Many Black-centered art spaces in Miami are a response to segregation or exclusion. Since 2002, Miami has hosted Art Basel, a global art fair, in the first week of December in the Wynwood neighborhood at the Miami Beach Convention Center. While the fair presents opportunities for artists’ visibility, local Black artists still face barriers to access—even at an event in their own city.
“Traditionally, since the arrival of Art Basel and development of Wynwood, it has been international artists who have access to the galleries. Our heritage communities were hidden and missing out on the opportunity to circulate those new resources that were coming into Miami due to the Art Boom,” said Ashlee Thomas, co-founder and president of MUCE, the Miami Urban Contemporary Experience. She and her partner Bart Mervil created MUCE “to elevate the voices of local artists.”
In 2018, the city completed a $620 million dollar renovation of its convention center. In 2019, the center housed 269 leading galleries from 269 countries on Miami Beach. While these shifts confirm that the fair “remains firmly committed to supporting the global gallery community,” where does that leave local Black artists, especially with changes to public events necessitated by the pandemic?
According to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau (GMCVB), Art Basel brings in approximately $16 million dollars in direct spending each year. But this year’s pandemic necessitated a shift to a virtual format, which has been noted by some as a “blessing in disguise.” However, if you are not well-connected or well-funded, an Art Basel cancellation can be a curse. Even though few local artists end up showing in the convention center, there are opportunities for local artists to take advantage to show their work at smaller galleries or create their own pop up shows. Twenty-four-year-old Trevor Bazile, a Black local film artist said, “Many of my artist friends in Miami are out of pocket this year. Now more than ever it comes down to who you know.”
Thomas said, “I think Art Basel mimics the challenge of any institution for Black people. It is hard for an artist to be seen and become economically viable irrespective of their race. When we involve race, it becomes five-to-10 times harder the more melanin one’s skin emanates.”
Art Basel is an event that’s largely inclusive of foreign artists, and Thomas concedes that the exclusion is not always intentional, but the barriers remain for local Black artists to work around. “You work with who you know, you collect who is in your peripheral,” she said.
Compounding this issue is a one day Art Basel pass costs $65, which leaves many local artists unable to attend these events, despite some artists like Bazile who rely on “Basel buzz” for additional work.
“I usually can pick up work setting up and breaking down local shows from around the city, but when Basel was canceled, I took an opportunity that came up in New York,” Bazile said.
Mikhalie Soloman, the founder of Prizm Art Fair, says part of her success has been making connections with people. “I travel and I make friends,” she said. After eight Art Basel seasons, Soloman also observed the importance of the funding and marketing needed to support artists. “Miami is very reactive,” she said, noting the city worked to ensure Art Basel’s return to Miami with a costly renovation of the convention center to prevent the art show from moving elsewhere. Yet, she questions why Miami doesn’t make a greater investment in local artists and organizations with more proactive measures. Solomon has received funding from the city, but says she gets most of her funding from outside sources and says Miami can do more.
“Organizations with a track record of success should not be fighting for dollars,” Soloman said.
She is referring to herself, MUCE, and galleries like the Diaspora Vibe Gallery, led by Rosie Gordan-Wallace, which just celebrated 25 years in Miami. Gordan-Wallace, Soloman, and Thomas’ spaces are listed among the “Art of Black” galleries on the GMCVB website.
“Art of Black” was created in 2014 through the GMCVB as a marketing platform for Black diasporic art in Miami. One of the items you will find on the website is a list of 28 local artists listed as “Black Artists Everyone Should Know.” Although the platform is intended to market Black artists, only one of the artists on the list had an image of work displayed. And, only three of the 28 listed had gallery representation for this year’s art week. The platform lists and promotes Black-led galleries, yet only one of the visual artists on that list, T. Elliot Mansa, had work featured in the 2020 Virtual Art of Black Kickoff Event video.
Robert McKnight is also on that list of local Black artists. Yet, he did not secure representation this year. He said due to COVID-19 and the Art Basel cancellation, there were “slim pickings.” Yet, he still hoped someone would call.
“Most of the galleries selected their artists so there’s not a lot of work, and no one reached out to me,” he said. “I mean, people know me.”
McKnight, a multimedia artist and muralist, has been consistently exhibiting in Miami since 1976. He was previously an exhibiting artist at Kroma, a Black-led gallery in Miami, located in the historic Black neighborhood of West Coconut Grove. The gallery has been closed for the past two years without the funding to reopen.
Moving forward, Solomon would like to see a greater investment to incubate artist spaces and feels the marketing for local art needs to be “defibrillated.” Thomas acknowledges the advances made, but also feels there should be greater efforts to get patrons into local spaces.
“There is a collective of art attractions from MUCE to Art Beat Miami, Art Africa, Prizm Art Fair, Point Comfort Fair, Hampton Art lovers, The Lyric theater—we are out here creating opportunities for artists,” Thomas said. “It would be great for the city to elevate these shows with Billboards, website features, commercials as it is a direct reflection of the local heartbeat that allows Miami/South Florida to live.”