Miami’s Art Scene Looks to Ownership for Longevity

by Michael Anthony Farley on January 27, 2016 Interview

A lot for sale in Little Haiti, Miami.

A lot for sale in Little Haiti, Miami.

In nearly every city, the art world is feeling the pinch from rising rents and a dwindling supply of large, affordable spaces for making or exhibiting work. But in Miami, a growing number of gallerists are opting to buy their own real estate—putting the breaks on a cycle of gentrification and the instability that comes with renting.

And they’re leaving Wynwood—until recently the undisputed center of Miami’s gallery scene—in droves. Many gallerists, studios, and artists are looking north to Little Haiti to rent or buy. I sat down with Brook Dorsch (of gallery Emerson Dorsch), Nina Johnson-Milewski (of Gallery Diet), and the couple Annie Berkowitz and Jordan Trachtenberg, who recently opened the new &gallery in a building they bought for their own design and real estate offices. Collectively, they’re transforming a suburban-looking stretch of NW 2nd Ave into Miami’s latest—and permanent—arts neighborhood. We discussed the merits of property ownership and strategies for making it more accessible to Miami’s art community. 

Michael Anthony Farley: So just just to start off, could you each briefly talk about your galleries, their history, and new locations?

And Gallery

&Gallery, at 6306 NW 2nd Ave, across the street from Gallery Diet.

Jordan-TrachtenbergJordan Trachtenberg: Well, we ended up buying our building in early 2014. We opened the gallery at the end of that year. The idea behind the building was that it would be a place for creatives—a resource. We ended up going out and talking to people about what they would like to do with these spaces. We decided we wanted a space that would support the neighborhood’s emerging artists that would be right next to my office.

As for the gallery itself, Annie can probably talk more about that.


Annie-BerkowitzAnnie Berkowitz: Yes, so we originally weren’t sure what to do with this space. As a realtor I had all these artists reaching out to me and saying “I need a studio! I need a place to show my work! I need a space for this pop-up installation!” And those artists got us thinking that we should turn this space into something that people can really use. That’s where the conversation started. The gallery today is definitely [more than] we thought it would be. Originally it was just going to be a bunch of walls people could show art on that I’d manage.

Jordan Trachtenberg:  Right! We just wanted to provide a platform for people in the area to put their art on the walls. But then it kind of evolved into a platform for specific artists—that are local—to work on making this into an actual emerging gallery. So we didn’t actually come from anywhere else—we were sort of born and bred on this block

Gallery Diet

Gallery Diet recently renovated a former church at 6315 NW 2nd Ave and smaller residential structures into a gated compound with multiple sizes of exhibition space and indoor-outdoor spaces.

Nina-Johnson-MilewskiNina Johnson-Milewski: I opened Gallery Diet in 2007 in Wynwood, at the corner of NW 2nd Ave and 23rd St. We were tenants in that space and actually had a really positive experience! We did have a really good relationship with our landlords, who were Goldman Properties. They’re some of the rare property owners who put monetary value on the cultural capital that artists and galleries contribute. We actually expanded twice in that location, taking over buildings that were adjacent to us. By the time we left we were a little over 30,000 square feet. But about a year before we left I started looking at properties just because of the fact that it really felt that for culture to have a long-term foothold in a city that is as rapidly developing as Miami it was important for the cultural producers to own their properties. So I started looking for a space that I felt had the kind of architecture that is indicative of the qualities that make Miami Miami [A series of structures organized around a central courtyard and private outdoor space rather than a storefront]. And it took me about a year to find that. And that was when I found this property in April of 2015. We moved and opened our first exhibition here the 5th of November that year.

Brook-Dorsch-Brook Dorsch: I started my gallery in November of 1991 in the Roads area of Miami, just near Vizcaya. I rented an apartment above a drugstore that was about 1,000 sq feet and two bedrooms. I lived there and started showing work as well. I was there for about nine years.I had a great relationship as a tenant there as well, but I always thought I wanted to own something. I had a lot of issues with the city. They told me that I couldn’t run a gallery in an apartment.


One day this wonderful woman from the city came to me and said. “I found a loophole!” So they [zoned] me “art gallery with incidental caretaker’s quarters”. So I was the “incidental caretaker.” That’s how and I was able to stay there for a number of years but I knew that there were a lot of issues with you know fire code, stairs, and so forth. It was a great space I loved it, but I started looking for a building in 1999. It was eight or nine months before I found something. It was actually my mother who found this ad in the Miami Herald for a warehouse with a house for sale. I went by to look at it and I thought I couldn’t even walk into the building. This was around 24th street where Nina would later move. But I couldn’t even walk into the building it was filled with so much garbage and just really nasty, but I said “this is perfect!”

It was a massive—almost seven thousand square foot warehouse with thirteen foot ceilings and fifty feet wide. It was perfect. I built an apartment for myself in the back. I opened there on January 3rd of 2000. And that was one month after Bernice [Steinbaum Gallery] opened on the corner of Miami Ave and 36th street. About a year and a half later we got together and started the Wynwood Art District with a few other gallerists and people from the Rubell Collection.

Michael Anthony Farley: So you got there before Tony Goldman? [Note: Tony Goldman was a controversial developer who escalated gentrification in New York’s SoHo, Miami’s Wynwood, and similar neighborhoods while including the arts in re-branding efforts through set-aside space for galleries and artist commissions.]

Brook-Dorsch-thumbnailBrook Dorsch: I think so! In that area of Wynwood I was the first commercial gallery there. Locust project had been in the area since 1989, but they’re a nonprofit, and of course the Bakehouse [a complex of artist studios] has been there forever. But for the most part the commercial galleries had always been on main thoroughfares—36th street, Miami Avenue—if you look at the early maps of Wynwood it’s just me and Locust Projects as lone outposts. Of course now that intersection is like the ground zero of Wynwood. So in 2015 I sold that place and bought my place in Little Haiti, which took a while.

A rendering of Emmerson Dorsch's property at 5900 NW 2nd Ave, which is presently under renovation.

A rendering of Emerson Dorsch’s property at 5900 NW 2nd Ave, which is presently under renovation.

We’re hoping to be open by the end of the summer. But we keep making changes to the plans. The gallery was mainly run by myself for many years as Dorsch Gallery. And then I met my wife in 2004. She went to Bard for Curatorial Studies and when she came back she wanted to work with me on the gallery. So when I re-renovated the [Wynwood] gallery in 2013 we renamed it Emerson Dorsch and now we both run the gallery together.

So now we’re moving right here, up NW 2nd Ave next to our lovely neighbors here, and we’re so excited to be in the neighborhood.

Michael Anthony Farley: It’s great that happened. I’m so happy I’ll still be able to gallery-hop! Did you all seek each other out? &Gallery was here first, right?

Jordan-Trachtenberg-thumbnailJordan Trachtenberg: No, I think it happened organically. We were just talking a little about this before.



Nina-Johnson-Milewski-ThumbnailNina Johnson-Milewski: Yeah! I had a client who knew Jordan, and when I came to look at this building I asked “what is this gray building across the street?”



Jordan-Trachtenberg-thumbnailJordan Trachtenberg:  And then he introduced the two of us directly under that umbrella and I ended up showing Nina around.



Nina-Johnson-Milewski-ThumbnailNina Johnson-Milewski: I know for my part—and I don’t know if you feel similarly, coming from Wynnwood—one of the detriments to being in Wynwood was that the politics of being involved in a neighborhood were so time consuming and so directly at odds with what was productive as a gallerist. I mean, I wasn’t seeking that again. Brook, You founded the Wynwood Art Association! You were president at some point…

Brook-Dorsch-thumbnailBrook Dorsch: Oh for a number of years. And it became a real burden. Because at that point trying to herd fifty-odd gallerists and dealers together became like trying to herd cats.


Nina-Johnson-Milewski-ThumbnailNina Johnson-Milewski: And then I was president of it at a point in time where it was becoming something else. I was suddenly this “Champion for Culture” against a number of voices who were pushing for other things. And that just isn’t my interest! I’m not a civic leader—that’s not what I want to do with the gallery. You know it’s sort of like choosing to buy a house in a neighborhood where there are regulations and a homeowner’s association versus choosing to buy a house in an area where you’re an autonomous homeowner. And I think choosing to be here was choosing the latter, you know?

Brook-Dorsch-thumbnailBrook Dorsch: And I had been looking all over the place. I actually had this huge project that I was going to sink a ton of money into, I had approached Nina about. It would’ve been a huge money pit. I think I was clinically insane at that point! 40,000 square foot property with seven buildings we were going to make a little complex out of. It would have been amazing, but it had a lot of zoning issues and we were trying to figure out how to make it work which is just really tough.I probably would’ve killed myself by now [had I stuck with that larger project over my new building].

Jordan-Trachtenberg-thumbnailJordan Trachtenberg: And when I was looking at the property, it wasn’t under the same umbrella [of imagining a commercial gallery location]. I actually worked quite a bit on the design side with the Haitian American Community Development Association and I saw that the location—surrounded by all this county property, close to Wynwood, close to 95—made a lot of sense. That’s what laid the foundation for the gallery. It was all about purchasing based on proximity and availability.

Annie-Berkowitz-ThumbnailAnnie Berkowitz: Oh, I mean you can get to places in Miami faster from our new building than from my office in the Design District or Wynwood. I just came from Coral Gables and it took me 10 minutes [driving].


Brook-Dorsch-thumbnailBrook Dorsch: It’s very true, being as central as it is. And even Wynwood felt like that before it had all that traffic. But really it’s a central location.



Nina-Johnson-Milewski-ThumbnailNina Johnson-Milewski: I think there’s a lot to be said for organic development. Which is often overlooked in a city like Miami where neighborhoods have historically been developed with a sense of intentionality. Going back to the turn of the century, you’ve had someone coming in and buying a large piece of land and saying “this is going to be the Mediterranean community. This is going to be Coral Gables.” That was something that was developed—it wasn’t something that happened by happenstance. And I think we’re at a kind of moment historically where now people are choosing to develop the city in a particular manner—which is that they’re developing it for themselves.  Certainly I think the creative class is thinking that way. Both in terms of their personal lives and their work lives. And I think that’s how you end up with happy accidents. Because people are looking for similar things—they want proximity, they want affordability, they want a particular architecture—and it’s only natural that several of us would buy in the same area.

Brook-Dorsch-thumbnailBrook Dorsch: I was sort of in this position where I had a pretty short timeline. And I did look in other areas. And I looked in places like East Hialeah and I said “No. This doesn’t make any sense to me.” Like you were saying, proximity is such a huge issue. There’s been such a drive to get people to go to Opa Locka for such a long time. And there’s good deals to be had, but the city just isn’t financially [solvent], there’s so much corruption. And it would take such a long, long time if you actually wanted to develop something there. That’s just not what I wanted to do. I just wanted to find a nice place where I could have my gallery. And I knew that finding something I could fix up [would increase the value of the building].

Jordan-Trachtenberg-thumbnailJordan Trachtenberg: Ownership is laying the foundation for what you do and not relying on someone else.

Miami is going through a Renaissance we’ve never experienced. This is a city where everything comes in waves. There’s a certain quality of people and atmosphere and culture here that was never here before. Miami is housing different types of businesses we’ve never had before. The creative community—from the design side to the people opening galleries—are laying the foundation for this new population that wasn’t really here before. I mean, Miami is small and it seems like there’s so much land. But in terms of proximity to the truly urban core, all of that property has already been speculated to the point where prices have increased so dramatically that it doesn’t offer an opportunity for that creative class.

Michael Anthony Farley: That’s something I wanted to touch on: it seems as if there’s almost an induced shortage of real estate in the center city as a result of developers buying up every plot near Downtown and Midtown and demolishing whatever was there. It’s like scorched-earth gentrification, which is truly remarkable. I imagine it’s a very challenging city for emerging artists and young people to buy real estate or a starter home. There are entire neighborhoods where it just seems like there are no structures left.

Brook-Dorsch-thumbnailBrook Dorsch: Exactly. When I was in the Coral Way space, I started looking for real estate south of downtown, around 1999, and I found this building—a shell with no roof, just basically four walls—and I said “this is a great building! Let’s see if we can fix this up!” And so I called the realtor… and it was a million dollars. I said “but there’s nothing around here! This is totally dirt!” At the time there was one restaurant on the corner, and that was it. I had no idea the developers had a plan in place for Mary Brickell Village. And that was what it became—a million dollar shell. I looked at a former Fed Ex building a few blocks away and that was 1.5 million. You just never see the plans in the background that developers have coming down the pipeline and the rezoning they’ve been able to do with a property. Everyone thinks “Let me buy this now before that happens.” because nobody knows how the zoning will change. But at some point you reach a maximum of what you can do. I mean, you see that in Chelsea [New York], where people are charging way too much for rent.

Nina-Johnson-Milewski-ThumbnailNina Johnson-Milewski: I have a friend represented by a Chelsea gallery that pays $40,000 a month in rent! They’re about to leave because they just received notice that the rent is going up to $80,000 a month. I mean, sure they’re a gallery that’s selling work for millions… but $80.000/month just doesn’t make sense. Economically I think we’re at a point where the brick-and-mortar is increasingly less valuable. You have to really question why you are a gallery. Why a gallery is important. What role a brick-and-mortar gallery plays . What parts of that roll you’re interested in participating in. And how space, real estate, and value fit into that picture.

I think that is something most galleries don’t do. That’s something most galleries “get” because it’s definitely a model-based business where you kinda follow the trends or the mandates of what’s been in place historically. Like if all the galleries at the moment are on the Lower East Side, you’re going to want to go open a gallery on the Lower East Side. And you’re going to go there and pay whatever rent is being demanded as opposed to working backwards and asking ”well actually, where do my buyers come from? Where are my dollars best spent? Should I be spending this money on rent or should I be spending this money to produce shows or produce catalogues or travel or have a presence online?” I think those questions become unavoidable, especially when you’re in a “peripheral” city like Miami.

Michael Anthony Farley: That’s an interesting segue into a concern I’ve had. As there’s a sort-of artist diaspora from the center city, and obviously the beach, I worry that people from other cities who might be here for Basel or just visiting might never make it out to galleries increasingly farther and farther out. Do you worry that the Miami art scene might be priced out of having visibility in it’s own city?

Brook-Dorsch-thumbnailBrook Dorsch: I don’t think that’s anything to worry about, if for no other reason than knowing the history of Miami. Before Wynwood, [the art scene in] Miami had always been very spread-out. You had small concentrations of galleries in Coral Gables, you had some in Miami Beach, earlier you had galleries up in Bal Harbor, and a few in the Design District. So everything’s always been so spread out. Wynwood was actually the first time people said “Well, it’s about time now, we need an art neighborhood” so people actually came together… and then of course the reverse happened! So I think the collectors, your audience, will find you. I’m not sure location is all that important.

Nina-Johnson-Milewski-ThumbnailNina Johnson-Milewski: I think it’s a sign of maturity. I think it’s a very infantile state to feel that all the galleries have to be in the same area. Like, when all the galleries feel the pressure to do that, I think they’re relying on—for lack of a better term—the hype. Like, relying on the hype or excitement of proximity to build their business. I think it’s a sign of maturity to say, “not only will our clients follow us physically” but it’s indicative of how the global art market works—which is unlocal, which is the fact that some of these paintings will be going overseas, some will be staying here, and some will be going domestically far away. You can do that from anywhere.

Michael Anthony Farley: Oh, totally. I wasn’t considering location as cache, but location from the logistical point of view of a visitor. It’s sometimes really hard to physically get to the art you want to see in Miami.

Brook-Dorsch-thumbnailBrook Dorsch: That’s only really an issue during Basel! [laughing]



Jordan-Trachtenberg-thumbnailJordan Trachtenberg: Yeah, specifically for that Annie and I worked with the city’s trolley bus system.



Annie-Berkowitz-ThumbnailAnnie Berkowitz: We arranged to have a trolley stop here [during Art Basel week] in front of our building. So we had a constant stream—every 30 minutes the trolley would stop by—we’d have people coming in, people on their way out to go down to Wynwood. It would run down NW 2nd, down to Wynwood, then back up Biscayne through MiMo. It was really cool. Maybe one day the city will see the success of that and do it permanently.

Michael Anthony Farley: That would be great. As the part-time Miamian, who is a transplant, I have to say I’d love to see the city recognize the value of public transportation. Just from personal experience, I find it’s sometimes hard to get a crowd to come to events that are a little out-of-the-way, often because even people with cars don’t want to have to look for parking, etc… 

Nina-Johnson-Milewski-ThumbnailNina Johnson-Milewski: It almost sounds like a joke, but Uber has changed the city. Even at a personal level, Uber has changed my life: not having to drive artists all over town… even I take it sometimes! I think it’s opened [the city] up.


Michael Anthony Farley: That’s partially what the boom of migration from the East Coast to Los Angeles has been attributed to—suddenly these vast, spread-out cities with not a lot of transit are more accessible without having to buy a car.

Brook-Dorsch-thumbnailBrook Dorsch: I’ve always been someone who’s been waiting for better public transportation. When I moved here in 1981 they were just opening the metrorail and we all thought “this is so great! We’re going to have all this [transit]!” but it’s been the same line since it opened! And when they opened the metromover and made the deal for [a new transit accessible location for] PAMM, I thought they should extend the metromover up to Wynwood and Midtown, because it stops just short at the School Board Building. I thought, “Why not just turn that thing and have it head north!”

Michael Anthony Farley: Where there’s a train right-of-way already!

Brook-Dorsch-thumbnailBrook Dorsch: Exactly! What’s stopping this?!? There’s no reason not to.



Jordan-Trachtenberg-thumbnailJordan Trachtenberg: There’s always this disconnect between the masterplan of the city and the infrastructure they lay on top of it. I’m hoping Miami’s catching up, but there’s been so much that’s been built that prevents the extension of a lot of that.


Michael Anthony Farley: So we touched on how ownership is obviously a great way of providing sustainability and longevity for your life/practice, but I was wondering if you had any suggestions for an emerging gallery or artist-run space looking to buy.

Brook-Dorsch-thumbnailBrook Dorsch: Everybody is different. You have to do things at your own pace. It was eight or nine years before I decided I was actually going to do this,

So I made that decision and I was fortunate that I had saved up enough money (I saved every penny I had to buy that building—even then it was by the skin of my teeth, as they say). I remember a month later the vacant lot just to the east of me went on the market for $45,000 and I wanted to buy it so bad, but I just didn’t have any more money to my name because when I bought the place I had to renovate it right away. But it’s all dependent on a lot of uncertainties. If you can swing it financially it makes the most sense in the long run. That’s a fact.

Nina-Johnson-Milewski-ThumbnailNina Johnson-Milewski: And I think there’s an aesthetic side to that too. I know in my case, we were interested in design and architecture as a gallery, but you just cannot afford to invest—smartly—in the architecture or design of a space that you do not own. You know there’s a cap [when renting] with what you can do to a space. I could’ve never brought in a firm or chosen this lighting or made the kind of decisions that we made here on the AC—all in such a considered way—in a building that we didn’t own. But I will say, I think you have to leverage the chips you have. If you’re trying to open a gallery and you only have “X” amount of dollars and you need those dollars for the business of running a gallery itself it does make sense to put those dollars into a building. On the flip side, I think you do need to insist on the dollar value of the cultural capital that you bring to a city. I think that that’s something that all of us—Whether dealer, artist, architect, cafe owner—do not place the right amount of value on. [Our contributions are] vastly undervalued in our culture. And I think we’re taken for granted. Not just by developers: by city officials, by clients, by whomever.

I cannot tell you, since we bought this building, how many times people have walked through that door expecting free real estate advice.You know? Guess what? You want my advice? You’re going to pay me for it! That would be a given in any other industry in the world. I do not call my friends who are attorneys and presume to ask them to represent me in a case without paying them! And I think that artists really, need to keep that in mind. Because we’re the first ones to be asked “Show me around this neighborhood! Tell me about this building! Who owns it? Who was the landlord? What about your neighbor next door?” That advice has a dollar amount. It’s the same thing as a tenant—if your landlord comes by and says “Oh my god! Your space is so great! What should I do with the space next door?” All of that advice has a value.

Jordan-Trachtenberg-thumbnailJordan Trachtenberg: And of course when you’re a property owner that advice-value can be given in a way that you can help curate your neighbors. You can be selective with who you choose to give that information to so that you’re bringing in the right people. Like on a smaller scale, we’ve just received Pan-American Art Projects as our tenant, so they’re moving right across the street. They’re going to be a great addition to what’s happening here. So of course our information can be selectively shared in a way that we’re building the community we want to have here.

Annie-Berkowitz-ThumbnailAnnie Berkowitz: We had many people approach us about that corner space. We kept saying “It doesn’t feel right. No, we don’t want that.”



Jordan-Trachtenberg-thumbnailJordan Trachtenberg: And it wasn’t about the income, right? It was about something bigger.



Annie-Berkowitz-ThumbnailAnnie Berkowitz: Yes! The Pan-American move worked out so organically.



Jordan-Trachtenberg-thumbnailJordan Trachtenberg: And also Annie, as a realtor, is like our connective tissue to a lot of the landowners around here, so she’s been influential in aligning specific galleries we want on this corridor here, emerging galleries like ours.


Nina-Johnson-Milewski-ThumbnailNina Johnson-Milewski: And that’s great from a civic perspective too. I think there are so many things that other industries demand of our policy-makers. Culture at large is not very good at getting involved. And there’s a reason for that—it’s not the focus of what we do. But I think it’s something we’ve noticed. In Newport, RI, for example, and you’re running a cultural business you can excuse your clients from paying a sales tax.

Michael Anthony Farley: My neighborhood in Baltimore does that too.

Nina-Johnson-Milewski-ThumbnailNina Johnson-Milewski: And with what the arts have done for Miami, why is that not the case here? If we could say to clients from other cities “If you buy a piece here, there’s no sales tax.” That would be a huge, huge incentive for moving Miami forward. There are so many ways—big and small—that we can ask for some kind of return on the value [we’ve provided the city].

Michael Anthony Farley: Speaking of policy, is there anything the people at this table would like to see change in terms of zoning, planning, strategies for making Miami’s real estate more accessible to artists?

Nina-Johnson-Milewski-ThumbnailNina Johnson Milewski: I’d love to see a tax exemption like the Homestead Tax exemption we have for certain residential real estate extended to certain arts and culture businesses, and to artists themselves. I’d love to the city or one of the big nonprofits provide loans to artists to purchase property. That’s a huge thing. Even if you’re an artist who, on average, earns six figures with your work it’s nearly impossible to get a loan from a bank because you can’t prove steady income.

Brook-Dorsch-thumbnailBrook Dorsch: Yes, it’s too cyclical and too unpredictable; [Lenders] think it’s impossible to guarantee those loans.



Annie-Berkowitz-ThumbnailAnnie Berkowitz: Yep, as a realtor I have those artists who approach me and say “I want a foreclosure. I want something too small or cheap because I can’t get a loan.”



Nina-Johnson-Milewski-ThumbnailNina Johnson-Milewski: Which is crazy! There’s no reason there shouldn’t be a merit-based panel who can easily—based on an artist’s career and CV—tell you “this artist is going to be able to pay these loan payments. If not, one work of theirs is worth a year’s worth of payments. Let’s give this person a loan.” A conventional bank is not ever, ever going to do that. It’s the first thing that so many people on a list of MacArthur [Genius Grant] winners do. So many of them use that money to buy property because they can’t get financing. 

Brook-Dorsch-thumbnailBrook Dorsch: And these aren’t unknown artists who are winning these. These are major, successful people but even they need grants like that in order to buy something. It’s very true.


Nina-Johnson-Milewski-ThumbnailNina Johnson-Milewski: That access to ownership is life changing.

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