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 miamiherald.com. 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.