Why Miami?

Nina Johnson

Joseph E. Yoakum, “Lake Okachobia (Okeechobee) in Everglades South East Florida,” ca. 1968. The work will be featured in "Masters of Self-Taught Art," a group exhibition curated by John Ollman, opening on December 4th at Nina Johnson.

Cover Image for Why Miami?

Having grown up in a city that has been subject to the whims of outsiders, I can’t tell you how it turns my stomach when I hear the phrase, “Miami is a new city.” Miami is not a new city. Give a read to Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp, and you’ll learn the history of South Florida as told through the Everglades going back to prehistoric times. The Miami-is-a-new-city myth has been sold to outsiders for as long as there has been the concept of land to sell. Find a copy of the now out-of-print Black Miami, and you’ll learn about entire communities whose histories have been erased, literally out-of-print, to give rise to “new neighborhoods,” often developed by profit seekers coming from elsewhere to impose their ideal utopia on South Florida’s ecosystem. Alongside the sale of that myth is the just as frequent defense of pretty much anywhere else, particularly New York, i.e. why Miami will never be the new New York.

For the 16 years I have owned my gallery, I have answered the question, “Why are you in Miami?” The tone of how this is asked has changed over the years. When I first opened the gallery, Miami was seen as a kind of cultural backwater; Art Basel had recently begun the Miami Beach leg of its fair, and the general consensus was that anything interesting piloted into Miami for the week and piloted out just as quickly. Of course, this lack of attention or interest made it appealing to artists and creatives of all types. It was inexpensive, relative to most major American cities, global in its relationship to the Americas and easy to navigate. It made the politics of the place semi-irrelevant; the general assumption was that for not a lot of money, you could, as they say in the Florida Keys, “come as you are.” Most recently though, the focus of this question has become more judgmental and specifically political.

How could I, a liberal progressive whose life revolves around culture, possibly find a home in the increasingly politically oppressive state of Florida? Tax purposes? Family obligations? There had to be a reason I hadn’t decamped to Los Angeles or New York, particularly as our exhibition schedule became more international and our client base less centralized.

The subheading of a recently published Financial Times article caught my eye: “Once a refuge for the divorced, bankrupt and unemployed, Miami has evolved into a paradise of freedom.” The thing is, Miami was not just a refuge for the divorced, bankrupt and unemployed. Yes, there has always been an element of underworld runaway in Miami; I was in high school when OJ Simpson moved in around the corner from my parents’ house. Miami has also been a refuge for everyone else unwanted, discarded. A refuge for immigrants from Cuba, from Haiti, from Central America, from Europe. When my parents relocated from Detroit to Miami, my mother, originally from Guatemala, was so relieved to be in the sun and among Spanish speakers she landed in the ER with sun poisoning. She had lain in the sunshine for 12 hours, rinsing off the decade of Detroit’s gray cold, back within a three-hour flight of her family and home, in a city where her employer wouldn’t likely ask questions like, “Do people in Guatemala live in trees?” It seemed inconsequential to her that this was the same year Life Magazine declared Miami “The Most Dangerous City in America.”

When I was in elementary school, my mother would drive me to South Beach to get my curly hair cut in the apartment of a hairdresser who understood what to do with hair that is not straight. I distinctly remember him telling my mom that he had moved to Miami because so many of his friends in New York had died because he wanted to be on the beach and outside of the struggle, outside of the pain of his past. I loved these visits; they would take me outside of the suburban Miami where I was raised and into an early ’90s South Beach. The beach then was weird, colorful, old. The buildings were all relatively small, 3-5 stories and brightly colored in Deco pastels. There were rollerblades and drag shows, thrift shops and artist studios. I was too young to understand why his friends had died, but looking back, I recognize him as part of a community of AIDS survivors who came to South Florida in droves. Félix González-Torres, who died in Miami in 1996, was part of this community.

When my husband and I graduated from art school, we pulled up Craigslist, the then go-to for rental housing and searched three cities: Boston, where we were currently living and had gone to school; New York, where it was understood anyone serious about the arts would move; and Miami, because why not? We quickly realized that for the same rent we’d be paying for a studio apartment far outside New York City, we could rent a two-bedroom house with a garage in Miami. The “why not?” was affordability. This was a few years after the first Art Basel Miami Beach.

When I first opened my gallery in the fall of 2007, I didn’t pay much more in commercial rent than I did for our home. This meant that for the majority of the gallery’s formative years (then called Gallery Diet), I could experiment. I hosted performance shows, installation shows— this was the heyday of relational aesthetics, and I had grown up to believe that whatever you’d show, someone would buy it. Artnews was then talking about institutions acquiring performance pieces. During one of our exhibitions, I was so excited about the performance that I ran down the street to a private collector’s public exhibition space and, in a move that would have been tragically uncool anywhere else, I grabbed his arm and dragged him to the gallery. The intimacy of Miami meant that everyone had to come; it didn’t matter that I had just opened, that the program was untested. Every exhibition was a learning curve. I didn’t have a master’s degree, and Miami afforded me the chance to make mistakes. I just wanted what Dave Hickey called “A clean, well-lighted place,” and in Miami, I found that.

What I have found in South Florida, by not leaving, is a definitive sense of identity and community. Those who choose to stay in a place that is mired in problems (wealth disparity, pressing environmental issues as a result of climate change, political oppression, affordability crisis) are often driven to change it and are often choosing to do so because they are simultaneously driven away from something else. They are often forced to be somewhere because there is nowhere better, or at least nowhere better they can afford, which increasingly seems like a position most of us are going to find ourselves in as a result of climate change, despite economics. The author of the FT article says, “If this is what the future of America looks like, I’m not sure I want to be a part of it.” Certainly, this is a sentiment most of us can relate to, but where will we all go?

When I first opened the gallery, I sat at my desk day after day, anxiously waiting for visitors to come, assuming that clients and the culturally curious would just step in the door. Of course, that’s not how it works. I have spent the better part of the past 16 years building an audience, often placing works with people who are making their first art purchase and working with them through the years to contextualize those pieces with other artists across generations. Miami also gave me the space to show “all the weirdos that don’t fit anywhere else.” I didn’t think twice about offering Katie Stout a solo exhibition when she was barely out of college and making functional objects; to me, they were Sculpture, and they were glorious. Another dealer recently said to me that what they admired most about the gallery program was our interest in showing work across disciplines. I was grateful but also reluctant to take credit. I never set out to show work “across disciplines;” I was just interested in showing what I liked and what, it seemed, wasn’t being given space elsewhere. I was less interested in the limiting parameters of what was allowed.

The constraints of working from within Miami also meant being unconstrained by the rules of a male-dominated art world; rules that weren’t really that old but somehow universally entrenched, particularly in the major cities. Somehow, despite it being a result of naivete, necessity and desire, a community began to emerge that was bound not by geography but, rather, by a shared outlook: artists who were sick of being mistreated by dealers, aspiring collectors who were less interested in becoming part of some exclusive “club” and more interested in educating themselves, curators who were increasingly being referred to as “artist-friendly” because they were more interested in the artist’s historicity and process than in their own fame.