caribbean neighborhood, when &gallery moved to Little Haiti last year, it joined a growing trend of businesses priced out of Wynwood or ready to start up in an affordable area. The neighborhood already turned international art heads during last year’s Miami Art Week, when the popular Guccivuitton gallery hit the scene and Little Haiti Thrift Shop drew crowds from South Beach to watch young men vogue.
Thanks to another round of big art names moving into this neighborhood — and nearby Little River — more visitors than ever are likely to make the trek during Basel week this year. The influx is a boon to culture and commerce, but it also raises difficult questions about how to balance that art boom with the area’s traditional character and the needs of its longtime residents.
“It’s going to change the makeup of the neighborhood inevitably,” says Marie Vickles, curator in residence at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex. “It would be nice if the blend of the new and old would enhance the neighborhood.”
Little Haiti’s rise to cultural prominence echoes that of its neighbor to the south, Wynwood, a formerly Puerto Rican neighborhood that’s now the heart of Miami’s international arts scene. Wynwood’s shift began thanks to gallerists such as Brook Dorsch, who bought property there 15 years ago to start his gallery now known as Emerson Dorsch. But as developers have bought up warehouses in recent years and retail and restaurants have poured in, the arts district has priced out many small galleries.
That’s not to say contemporary art is new in Little Haiti. Moksha Family Arts Collective had its home in the neighborhood for 12 years before recently moving east to El Portal. Yeelen Gallery launched in 2008, showing work by and for area residents. In 2011, Carlos Rigau’s experimental-project space General Practice opened in a foreclosed house where Wynwood and Little Haiti meet. Artist-run Guccivuitton opened in 2013, drawing serious international media attention to the area, and Space Mountain acted as a home for wonderfully weird art and music for one year in 2014.
Over the past two years, other big names have set up shop in Little Haiti and Little River, including Mindy Solomon, Bill Brady, Fountainhead Studios, and Michael Jon, the last of whom will have a booth at the Art Basel main fair at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
Just last month, Gallery Diet made the move north. Owner Nina Johnson-Milewski was a driving force in making Wynwood walkable and accessible in her former role as president of the Wynwood Arts District Association. But she had been renting in Wynwood since 2007 and wanted to purchase her own space. So Johnson bought a 1940s-era complex that once housed residents and a church. During Miami Art Week, the space will present “Trees in Oolite” — an exhibition featuring works by Jim Drain, Emmett Moore, Snarkitecture, and Katie Stout — and “I Like Blue,” a solo show by Ann Craven.
Other high-profile galleries are on the way. Anthony Spinello, long one of the most recognizable names in the Miami arts community, opened a 5,000-square-foot space on NW 2nd Avenue last week with a gala show sure to draw Miami Art Week crowds. The exhibition, “Full Moon,” reflects on his ten years of working with well-regarded local artists, including Agustina Woodgate, Antonia Wright, Farley Aguilar, and Typoe.
“For me, it’s about celebrating this time with my artists and putting this decade to bed and looking forward to the decade to come,” Spinello recently told New Times.
Wynwood pioneer Dorsch and his wife and partner, Tyler Emerson-Dorsch, also just announced they will break ground in the neighborhood after selling their former space in May. He plans to move his gallery into what was once the Port-au-Prince Market. Where Dorsch goes, the art world follows — he’ll exhibit with a booth at Pulse Art Fair this week.
Gallerists are moving into Little Haiti because they want to own their spaces where they can play by their own rules, says Adam Gersten, the owner of Gramps bar and one of the first to bring outsiders into Wynwood with his dance party at Two Last Shoes (now the Electric Pickle).
“Maybe now some of us are at an age where we worry about our futures and ownership starts to mean more,” he says, “especially if you want to focus on remaining creative in some way and knowing you have some security.”
In that spirit, Berkowitz says, “Everyone’s coming in here and making their own rather than fitting into a mold.”
It’s not just art galleries giving Little Haiti its buzz. Earlier this year, shared art workspace MADE at the Citadel opened, offering a place for live music, public arts activities, and exhibitions. Clive’s Café, which used to serve Jamaican food on 29th Street at North Miami Avenue, is slated to reopen on this block, and Panther Coffee and Gramps are expanding their businesses to the area.
All of which raises an obvious question: Will Little Haiti soon face the same fate as Wynwood, with skyrocketing prices driving out galleries and residents alike?
“I think it has the possibility of uplifting the overall feeling of the area, but I’m concerned that groups that have been here for a while will be displaced,” says Marleine Bastien, executive director of Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyami, or Haitian Women of Miami.
For now, longtime businesses are hoping for a sales bump without the headaches.
“Maybe the businesses there might get a little more foot traffic,” Vickles says. She hopes new businesses and galleries will respect the “strong cultural history of the neighborhood.”
Some gallerists say they’re already working on preserving that heritage.
At Yeelen Gallery, founders Karla Ferguson and her husband, Jerome Soimaud, empower residents by exhibiting neighborhood artists. Dorsch says he plans to rent the two extra commercial spaces in his new building to people who are, he explains, “more aligned with our gallery and our vision of our neighborhood.” He insists new galleries in the area must be “community-based” and “serve the residents nearby.”
“I think the neighborhood around it will be enhanced, I hope,” Dorsch says. “This will not be another Wynwood.”
Berkowitz says she’s seen changes for the positive since &gallery opened. “When we started fixing up our building and keeping the lawn better and really respecting the area, I feel like the neighbors surrounding us started caring a little more,” she says. “We’ve all talked as a community.”
Developers such as Lombardi Properties (which owns the Guccivuitton space) and Avra Jain of Vagabond Hotel fame have already moved in. But Berkowitz and Trachtenberg also work with the NE 2nd Avenue Partnership and the Haitian American Community Development Corporation on design studies that plan to “foster better growth for the community.”
Art can be a force for good in any community, Berkowitz argues. “Though I think [the neighbors] really wanted a corner store,” Berkowitz says, “I think they’ll be happy with a gallery.”
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