A solitary bicycle stands at the intersection of NE 2nd Ave and NE 78 St in Little Haiti, Miami. An empty street stretches out, with a green building and a traffic light in the backdrop.

Corner of NE 2nd Ave & NE 78 St, Little Haiti, Miami, 2023.

Photo by Anastasia Samoylova. Commissioned by Hyundai Artlab for Artlab Editorial.

In the first of a three-part series about the rapidly changing city of Miami and impact on its arts communities, 2023 Artlab Editorial Fellow Laurie Rojas gets acquainted with Miami, the wild south of the art world. In her reported essay, she speaks to artists in Little Haiti about their experience as she contemplates her recent move from Berlin to Hialeah.

When I left Berlin a year ago, I felt I needed a change. I had spent the better part of the last fifteen years developing as an art writer while living in major art cities like New York, Chicago, London, and Berlin. With each city, I became increasingly aware of the particularities of each art ecosystem, which I explored in my writing.

Miami presented itself as an opportunity for me to write about a place that was as new as it was familiar. I spent all my childhood Christmases here—I have fond memories of feeding my grandfather’s peacocks and roosters, and harvesting avocados in his garden in the Cuban enclave of Hialeah, which is where I live today.

For my Artlab Editorial Fellowship this year, I will be writing about my transition to the Magic City through three articles about how neighborhoods like Hialeah, Little Haiti, and Miami Beach are changing, and how artists are responding to those changes.

In many ways, Miami is the wild south of the art world. The city’s development into an international art hub has been quite recent and fast-paced, largely propelled by the engine that is Art Basel Miami Beach. As a result of this rapid, largely commercially-driven growth, there are quite a few gaps in the cultural ecosystem. The fact that there are no MFA programs here is a well-known and widely discussed issue. Very few publications publish art criticism, and most artists still feel the need to leave at some point to move their practice forward, especially with rent-hikes and few studio spaces.

On the one hand, Miami’s risk-friendly, entrepreneurial spirit creates an environment where artistic freedom can flourish. Meanwhile, those same factors are what has enabled sweeping gentrification, endangering diverse local communities.

A lone wooden chair sits on the front porch of a yellow house with the number 201, featuring a black metal door and a mailbox.

Chair, NE 2nd Ave & NW 64 St, Little Haiti, Miami, 2023.

Photo by Anastasia Samoylova. Commissioned by Hyundai Artlab for Artlab Editorial.

This summer, it was reported that Miami-Dade County saw its first population loss in decades. This wasn't news to anyone trying to make a living in the Miami art world.

In July, a Miami Herald op-ed co-authored by Alberto Ibarguen and Dennis Scholl (recently retired CEOs of Knight Foundation and Oolite Arts, respectively) warned Miami of the increasing threat this gentrification presents: “We are in danger of losing this gem of a cultural community just as we’ve solidified it, because of the rising cost of housing.”

When I first decided to relocate to Miami, my dreams of living in Miami Beach were quickly dispelled after scrolling for apartments on Zillow and job postings on Indeed. The pandemic real estate superboom caused a horrendous affordability crisis. Many cultural managers and artists have been displaced to the outskirts of Miami-Dade, or even priced out to neighboring counties.

The once-vibrant Wynwood has now given way to tech and finance professionals, leaving galleries and artists searching for new spaces in neighborhoods like Allapatah, home to the Rubell Museum, Superblue, and the Pérez Family’s Espacio 23; or towards north Miami, in areas such as Little Haiti. The whole of South Florida is now one gigantic sprawl bigger than London.

Hialeah is a residential suburb about 30 minutes north-west of Miami. It was the Cuban-American artist Rafael Domenech who encouraged me to drop my anchor here. When I met him in Berlin during his show at Hua International, we bonded over a shared appreciation for the surreal spaces that make up South Florida. Rafa also introduced me to Lorie Mertes, the Executive Director of Locust Projects, Miami’s oldest remaining non-profit alternative art space, which is where I currently work.

Founded 25 years ago in Wynwood by artists Western Charles, COOPER, and Elizabeth Withstandley, Locust Projects is a space that facilitates collaborations between local and visiting artists, and fosters unconventional works free from commercial pressures or institutional constraints. It has played a pivotal role in propelling the careers of many artists, including Daniel Arsham and Pepe Mar. Its history is also a perfect case study in charting Miami’s shifting cultural landscape.

A vibrant yellow and blue building at the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami, with palm trees surrounding it on a clear, sunny day. A street sign and a one-way sign are positioned in the front.

Little Haiti Cultural Center, Miami, 2023.

Photo by Anastasia Samoylova. Commissioned by Hyundai Artlab for Artlab Editorial.

Opening in Wynwood in 1998, Locust Projects ventured north to the Design District in 2010, where it thrived in at least two locations until this past February. I joined Locust Projects during its final season in the Design District and have been part of its transition to its new home 30 blocks north in an area known as Little River. Staying true to its pioneering spirit, Locust Project is now located in an 8,000-square-foot former dry-cleaning factory.

A small agricultural and industrial neighborhood that’s quickly becoming an art and cultural hub, Little River is bordered by Little Haiti in the South, El Portal and Miami Shores in the North, and revitalized Biscayne Boulevard and MIMO in the East (determining these borders itself is a politicized topic: for some people, Little River is technically a small neighborhood within Little Haiti instead of its own distinct neighborhood).

Pan American Art Projects is on the same street as Locust Projects. The soon-to-be-built new Oolite Arts Campus will be a few blocks north. And then there's the fantastic indie store, Dale Zine's shop, recently crowned “best bookstore” by Miami New Times. There is a raw, relaxed, and unbridled spirit to this small neighborhood, which has managed to preserve the layers of its past industry and Afro-Caribbean identity even as it continues to evolve. The resulting landscape is one that includes artists' studios, commercial craft fabrication shops, a giant MacArthur Dairy plant, a soccer park, Miami Community Radio, vegan-friendly restaurants, and a Kava bar. Still, this balance is tenuous.

“Over the years, the neighborhood has continued to be a cultural hub for the Haitian diaspora, with numerous Haitian-owned businesses, restaurants, and cultural centers,” local artist Morel Doucet told me in a recent interview. “The community has worked hard to preserve its cultural identity despite external pressures.”

Doucet grew up in Little Haiti, where his mother owns a condo on 75th Street. A former high-school student of artist and art educator Loni Johnson, Doucet creates beautifully haunting works that employ ceramics, colorful silhouettes of Little Haiti residents, native birds, impressions of flora and fauna, and ornate ironwork salvaged from demolished homes to explore the impact of climate change and urban developers on the community.

Morel Doucet is in his studio, diligently working on a sculpture featuring a person and birds. Beaded curtains and abstract art serve as a background.

Morel Doucet in his Studio at Bakehouse Art Complex, Miami, 2023.

Photo by Anastasia Samoylova. Commissioned by Hyundai Artlab for Artlab Editorial.

His recent debut solo exhibition, "Water Grieves in the Six Shades of Death," at Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore, Moucet presents a series of ceramics alongside imagined 2D portraits of the San people (an early hunter-gatherer culture from Southern Africa) and as a new series of multimedia works about Little Haiti.

According to Doucet, the neighborhood was considered a highly undesirable area to live in ten years ago. “I would never have imagined the Miami that we’re experiencing now,” he said. “With its proximity to downtown Miami and the Wynwood Arts District, Little Haiti has attracted real estate developers and investors looking to capitalize on its location and potential.” These days, developers are approaching residents with cash offers and employing various (and often unsavory) tactics to acquire properties, including his mother’s.

In speaking to Doucet, I was left wondering how incoming art institutions and outsiders like me could meaningfully engage with and support the Afro-Caribbean community that built this cultural ecosystem. Before I could ask, Doucet had an answer: “Afro-Caribbean contemporary art is making an impact in Little Haiti, promoting inclusivity and confronting systemic disparities.”

“Artists and locals are expanding the purpose of art to generate a more just and lively community. Partnerships with galleries and organizations offer prospects for wider visibility and involvement, supporting the neighborhood's growth,” Doucet continued.

I still feel very new and naive, but maybe that’s healthy. It prevents me from becoming jaded and cynical—never a good thing for an art critic tightly holding on to the little pleasures and respite art provides. I am still going through the process of shedding my own assumptions about Miami, gradually accepting my position as outsider, as someone not yet ready to judge what they don’t yet fully understand. As an art writer in this city, giving voice to these artists and their work now is crucial; as I’ve witnessed elsewhere in the world, these communities are often ephemeral. I hope to be proven wrong.

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