Karla Ferguson, director of the Yeelen Gallery in Miami, with a portrait by her husband, Jerome Soimaud, called “Isis.” CreditRyan Stone for The
New York Times.

The New York Times
Miami’s Art World Sets Sights on Little Haiti Neighborhood

MIAMI — “Everybody’s always looking for the next art neighborhood,” mused Tony Cho, standing amid the scrum outside Gallery Diet. Taking in the scene at its opening night party here, he motioned to another new gallery across the street, its neon sign punctuating an otherwise darkened stretch of this city’s Little Haiti neighborhood. “It’s going to happen here.”

All the key art world participants were present: affluent collectors, museum curators, local artists and not least, investors like Mr. Cho, chief executive of Metro 1 Properties in Miami and a figure associated with the art-linked real estate surge in the once-industrial Wynwood neighborhood, 30 blocks south.

Signs of Little Haiti’s impending transformation are everywhere. Gallery Diet is one of nearly a dozen art galleries that have relocated from Wynwood to Little Haiti and its adjoining Little River area, including the Michael Jon Gallery (one of only two Miami dealers selected for the annual Art Basel Miami Beach fair in December), as well as the local stalwarts Emerson Dorsch, Pan American Art Projects and Spinello Projects. Some of Miami’s best-known artists have already made the same move, seeking affordable studios, homes or both. Adding a further social element, Wynwood coffeehouse, bar and restaurant owners are also preparing to open spaces in the predominantly working-class Little Haiti.

There is a novel twist to this exodus from Wynwood, however. Many art world denizens are buying their buildings instead of renting them, despite the attraction of Little Haiti and Little River rents that top out at $15 a square foot. Artists and gallery owners are drawing on the painful lessons of the past decade’s explosive growth, when many were priced out of the once-cheap industrial zones in Wynwood that had been the area art scene’s center.

The game-changing nature of this shift — a break from the traditional rootlessness of the bohemian art class — is not lost on Nina Johnson-Milewski, director of Gallery Diet. When Mr. Cho warmly clasped her shoulder and teased: “Congratulations! You’re a developer now,” Ms. Johnson-Milewski looked slightly taken aback. She wryly corrected him: “I’m a micro-developer.”

Labels aside, Ms. Johnson-Milewski said she realized what’s truly at stake: control. “It’s not just about avoiding having your rent jacked up,” she explained. “Ownership symbolizes independence, and for those of us who produce culture, longevity.”

Longevity can be a novel concept in a city like Miami. The 2002 arrival of Art Basel Miami Beach transformed the area, once derided as a cultural backwater, into a feverishly developing destination for art. Scores of galleries sprang to life in Wynwood, helping to create an American art mecca, behind only Los Angeles and New York.

Wynwood pioneers moved into a down-on-its-heels warehouse district and invested their sweat equity, only to find themselves priced out of the neighborhood they helped make so attractive. Wynwood rents fetch upward of $60 a square foot, triple that of just four years ago; spacious warehouses can command $100,000 rental fees during Art Basel for corporate product introductions and media events. Art may remain part of the marketing of Wynwood, used to sell everything from cocktails to condos. But almost all the galleries that put it on the cultural map are gone.

Buying property in a new neighborhood instead of renting may not exactly smack of storming the barricades, but it is increasingly deemed the only way for art workers to break a vicious cycle of art-powered gentrification.

“When our openings started filling with 17-year-olds looking to get drunk, I knew it meant collectors weren’t going to come to Wynwood anymore,” said Karla Ferguson, director of the Yeelen Gallery.

A move to Little Haiti beckoned as her husband, Jerome Soimaud, already spent his days painting finely detailed portraits of the area’s residents. Among the few who owned their Wynwood galleries, the couple said they sold their property for $323,000 and went from 1,100 square feet to 13,000 square feet.

Emerson Dorsch was another of the rare winners in Wynwood who bought its building — a onetime crack house purchased for $120,000 and turned into a vital focal point for emerging talent. This year, the gallery’s directors, Brook Dorsch and Tyler Emerson-Dorsch, his wife, sold their nearly 13,000-square-foot property for $3.05 million, with talk of a Manhattan restaurateur moving in. They promptly sank a good chunk of their windfall into a new Little Haiti space set to open next spring.

“Little Haiti makes me hopeful that there’s still a few places where small-business owners can exist,” Ms. Emerson-Dorsch said.

Little Haiti is hardly an empty vessel awaiting Wynwood’s refugees. Although Haitians are no long the predominant residents of Little Haiti, as they were during the 1980s when thousands fled the notorious Jean-Claude Duvalier regime, the neighborhood retains a strong emotional hold among the island’s diaspora in South Florida. Religious festivals and Haitian roots music concerts draw hundreds from all across Miami. Yet akin to the recent efforts of New York developers to rechristen part of the often-stigmatized South Bronx as the more market-friendly “piano district,” several of Little Haiti’s larger real estate players are adamantly referring to their holdings as part of Little River, or as Lemon City, the area’s largely forgotten name dating to the late-19th century.

Carl Juste, a founder of the Iris PhotoCollective, in Little Haiti, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for The Miami Herald, finds the renaming ludicrous. “If you walk down Northeast Second Avenue,” he said, referring to the neighborhood’s main commercial strip, “you can hear Haitian music and smell griot,” a signature Haitian pork dish. “When was the last time you walked down Northeast Second Avenue and saw someone trying to sell you lemons?”

For the painter Edouard Duval-Carrié, who bought a home and studio in Little Haiti, the key to both the survival of a vibrant Haitian culture and a healthy local art scene remains property ownership. Mr. Duval-Carrié ticked off a dozen nearby studio inhabitants originally from Argentina and Colombia right alongside those from Port-au-Prince. But he worries that too many are still renters and easily pushed out. With speculators snapping up prime parcels, he wonders, is it already too late for a critical mass of property-owning artists to cement themselves into Little Haiti?

To that end, Mr. Duval-Carrié hopes the nonprofit ArtCenter South Florida, which runs a complex of subsidized artist studios on Miami Beach — and where he first landed upon arriving in Miami in 1992 — will relocate to Little Haiti, acting as a tipping point to guarantee that artists permanently remain part of the neighborhood fabric.

ArtCenter bought one of its properties in 1988 for $684,000 and recently sold it for $88 million, giving it the comfort of an endowment larger than any other museum or visual arts organization in South Florida. It has opened a temporary exhibition space in Little River, but board members are split. One camp seeks to buy a new building in the Little Haiti area and repeat its model of providing artists with affordable studios, perhaps adding a residential component. The other faction is mulling breaking with its ownership ethos, instead managing a studio complex that the developer Moishe Mana is building in Wynwood, part of a project stretching across 24 acres and including shops and luxury condo towers.

It is a case of more money, more problems, said ArtCenter’s executive director María del Valle. “We need to do this right,” she said. “I’m not going to allow someone to make a return of 200 percent in one year off of the ArtCenter.”

Ms. del Valle has hopes that the constant jockeying between real estate agents and artists in Miami will work in art’s favor.

“I wish we could spend less time thinking about real estate,” she said with a sigh, “and more time thinking about art.”