The Biscayne Times

Feb 22nd
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Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
December 2017

Will Art Week change the neighborhood, or the other way around?

BPix_EleazarMelendez_12-17ack in 2011, a couple of civic-minded downtown Miami impresarios had a colorful idea -- literally -- to make their voices heard about the poor condition of city sidewalks. Armed with cans of spray paint in various Technicolor shades, downtown nightclub owners Mark Lesniak and Brad Knoefler took to the streets to turn the bush-size weeds growing out of the sidewalks into unavoidable symbols of blight.

Combining Miami’s then-incipient street art ethos with the First Amendment right to petition government for redress of grievances, Knoefler and Lesniak painted the weeds with colors so bright they could no longer be ignored. Passers-by noticed the “art project,” as did the media. So too did the city workers tasked with cleaning the sidewalks. But the so-called “weed bombing” ended up drawing attention to the problem of urban blight and moved the needle a bit toward a cleaner downtown.

That was only one of the many guerrilla installations in recent memory created by downtowners who used paint and other materials to make a political statement by coloring in an obvious problem. Among other efforts, creative activists joined artists in 2013 for a project that painted 26 miles of chalk along most of Biscayne Boulevard and Brickell Avenue, creating a visual shock by highlighting where the shoreline would be were Miami to face six feet of sea level rise.

The public awareness also pushed some uncomfortable conversations at the national level about whether the people furiously purchasing new condo units on the wrong side of that chalk line truly understood what they were buying into.

Fast-forward to 2015, where on a blistering hot day in August, this correspondent met up with hundreds of artists and activists behind the American Airlines arena downtown. Chalk and paint in hand, and with a small army of drone photographers documenting, the group covered three acres of blacktop with drawings.

That Chalktacular highlighted the fact that the asphalt was covering a piece of land that had been promised long ago to the residents of Miami as a waterfront park. Forgotten for years, the promise was once again on the front pages of the papers. Why, people were asking, was their public land being used instead as a parking area for ESPN trucks during Miami Heat games? Asked about the issue by the suddenly attentive TV cameras, the county commissioner for the area, Audrey Edmonson, vowed action and began to work on a plan that is slowly yielding the desired park.

On a more self-referential and commercial level, this year saw David Anasagasti, better known as the artist Ahol Sniffs Glue, turn a small and dingy retail space in one of Flagler Street’s outdated shopping arcades into a trendy gallery for his work. In what probably was an ironic maneuver, but maybe wasn’t, but definitely could have been, Ahol used the space to sell everything from golf balls to shower curtains branded with his art.

The incongruent catalogue mirrors and makes a commentary (though again, maybe not really) on the scores of stores in run-down locations along Flagler Street that are selling overpriced electronics or low-quality luggage, some of which may even double as convenient setups for money laundering.

His pop-up shop opened right across from the new offices of a high-end real estate group that has set its flag on Flagler Street. The ultra-sleek location (decorated with Ahol’s art, of course), was a contrast to the tiny pop-up shop. But the artist’s maybe-commentary on the economically underutilized main street was apparently not lost on the brokers there, who are no doubt daily plotting precisely how to gentrify the area.

As the playwright/poet Bertolt Brecht famously said (or didn’t say; there’s some dispute about the attribution), “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

In downtown Miami, and frankly in many other South Florida neighborhoods, art has been used to fill in spaces devoid of activity or attention, and prompt change. But while art has seemingly been co-opted by the region’s hyperactive real estate industry in places like South Beach and Wynwood, there’s something different about downtown. Maybe art here will eventually suffer the same fate and be sucked into the overarching goal of selling luxury condominium units to foreigners. But for now, there’s still something gritty and raw about downtown that seems to demand a social and civic result from art.

Which is why it will be interesting to see what happens this month, when two of the bigger art fairs in the week-long mother lode of schmoozing that is Art Basel at the downtown Miami site where the Miami Herald building formerly stood. Having lost their previous convention site in Midtown Miami to development, the Art Miami and CONTEXT fairs said last year that they were moving a few blocks east to Biscayne Boulevard, at least for a few years.

Downtowners who might have missed the announcement in the paper last year have been watching for a few weeks, likely with either dread or delight, as the mammoth white tents have gone up. More than 80,000 people are expected to attend various events, which will certainly make for an interesting stress test of the mass transit system in the area.

Will the reality of downtown’s transit woes bring art talk down from its lofty perch and place it instead alongside quotidian complaints about traffic, traffic, traffic?

Could other conversations be ignited around the specific location of the fairgrounds, a site that is a notable impediment in the plan to have Miami citizens enjoy a free open baywalk hugging downtown and Brickell? As the condo owners looking out their balconies watch high-rollers in the fairs’ VIP areas sipping marked-up wine by the bay, will they maybe realize how that privilege should be theirs, too?

Will the location of the show just a few feet away from the city’s still-new art and science museums provide some additional food for thought? As hundreds, if not thousands, of wealthy art buyers park their Maseratis and Aston Martins near those museums, will someone point out how many of those same people seem to be missing in action whenever these institutions find themselves hard up financially?

Will the likely epic waits by cars backed up on surrounding streets to enter the events somehow prompt thoughts on an industry fully underpinned by income inequality? Surely, at least, some motorists not accustomed to being seized on by panhandlers downtown when traffic is slow will have a comment on that.

As these Basel satellites set up shop downtown, will they blend in or stick out like a sidewalk weed spray-painted bright orange?

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