In keeping with its Miami roots, Wynwood Walls, the outdoor street art museum that helped revolutionize this downtown industrial neighborhood, is not so much getting a facelift but full-body cosmetic surgery, complete with touch-ups, new murals, and host of tweaks intended to make her even more of a stunner.
“It’s going to knock your socks off,” said Tony Goldman, the real estate maven who jumpstarted the reinvention of Wynwood as an arts district when he spent $35 million on 25 properties here beginning in 2004. Known as the force behind SoHo’s revival in New York, Goldman has breathed new life into downtown Philadelphia and Boston. In Florida, The New York Times dubbed him the “granddaddy of South Beach,” as one of the first to recognize the “American Riviera” in what was then a decaying seafront wasteland.
Two decades later, Goldman capitalized on the energy already reverberating in Wynwood, seeing in its growing nucleus of artists and rows of abandoned warehouses “all the DNA of an arts district … I thought, ‘what can I do to bring pedestrians to the streets?’”
Enter Wynwood Walls, what he envisions as a plaza in the midst of a village of art, a living, breathing museum showcasing the creations of the street. Launched at Art Basel 2009 with 12 murals, the exhibit this year is growing to 20 pieces. Goldman also is expanding on the Walls’ younger sibling, Wynwood Doors, and plans to offer new performance art and a pop-up shop during Art Basel 2011.
Once nicknamed “Little San Juan” for the many transplanted Puerto Ricans who worked in the textile factories here, Wynwood crumbled after those jobs disappeared, turning into a slum. When real estate developer David Lombardi began buying property 10 years ago, he said 70 percent of the neighborhood was vacant. Only two galleries existed.
Rampant with gang graffiti, it was “full of rats, full of the homeless, full of drugs and prostitution,” said Celso Ahumada, who directs the city’s neighborhood enhancement team for Wynwood. Now the area — bound roughly by Northwest 36th Street, Northeast First Avenue, Interstate 95 and Northwest 20th Street — is home to more than 70 galleries.
For District 3 Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who represents Wynwood, Overtown and Little Haiti, the Walls and surrounding arts projects, “are really bringing in economic development.” She noted she’d like to see residential areas improve too, but acknowledged, “that doesn’t happen overnight.”
In part, Goldman and others have revitalized by capitalizing on the very facet seen as a neighborhood’s scourge: its street art. Making lemons into lemonade is the essence of Wynwood, said Lombardi, who owns 40 properties.
To Goldman, street art is an exciting, dynamic art form still under-appreciated by the mainstream, though that is changing quickly, particularly since London’s Tate Modern’s 2008 “Street Art” show proved the field’s commercial viability.
Goldman wanted his museum outdoors, to maintain street art’s characteristic interaction with and evolution alongside its environment. He saw it as a place where people could appreciate art without the stuffiness of a gallery. In 2009, Goldman collaborated with contemporary arts guru Jeffrey Deitch, now director of the Los Angeles Contemporary Arts Museum. The two recruited established greats such as Kenny Scharf, a key figure in the 1980s East Village art scene who has worked with Keith Haring, international artists like Japanese pop artist Aiko, and hometown favorites Jim Drain.
“The idea is to pay homage to the greatest legends and mix them with the scene’s young super stars,” Goldman said. “But you need the greats to attract attention.”
That has come, as word of the Walls spread in the art world. Tourists began including it on their itinerary.
“It definitely draws a lot of people,” Lombardi said. “What Tony has done is kind of avant garde … a compound of murals by internationally recognized artists that we wouldn’t necessarily get to see if he hadn’t invited them.”
Ever-the-perfectionist, Goldman said he wasn’t quite satisfied with 2010’s outcome, when he curated the exhibit alone. “You hope for an A+,” he said recently.
This year, Goldman turned to arts consultant Medvin Sobio for help, who recommended artists from Mexico, Spain and the Ukraine, “artists we would never have heard about. He’s just really plugged into street art,” said Meghan Coleman, Goldman’s arts manager.
On a recent afternoon, an artist who goes by just the initial b. took a break from the design he sketched on a 40-foot-long wall in the back garden. Trained as an architect, the 29-year-old Athens, Greece native has painted large-scale murals in Brazil and Japan, and caught Goldman’s eye at the Tate Modern. At Wynwood, the painter is preparing a maelstrom of symbols of modern life, from a hamburger to a gas mask and a Christmas tree, interspersed with hands trying to claw out of the chaos. He sees it as a reflection of the global economic crisis and an overly consumerist culture.
Like many of his peers, his work evolved out of street art’s rougher cousin graffiti. The same thing happened to Gaia, 22, who grew up in New York “doing really horrific graffiti on people’s roofs.”
His giant red-toned portrait of Henry Flagler, known as the father of Miami, has “Overtown,” scrawled over the top of the oil tycoon’s scalp, a reference to the neighborhood’s origin as a home for his black workers. I-95, the construction of which decimated the then-thriving area, is to the right.
‘Art has a lot of different functions,” Gaia said. “I guess one is to make people uncomfortable.”