Miami culture isn’t a means to an end

By | June 6th, 2011 | 17 Comments

Miami is experiencing a “cultural explosion,” according to an article in Sunday’s Herald. “Yup,” I thought, when I first saw the headline. But then I read the subhead: “From the Arsht to the New World Center to the Design District, culture is booming all around us. Here’s why — and how it’s fueling the economy.” And then I noticed the photos in the accompanying slideshow: a “balloon-splashed” South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, a performance at the Miami City Ballet, a Wallcast at the New World Symphony.


I read on, curious to see if the article would mention any of the folks/artists/organizations that, in my opinion, are pushing Miami culturally these days. To her credit, reporter Jordan Levin shouted out a few of them — the Borscht Film Festival, O, Miami, the Rhythm Foundation — but she spent most of her word count crediting philanthropists and local government with the “explosion”.

Led by the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and key private donors and organizers, they have helped build a growing matrix of arts organizations, from big institutions such as Miami City Ballet and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts to a growing cadre of smaller groups that span the gamut from community-oriented to avant-garde.

Add a populist focus on free events that make the arts inviting to everyone from families to students to trendy 20-somethings — a deliberate audience-building effort by funders and leaders — and you have a critical cultural synergy.

The article also described Miami culture as a means to a glittering end, namely, large-scale development. An excerpt from its “Big Money” section:

Mike Eidson, chairman of the Arsht Center’s board of directors and a longtime major arts patron and behind-the-scenes player, says that the cultural boom helped attract attention from international companies such as Genting Malaysia Berhad, the giant Asian developer that will build a massive entertainment complex on the 14-acre Miami Herald site next to the Arsht Center.

Eidson pointed to the Arsht Center, Art Basel and the Wynwood gallery scene as prime lures for Genting and other developers, such as Spanish company Inmobiliaria Espacio, which owns a two-acre property immediately to the north of the Arsht, and Dacra Properties, which is creating a massive retail complex in the Design District.

“Miami is attracting these people because it’s the prettiest place, the most fun, and now it’s got great art,” Eidson says. “They say [we] put money into culture. That means something to them. The vibration from this cultural explosion affects everything. It’s really shaking up the place.”

That is how the article ended. Rather perversely, I thought. I scrolled down to the comments section to see how Herald readers felt about the piece. Generally speaking, they fell into two camps: cynical/unimpressed and sunny/optimistic.

“You gotta give ‘em credit for trying but unfortunately most of South Florida is STILL a cultural wasteland. The majority of our lovely neighbors wouldn’t know the difference between J. S. Bach, Celia Cruz and Lil’ Wayne.” — miamiguy34

“Great article, Ms. Levin. The Knight Foundation Grants have been particularly instrumental in helping artists break ground in new directions. I’ve witnessed a lot of projects that have been brought to fruition only through the help of these grants. Naysayers can nay all day, but everything you write about has made Miami a better place. Thank you.” — Skip Van Cel

Finding myself in agreement with no one, I shared my own thoughts on Open Media Miami’s Facebook page, where I initially saw the Herald article posted.

“Significant disconnect between reporter and commenters. Can’t say I disagree with most of them. When I think culture, I think of what individuals and independents are doing. Philanthropically subsidized culture feels inauthentic.” — Me

Five minutes later, Open Media founder and Herald editor Jared Goyette asked me to elaborate in the Herald. So I did. You can read the full piece at Here’s an excerpt.

Culture. It isn’t a political campaign or a sporting event or an FCAT question. It’s an amorphous thing. Like a cloud. It grows, it disperses, it darkly menaces and mercifully cools. And it holds the stuff that we humans need more than anything else, the water that doesn’t merely make life worth living but rather makes life.

At certain points in human history, the cloud bursts. The Italian Renaissance , 1920s Paris, post-WWII New York. An article that appeared in the Herald Sunday places present-day Miami amid a comparable “cultural explosion,” citing the opening of the New World Symphony’s New World Center, the growing popularity of Art Basel, and soaring attendance at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

There is something all three have in common: they’re big.

What’s size got to do with it? Well, when I think of culture, I think small. Call me gauche, but I care less about what’s happening at a grand concert hall than what’s happening at Churchill’s, and more about what the guy down the hall is painting in his studio apartment than what’s showing at a multimillion-dollar museum.

With such biases, you can perhaps understand why the Herald’s “cultural explosion” article rang hollow for me.

Your thoughts?

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17 Comments on “Miami culture isn’t a means to an end”

  1. 1 Common Sense said at 4:20 pm on June 6th, 2011:

    My thoughts, The Miami Herald is just as biased and full of shit as Miami government.

    This place has poser culture.
    Nothing real.
    It’s just a set.
    All props, no substance.
    This place is hell.

  2. 2 Sue said at 4:53 pm on June 6th, 2011:

    Jordan, you are such a talent. That was so well said- I could no more feel at home at the Arsht center than afford one of the million dollar art pieces you reference. Love me an artsy neighborhood (Old Coconut Grove?) with genuine, unadorned talent.

  3. 3 Jordan Melnick said at 6:17 pm on June 6th, 2011:

    Thanks Sue.

  4. 4 Jordan Melnick said at 6:22 pm on June 6th, 2011:

    @Common Sense, if I remember correctly, you left a similar comment a while back. I have no patience for the hyperbole of “This place is hell”. It’s a sentiment that you should either elaborate on or keep to yourself. Simply stating it is utterly unconstructive. Ditto for “poser culture” — what do you mean by that? I encounter sincere artists and creatives all the time. They may not be in the majority, but they aren’t an endangered species either.

  5. 5 Dylan said at 7:56 pm on June 6th, 2011:

    I just read your article in the Herald, great job! To all the haters and pessimists in our community who would love to stay in the Stone Age, Miami is going through a cultural renaissance, and it’s throw the tireless, dedicated work of people throughout our community. Bring it!

  6. 6 Rick said at 8:51 pm on June 6th, 2011:

    Culture is big and small. To define it or to limit its sincerity or authenticity simply by size seems a bit silly, no?


  7. 7 Jordan Melnick said at 9:51 pm on June 6th, 2011:

    @Rick, it would be, but that’s not what I did. I did not say all big cultural institutions are invalid. In fact, I credited the Knight Foundation et al. for the work they do. The point of the piece was to say that individuals and small independents are driving the city’s culture, despite the fact that they can’t single-handedly attract multinational investment.

  8. 8 Steven S. said at 12:18 am on June 7th, 2011:

    Simply: adequate capital is a necessary but not sufficient condition for culture to thrive.

  9. 9 Steven S. said at 1:05 am on June 7th, 2011:

    As a follow up Jordan, the Italian Renaissance, which you mention, was the consummate period when sufficient capital allowed for the flourishing of culture.
    Culture means things like fine arts, film, music, etc. These things will not be produced unless artists have the bread to allow them to live day-to-day. Indeed, while “[p]hilanthropically subsidized culture feels inauthentic” to you, it is only through the provision of adequate material means that anyone can begin to have the time and means to engage in high art. Those independent artists that you cite surely must have the material means to live (whether they live opulently is not the point here) and while the notion that high art demands adequate funding for its support may seem to despoil its otherwise reified nature, the two are indeed inextricably linked.

  10. 10 swampthing said at 8:59 am on June 7th, 2011:

    This reads like the tale of two jordans…

    Long time friend Levine dances for knight’s court.
    New interest Melnik dances in the clouds with feet on the ground.

    …(art) it holds the stuff that we humans need more than anything else, the water that doesn’t merely make life worth living but rather makes life…”

    Art is the most powerful force on earth.

  11. 11 Jordan Melnick said at 9:03 am on June 7th, 2011:

    @Steven The Facebook comment got fleshed out in the Herald article. With the latter as a starting point, my point is not that big or well-funded culture is inauthentic, but that to attribute the flourishing of culture to philanthropy and government subsidy is wrongheaded. Even in Renaissance Italy, which you correctly point out was the patronage period, the Medici or the Pope couldn’t have simply thrown money at any artisan and received the David or Sistine Chapel in return. It’s a very simple observation — “Philanthropy can facilitate culture, but it cannot create it” — but it went unobserved in the Herald article, which is the target of my critique (as opposed to the foundations or large venues/museums/etc.).

  12. 12 Jordan Melnick said at 9:04 am on June 7th, 2011:

    @swampthing “New Interest Melni(c)k” was my nickname in high school.

  13. 13 Leah said at 1:45 pm on June 7th, 2011:

    I don’t think “inauthentic” is the problem here with Knight Foundation subsidized initiatives. Rather, it is the question underlying any grant: Is it sustainable? After three years of relying upon foundation support, will independent artists and “culture makers” find a community of Miamians willing to sustain them?

    Highlighting the Arsht Center (which, for those who aren’t aware of the history, has had its own iterations of financial trouble — remember the Carnival Center?) and other big names misses the point. We’ve been so accustomed to the idea that developers will create something worth showcasing here in Miami. The point that I think Jordan is making here is that “culture” is something we all have a stake in — it is something we need to participate in, engage in, promote, and support. A cultural “boom” led by philanthropists and developers will only be a cultural “bubble” with no community to speak of.

  14. 14 Rick said at 7:46 pm on June 7th, 2011:

    “Well, when I think of culture, I think small. Call me gauche, but I care less about what’s happening at a grand concert hall than what’s happening at Churchill’s, and more about what the guy down the hall is painting in his studio apartment than what’s showing at a multimillion-dollar museum.”

    I guess that’s what I was keying off of. Sorry for the mistake.


  15. 15 Jordan Melnick said at 8:39 pm on June 7th, 2011:

    @Rick I genuinely consider that a bias of mine (as I say in next paragraph). I can go for a symphony or high-brow dance piece, but I get off on the grittier stuff. I focused on size — on the smaller scale specifically — because the article ignored it entirely.

  16. 16 JJ said at 1:39 am on June 8th, 2011:

    “to attribute the flourishing of culture to philanthropy and government subsidy is wrongheaded.” indeed, indeed, mos def, the king is more charismatic than the kingmaker, but the problem here, I think, is twofold, one: philanthropy (specifically Knight money) is defining and also validating the culture being produced, in the press and in the minds of the artists. This, I think, is creating a dangerous paradigm: if you’re not receiving grant money, you’re not as good as those who are. That’s a slippery slope. Also, like Leah said, is it sustainable? We’re doing awesome; indeed, Basel has given us Wynnwood, and April was amazing, but still not much has changed in Miami. Most young artists / musicians, upon a taste of success, will still move to NY or LA for the Grail. Although we are doing good, (this thread is awesome) I hear in my head The Wolf from Pulp Fiction: let’s not start sucking each others dicks just yet . . .

  17. 17 Daniel Smith said at 4:13 pm on November 30th, 2011:

    Florida is indeed a cultural and intellectual wasteland. I suffered through four years being trapped in South Florida and never want to go near the place again..ever. For sheer ignorance, materialism, racism, mean-spiritedness and lack of interest in anything of value, this place ranks right up there as #1…As for corruption, let’s not forget Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris and those 80,000 people denied their legal right to vote or the 3,000 ‘Jews for Buchanan’ vote in W. Palm Beach. As for culture, it’s a huge joke….Fourth rate entertainers are considered ‘stars’ in country clubs. Even such as the Boca ‘Pops’ folded, forget about a real orchestra. No replies please.

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