How Miami Became an Art World Capital

November 30th, 2023
Exterior view of Nina Johnson, Miami. Courtesy of Nina Johnson.

By Maxwell Rabb

On the sun-soaked beaches of South Florida, Miami is among the western hemisphere’s leading nexuses of contemporary art. Since Art Basel’s inaugural U.S. fair in Miami Beach in 2002, the city has transformed from a regional art enclave into a global art stronghold. This transformation is particularly evident during Miami Art Week, which is set to attract more than 1,200 international galleries to its 20 art fairs. The two largest, Art Basel in Miami Beach and Untitled Art Fair, will feature 277 and 163 exhibitors, respectively.

Miami’s ascension as a global art capital can be attributed mainly to the growth of its close-knit community of artists and art enthusiasts that has coincided with the city’s rapid population upsurge. Between 2002 and 2022, the city’s population has increased by 22% from 362,470 to 441,889. This growth has also been highlighted by an expansion in the city’s cultural and artistic industries.

Amid this global recognition and what Forbes magazine has called a real estate “super-boom-growth,” there is a growing emphasis on protecting Miami’s rich artistic scene through various initiatives and programs. Among them is the debut of “Making Miami,” a public art exhibition, on view across four indoor gallery spaces connected by the Sculpture Garden in the Miami Design District, from December 6th through December 26th. The exhibition will present work from Miami-based artists, such as and , who lived and worked in the city between 1996 and 2012.

“Histories need to be told, or otherwise, they will forever disappear,” said Vivek Jayaram, who founded the exhibition with his wife Carolina. “I’m hoping this [show] can raise awareness, certainly in Miami, but also in other cities that are experiencing a lot of extraordinary exponential, pandemic-fueled growth. To take a beat and understand and think for a moment about how we can build these cities while taking into account the creatives that really helped make it unique to begin with.”

“Making Miami” emerges from the Jayaram family’s devotion to the city’s thriving art scene. Vivek moved to Miami 20 years ago and established a law firm specializing in uplifting creatives. Now, he and Carolina plan to funnel the city’s global attention back to the homegrown art communities. At the same time, Miami’s international standing draws positions it uniquely in the art world.

“Miami is a really fascinating market,” said Jeff Lawson, the founder of Untitled, which was established in 2012 and has since become the most diverse fair during Miami Art Week. “It’s the only market in the world that supports this type of ecosystem. At the same time, [Miami] still doesn’t have a tremendous amount of galleries. We’ve seen that grow…but it’s a really interesting market where people come from all over the world. With that said, we have definitely seen a consistent uptick in people who are focused on not only supporting the arts but also collecting [work by artists] that are based locally. We’ve seen [that] grow year over year.”

The growth of prominent art world events such as Art Basel and Untitled has been accompanied by increasing support for local art and artists. This encouragement is fueled not only by backing from the city but also by initiatives like the Knight Foundation’s grant program, which has infused more than $165 million into the art scene. This funding has created a fertile environment for the arts in Miami, supporting institutions such as The Bass Museum and Locust Projects.

From avant-garde spaces like Locust Projects in Little River to esteemed institutions like the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA Miami) in the Design District, there is also a palpable commitment to nurturing and promoting new artistic talents within the city’s institutions.

“This is an extraordinary time for artists practicing in Miami,” said Alex Gartenfeld, the artistic director at ICA Miami. “There’s a lot of great Miami-based artists who live here, who have moved back here, who trace their roots here, and who are showing in Miami and around the world. We’ve been able to work alongside them to ensure that they’re represented in our collection.”

Miami’s gallery scene—though less populated than art capitals such as Paris or New York—also stands out for its deep commitment to reflecting the city’s diverse population. Serving as platforms for emerging and established talent, these galleries enrich the city throughout the year, creating a foundation to enhance the global appeal of major art events. Yet challenges loom as the city faces a soaring cost of living, now 21% above the national average, according to Payscale. This surge in living expenses has led to a decentralization of the city’s art scene, as inflated housing prices push artists and galleries beyond traditional centers.

“The price of living in Miami and Miami Beach has become unbelievably high, and as a result, there is no longer any dense, mobilized community of creatives,” Vivek said. “Artists have been priced out of housing and of studios. So, as a result, you don’t have this insane roster of people all working in close proximity to each other because it’s just not possible. The creative communities have suffered because it is becoming a lot harder to build and have a sustainable creative career here in Miami.”

Despite this, galleries like , established in 2007, and , founded in 2009, remain stalwarts in Miami’s art scene. The galleries are a testament to the city’s resilience, adapting to market changes—many of which were onset by the pandemic—while maintaining a strong local focus. Nina Johnson skillfully balances showcasing ultra-contemporary artists, such as and , with attracting international attention—a testament to its ability to evolve with the global art market.

This adaptability aligns with founder Nina Johnson’s observation: “What makes Miami an interesting place to work—particularly as it relates to the arts—is that we are more quickly encountering the problems of the 21st century, like climate change, income disparity, or political extremism, all of the things that are clearly going to be increasingly relevant across the United States over the next 50 years or 20 years.”

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  • Exterior view of Nina Johnson, Miami. Courtesy of Nina Johnson.
  • Emmett Moore, Seafoam Brisoleil, 2023, Nina Johnson