Words by Liz Tracy
On the surface, it seems like a clever move: getting rich developers to cover the costs of public art. But scratch the veneer, opponents say, and a new phase of the City of Miami’s Art in Public Places plan is at best a mess of unnecessary red tape — and at worst a means for the city to snatch funding from the hands of local artists.
“The city is adding a lot of hoops to something they think is going to create more business,” says Books Bischof, co-founder of the local gallery Primary Projects.
City Planner Efren Nunez, who wrote the ordinance, says Phase I of this legislation was created in response to Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which was set to suspend funding to the city because the city wasn’t meeting requirements for public art. City commissioners approved that phase with little resistance.
The second phase of the ordinance, though, has drawn concern from prominent local artists. Phase II — which will be voted on by city commissioners possibly next month, according to Nunez — would require developers to display public art worth .5 percent to 1.25 percent of their construction costs, depending upon the total cost of the project, or pay between .25 percent and 1 percent of their construction costs into the city’s Art in Public Places fund.
Nunez says the plan would cost taxpayers nothing and could raise as much as $8 million to inject visual art into Miami’s public spaces. Many other local governments in South Florida, including Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County, have similar programs. Nunez says he pulled language from other public art ordinances, both locally and from cities with comparable construction volumes such as Los Angeles.
“Public art is a reflection of the city’s identity and its place in time. Public art inspires and activates everyone’s imagination. It encourages people to think and pay attention,” Nunez says. Through this legislation, he believes, more art will be created in and brought to the city.
But some prominent local artists say Miami’s proposal would give the city far more control than most other municipalities. The rule would give developers an ultimatum: buy art for their private land or pay a fee to the city. Developers would also have to get artwork choices approved by a nine-member city board, which currently includes Dacra developer Craig Robins and a representative of Pérez Art Museum Miami, and use professional appraisers to prove the value.
Bischof is concerned with the power the board would have to decide public art. “What influences this board? Wouldn’t that create cronyism? The art world is already run by the elite,” Bischof says. “This is not going to benefit the local art community unless there’s an incentive-based program.”
Today many developers work with local galleries to place pieces by up-and-coming artists in their projects. Under the new rules, developers would have to either work with the city board instead or opt out by paying the fee. That money would go into a fund also controlled by the city’s board. Opponents say the rules essentially turn the city into a meddling middleman, incentivizing developers to give cash to the city and penalizing those who select their own art by imposing a bunch of red tape. Either way, critics argue, local artists, designers, and gallerists who might otherwise have had the opportunity to work directly with developers to sell their works will lose out.
“What developer would want the city to select art on their behalf?” Nina Johnson says. “It’s less costly to pay the 1 percent to get them off their back. It’s going to be hugely detrimental to a huge source of income to all of us.”
Requiring appraisers could also hurt local artists, opponents say. Local, up-and-coming artists aren’t likely to be valued high enough to meet the city’s benchmarks, which could lead developers to select works by more established artists instead. That makes the plan “about dollars and not art,” argues Adam Gersten, owner of the bar Gramps in Wynwood. He is also on the City of Miami Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board and Wynwood Business Improvement District (BID), which met with Nunez to discuss this legislation.
“It’s really about putting money into a fund that is to be administered by a board with no track record,” Gersten says. “More than that, there were numerous examples given by our board in which the system could be gamed and which would be of no benefit to our community or artists in our community.”
Nunez says the city would use independent appraisers. “Art banks let us know what a work is trading at… It’s like a Kelly Blue Book for art,” he insists. “There’s nothing in the legislation that prohibits local artists’ work from being integrated into development sites.”
Gallerists such as Bischof and Johnson, of the eponymous Little Haiti gallery, both already have relationships with developers to provide artwork, and stand to lose that business. “The devil is in the details,” Johnson says. “They’re trying to levy this tax to rob the local galleries, everyone from emerging to midcareer galleries, from new clients. Condos and hotels buying art is a huge way we make money down here.”
Even arguably Miami’s most famous public art — the murals of Wynwood — wouldn’t technically fit the city’s standards for the program, Johnson says. Graffiti wouldn’t be considered to have value according to the originally proposed ordinance, which spurred some pushback and a six-month conversation with the Wynwood BID. Nunez says that as a result, the city “gave Wynwood the ability to approve their own guidelines, requirements, and review boards for approval for public art.”
But the vice chairman of Wynwood’s BID, Albert Garcia, says exempting his neighborhood doesn’t solve the underlying problem. “The way the legislation is drafted today, most of the art in Wynwood wouldn’t qualify as art. So this legislation would remove the chance that a new Wynwood would be created, and it would not let Wynwood continue to be Wynwood.”
Garcia says the community knows what it needs in terms of developing culture. “The artistic progress in Wynwood is a collaboration between the artistic community and private sector, and it’s a grassroots, organic process. The Wynwood BID doesn’t have any say on what art is. We believe art is an expression [and] that the government should stay out of it. We want to incentivize, to protect art, and encourage developers to incorporate it as they see fit.”
But local artists could suffer more, he continues. “They stand the most to lose if they aren’t recognized as legitimate artists whose work doesn’t qualify by [the city’s] standards of what art is. It’s a slippery slope for government to define what art is.”
City commissioners will vote on it in late summer or early fall, possibly September 7.