How did a pair of twins from Westchester go from taking photos of friends to post on MySpace to capturing Bad Bunny for the cover of TIME magazine?
Elliot and Erick Jiménez did what many local artists are advised to do: leave your hometown and go to New York City. It worked.
The twin brothers found a “floodgate of opportunities” there and made a name for themselves as fashion photographers. But when the pandemic brought them back to their hometown, a new kind of opportunity arose. They could create exactly the type of art they wanted to create, not for a luxury brand or fashion magazine, but for themselves. The floodgates opened again in Miami.
The Cuban-American duo’s signature saturated colors and Lucumí religious references caught a TIME editor’s eye. The rest is literally history. It was the publication’s first Spanish-language cover story. And this Miami Art Week, the duo’s work is even bigger with their first public art installation, a 100-foot wide billboard of a sequined mermaid on the side of the Moore Building in the Design District.
The international acclaim has been overwhelming in a good way, they said.
“It literally feels like it’s happened all at once, like the last couple of months,” Elliot said. “But we’ve been doing this for so long. […] It is a hustle. It is not easy. It’s persistence and working hard.”
The Jimenez twins aren’t alone in their career’s trajectory. Over the last couple of years, Miami-born and based artists have reaped the benefits of their hard work, talent and hometown’s art hub status as they enjoy national and international attention now more than ever before.
Historically, there has been a common local gripe that Miami’s homegrown talent gets overlooked during Miami Art Week, but that sentiment seems to have diminished as artists outgrow Art Basel Miami Beach’s shadow. International and national galleries, collectors and arts institutions have a magnifying glass over South Florida as they tap local artists for solo and group exhibitions, prestigious museum collections, residencies and awards.
“We’ve been always not considered. People would come here and kind of look over us and act as if we haven’t been creating art this whole time,” said Reginald O’Neal, a prominent emerging artist from Overtown. “I don’t know what is making the shift happen for people to start paying attention to us now, but I feel like it’s about time.”
The shift is very real, said Dennis Scholl, a longtime Miami art collector and artist.
“Miami artists are ascendant right now,” he said. “Even in an art market that is starting to mature a little bit, slow down a little bit, Miami artists are not doing that because people are really interested in them. Miami artists are finally getting their due, if you will.” The consensus is clear.
All eyes are on Miami — Miami Art Week or no.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE BOOM?
If you ask Miami’s museum directors, collectors and gallerists to name one artist whose career has taken off lately, they’ll rattle off a list of names.
Established, mid-career and emerging artists who have called Miami their home are well represented in that list. Hernan Bas is featured in a group show in Italy and will soon open a solo show at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach. Carlos Betancourt, an influential, award-winning artist, showed his work at fairs and exhibitions in Mexico City, San Juan and Palm Beach this year. Jose Bedia, a legendary Cuban painter who has lived in Miami since the ‘90s, completed a monthslong solo exhibition in Mexico this year and is showing his work at Art Basel Miami Beach. Daniel Arsham, now based in New York City, inaugurates Ross+Kramer Gallery’s new Miami Beach location with a show of his highly sought-after works during Art Week.
“It really feels like we’re on the cusp of a new moment in the history of art in Miami because of our artists,” said Franklin Sirmans, the Pérez Art Museum Miami director.
Miami underwent a rebrand of sorts when Art Basel Miami Beach debuted 21 years ago. The area overcame it’s crime ridden reputation from the ‘80s, and the art world began to see the city in a new light. But in the midst of a popular global art fair, local artists had felt overlooked.
Scholl, who recently retired as CEO of Miami nonprofit Oolite Arts, has watched the arts community learn to take advantage of Art Basel’s presence. Satellite fairs and exhibitions during Art Week have helped expose local artists to a wider audience.
“The fair is here to highlight international artists of great reputation. We’re glad that it’s in Miami, but that’s what the fair is here for,” he said. “So it took a while for Miami and the Miami arts community to understand that.”
Scholl is among several in the arts community who have noticed the international wave of interest toward Miami artists, especially in the last year. Several factors have lead to this moment, like Art Week’s influence, Miami’s diverse pool of artists and the city’s connection to Latin America. But the quality of local artists’ work is undeniable, he said. Simply put, everyone has stepped their game up.
“The quality of art and gallerists in our community has elevated to a point that we as a gallerist community deserve to be at the fair,” he said. “We got better. A lot better. We’ve been able to watch Art Basel for a while and see what it takes to make a booth in the fair and elevate our game.”
Noah Horowitz, the Art Basel CEO who previously overlooked the Miami Beach fair as Director Americas, said the larger spotlight on Miami-based artists can be attributed to the hard work of the city’s galleries. This year, five Miami or Miami Beach galleries are exhibiting at the fair (Fredric Snitzer Gallery, David Castillo, Spinello Projects, Piero Atchugarry Gallery, and Central Fine), an increase from three the previous two years. Miami’s ascension in on the global stage tracks with the other maturing markets in the Americas, from the Caribbean to Mexico to Brazil, Horowitz said. “In short, what we’re seeing in Miami is, in many ways, a textured prism of changes and more diverse lenses that are being scoped through the art world writ large,” he said.
“Miami, over the last number of years, especially now with these institutions and the influx of so many people over the last five years, really has stronger and stronger foundations to support these artists and galleries on an ongoing basis year round.”
Arts leaders are seeing the signs that signal the rise of Miami artists on the world stage. “For me, it’s like, where’s the work being shown? Is it just us that believe in the work or is it a bunch of people all over the world?” Sirmans said. “To me, that’s an interesting sign in the affirmation of artists who are making really interesting works of art.”
Solo exhibitions, especially in major arts hubs like New York City, is a good sign. (Kandy Lopez, a Miami-based multimedia artist, presented her solo show at ACA Galleries in Chelsea this fall.) There’s acquisitions of artwork by preeminent museums. (A work by Michael Loveland, who is represented by LnS Gallery, was recently acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.) And it doesn’t hurt to win significant awards. (The Jiménez brothers were just in the Dominican Republic to be named Emerging Fashion Photographer of the Year at the Latin American Fashion Awards.)
Art dealers especially look for “consistent great bodies of work over time,” said Frederic Snitzer, who runs his gallery in Miami.
“There’s a lot of competition. The art world is extremely discerning and extremely competitive,” he said. “Outside of Miami, they look very hard at consistency and long term commitment. Somebody that’s hot for a year or two locally and then fades away or doesn’t pursue it or doesn’t continue with the quality of their career, they’re gonna get overlooked.”
‘A GOOD KIND OF PRESSURE’
Art Basel Miami Beach isn’t most artists’ first art fair. Reginald O’Neal is not most artists.
In hindsight, O’Neal said he didn’t get a chance to process the moment last year at the fair. He returns this year with his first sculptural installation with Spinello Projects.
“It was a big moment for me,” he said. “It was a milestone that I didn’t think was achievable when I started painting.”
O’Neal’s works, which are featured in the permanent collections of PAMM, the Rubell Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, are inspired by what he knows: Overtown, his family and his experiences. Each painting, whether it’s kids playing with a spraying fire hydrant or his father holding a baby while wearing a prison jumpsuit, tells a story. O’Neal, 31, just tries to express himself as best he can, he said.
Since his first showing at Art Basel last year, O’Neal said wants to be “part of a bigger conversation” as he works alongside artists he admires. Besides Basel, O’Neal is opening a solo show at Spinello Projects in Wynwood.
“The work that I show is something that I believe in. Before, I was unsure if people would gravitate towards it,” he said. “So the fact that people liked it gave me more confidence within myself. It allowed me to trust my instincts a little bit more.”
Painter Jared McGriff has also had a busy year. “It’s definitely where I’d like to be as far as my career growth,” he said.
Born in Los Angeles, McGriff moved to Miami about six years ago to focus on creating more work and establish himself in the arts community. Recently, he’s shown at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in Harlem, opened a solo exhibition at gallery Vielmetter Los Angeles and traveled to Suriname for an artist residency with the help of Miami nonprofit Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator.
McGriff’s work is on display at the Historic Hampton House Museum of Culture & Art for its inaugural exhibition “Gimme Shelter,” which celebrates the building’s history as a safe haven for Black performers and activists in the ‘50s and ‘60s. McGriff is also showing his paintings at Basel for the first time with Vielmetter Los Angeles.
“It’s definitely a highlight of my career and my growth,” he said. “I think that’s the thing that’s special about Art Basel. There are folks who see the work who would otherwise never be introduced to it.”
French Caribbean artist Marielle Plaisir was drawn to Miami about six years ago. The Caribbean community is well represented and the opportunities are plenty here, she said.
Miami Art Week’s slew of international art fairs help Plaisir connect with collectors and curators while taking note of where she stands in the contemporary art space. Making art in a studio is just part of an artist’s job, Plaisir said. Most of the work is networking.
“This is very important because working in your studio is something, but exhibiting your work [at fairs] is another thing,” she said. “You can see where you are, how you can progress, how you can be connecting with other artists, other curators, other directors of museums.”
Plaisir’s career has especially taken off in the last three years, she said. More attention means more commissions and more opportunities to invest in her art. Lately, she’s been working 10 hour days, seven days a week. But she doesn’t get distracted by the accolades.
“I don’t pay attention to that,” she said. “It’s important, of course. When you have results, it pushes you to do more. To be better.”
Vickie Pierre is also feeling the pressure, “but it’s a good kind of pressure.”
Pierre, a Haitian-American multimedia artist, was born in Brooklyn and moved to South Beach in 1998. While her career has been on a steady ascent since the early 2000s, she’s noticed a sharp increase in attention since 2019 when she started showing with Snitzer. Next year is sure to be busy too, with a residency in March, a Chicago art fair in April, a solo show with Snitzer in the fall and the installation of two of her paintings at the U.S. Embassy in Prague.
While Pierre can’t pinpoint exactly where this uptick in interest came from, she said it’s amazing to see tastemakers take notice of her and other Miami artists. Now is not the time to slow down on her feminine, abstract artworks, she said. Now is the time to push herself.
“Just keep doing better. Not to be lackadaisical, not to slack,” she said. “Keep going a little bit further. Make yourself a little more uncomfortable.”
‘MIAMI TO THE CORE’
Last Thanksgiving weekend, Vivek and Carolina García Jayaram, a husband-and-wife duo of lawyers ingrained in Miami’s arts scene, were hanging out with friends who had recently moved to Miami when one person asked a perplexing question: “Was there anything even here before we all got here?”
“That got us both thinking about the time that we met 20 years ago in Miami, and how vibrant the local contemporary art scene was during those years,” Vivek said. ”The histories need to be told, and if they’re not told they sort of disappear.” That was the impetus of “Making Miami,” an ambitious public art exhibition and digital archive that tells the story of the local artists and artist-run nonprofits that laid the groundwork for today’s community. The exhibition, which opens Dec. 6 in the Design District, features FriendsWithYou, Daniel Arsham, Jen Stark, Locust Projects and many others. While the show documents these artists’ contributions for posterity, the Jayarams said they also hope to spark another conversation about the future for artists in Miami.
Many of those established artists left Miami behind to make it big somewhere else. As the cost of living in South Florida soars, the Jarayams question if the next generation of emerging artists will stick around. “We now need to create the conditions for people to exist here permanently,” Carolina said.
“Yes, you’re getting the big light shining on Miami,” Vivek said. “But the minute that these Miami artists then get snatched up by a Perrotin or a David Zwirner, they’ll just leave Miami like all those artists 20 years ago left Miami.”
And herein lies a conundrum emerging and mid-career artists find themselves in. Do Miami-born artists have to leave in order for their careers to take off? And will they?
Snitzer maintains the importance for artists to experience other major cities, both to grow their connections and artistic practice. In fact, “it’s critical to get out of here,” he said. “I think they need to get out of Miami because there’s incredible personal growth that takes place when an artist puts himself in a much larger artistic context,” Snitzer said. “So as good as the museums are here, as good as the culture and climate is here, if you go to New York, your life is going to change. Same with LA. Same with Europe.”
Miami will never be the next New York or Los Angeles, said Sergio Cernuda, the LnS Gallery director. But, he added, it is an important city that needs to continue to financially and creatively support its artists. Though it has been commonplace for local artists to leave, Cernuda feels that the tides are changing.
“I think that that needs to stop. I think that we have enough here locally for people to get support right from the get go,” he said. “We don’t need our artists to go to New York or Paris or Sao Paulo or Mexico City, or wherever they want to go in order to get more support. It’s right here.”
Some local artists are questioning the status quo.
Kandy Lopez, a multimedia portrait artist, was born in New Jersey but moved to Hialeah as a child and attended New World School of the Arts. In high school, she recalled, teachers would tell students, “You should leave Florida. Go to an art school. Get recognition at that state, and it’ll trickle down for you to come back to Florida.”
“Which is crazy,” she added.
There is still some truth to that advice. After she was introduced to ACA Galleries by Miami curator Ludlow Bailey, Lopez signed exclusively with the New York City gallery. (This Art Week, Lopez’s work is featured at the “Gimme Shelter” exhibition and in a solo exhibition at the Coral Springs Museum of Art. Next year, she looks forward to taking a sabbatical from teaching at Nova Southeastern University to focus on her art and four upcoming shows.)
She’s happy to see artists like herself get the recognition they deserve, though the interest in Miami is overdue, she said.
“There is so much good art down here,” she said. “And it doesn’t have to take Art Basel to be part of this space for so long for people to realize that. And we shouldn’t be leaving to get recognition somewhere else to get recognition back at home.”
It’s a mindset artist Cornelius Tulloch is very familiar with.
“‘You need to go to New York, you need to be there to bring your career to the next level.’ But why?” the 26-year-old said. “Why is it this mindset that we have to go elsewhere to have our careers validated?”
This past year has taken the Jamaican-Miamian artist across the country and Caribbean. He has done residencies in Suriname and Colorado, collaborated with Soho House and Porsche, installed artwork at a climate change conference and completed a solo show in New York City. He’s closing the year with several projects in the works, including an architectural installation at Locust Projects meant for residents to share stories about Miami.
While his work is strongly tied to Miami’s architecture and Caribbean influences, Tulloch has found himself pulled to New York’s networking opportunities and connections. He’s considering a “hybrid model,” staying in New York for some parts of the year but keeping Miami as his home base.
“I’m very Miami to the core,” he said. “I love New York, but I’m very invested in Miami and what the future looks like.”
This is where his inspiration is, and he doesn’t want to leave Miami’s growing arts scene behind. He’d rather help build it.
“We’re in a sort of crucial time,” Tulloch said. “What does it look like when we stay?”
This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.