MIAMI — When one door closes, another one opens — or in the case of Fountainhead Studios in Little Haiti, the other door remains ajar.
After 15 years, the nonprofit arts organization’s studio building will be closing its doors to make way for a mixed-use space in the rapidly gentrifying northern area of the neighborhood, originally known as Little River. The 30 artists who called Fountainhead home knew their days in the affordably priced rental were numbered when the building sold in 2016 to real estate mogul Matthew Vanderwerff of MVW Partners, but it became a reality in December 2021, when the building sold again to Adventurous Journeys (AJ) Capital Partners. Artists were told last fall that the doors would be officially closing, but Kathryn Mikesell, Fountainhead founder, negotiated a yearlong, rent-free stay for artists still looking for another place to go while the company waited for proper zoning and demolition permits. (AJ and MVW Partners told Hyperallergic that they offered the free-rent period as a “gesture of goodwill.”)
Now, according to Mikesell, they have until January 2024 in the warehouse space.
“We’ve been in a holding pattern waiting for the building to sell,” said Juana Valdes, an artist who has been renting a studio space in the building since 2011. “We’ve been waiting for a turnover somehow.”
Mikesell founded Fountainhead in 2008 as an affordable and month-to-month studio space for artists. The rent was only ever raised once, to $600 from $300. For working artists, it was an oasis in a quickly gentrifying arts landscape as rent prices in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood skyrocketed to some of the least affordable in the city.
Valdes, like many of the other artists still occupying the space, is unsure where she will go next. As rents increase across South Florida, there are few affordable studio alternatives. While she has no definitive plans, leaving Miami is not off the table.
“It’s just a matter of time before there probably won’t be a lot of artists in Miami, because we just can’t afford it,” said Valdes. “There’s one rule to be an artist: You go where it allows you to make the work.”
AJ Capital Partners, based in Nashville, Tennessee, acquired the majority ownership of MVW’s 24-acre portfolio in 2021. The properties are in what is called an Opportunity Zone, a federal program signed into law in 2017 by former President Donald Trump that provides tax incentives to developers that invest in designated areas.
A group of artists from the studio led by Pangea Kali Virga attempted to form an artist cooperative and find property to acquire to turn into an artist studio space. But Virga and other artists who were involved said they were met with a lot of bureaucracy and red tape. The project is temporarily on pause as they strategize fundraising.
“It is a period of mourning,” said Mikesell. “No matter what, when it actually happens, when the artists have to be out of the space, it’s going to crush me. There’s no way to prepare for it.”
Mikesell hosted a fundraiser for the artists last November, with 100% of ticket sales going directly to the artists. The cement-gray walls that line the maze-like layout of Fountainhead Studios’s warehouse may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing, but they provided the necessary space for convening — at an affordable rate — for local artists working across disciplines. The studios provided a lifeline in a neighborhood rapidly being priced out by hungry developers.
Further south in Little Haiti, at Emerson Dorsch Gallery, alumni of Fountainhead’s residency program are grappling with similar ideas of displacement, loss, and home in their second biennial exhibition, Last Days of a House. Tyler Emerson-Dorsch, a partner at Emerson Dorsch Gallery, says the title is not related to the closure of the studio, but the sentiments evoked mirror the reality that the studio artists are facing.
Curated by Omar López-Chahoud, better known as the artistic director of Miami’s Untitled art fair, the show features 20 previous Fountainhead residents from 12 countries. The month-long residency, in operation since 2008, offers participants a direct connection to the local ecosystem of artists, galleries, and collectors in a mid-century Morningside home. During their stay, they are given space to collaborate with their peers, and engage with the local artist community by way of intimately curated excursions throughout the city. At the end of their stay, Mikesell hosts an open house during which Fountainhead members and locals are invited to engage with the artists.
“At Fountainhead, we do it as much for the artists as we do for the community,” said Nicole Martinez, associate director of Fountainhead. “It really is meant to be a symbiotic exchange of experiencing Miami, and feeding off of the environment authentically.”
Last Days of a House took its inspiration and ethos from an eponymous poem by Cuban author Dulce María Loynaz. Published in 1958, the poem is narrated from the perspective of the house — a fitting tribute to the Fountainhead home. Loynaz paints the house with human characteristics: A house can be very much alive, carrying with it the energy of those who lived with and off of it.
At a moment when Fountainhead Studios is shuttering its doors, its residency program remains a keystone feature in the city’s cultural fabric — a launching pad for artists to collaborate and explore their crafts while bringing international artists and dialogue to locals. Just as Loynaz’s poem posits that she is who she is because and regardless of her ephemeral house, the works in the exhibition are a testament to Fountainhead’s ability to cultivate artists’ strengths. A home, perhaps, exists within the self.
“How do we create connections that have these ripple effects beyond anything we could ever imagine? It’s what happens when you bring human beings together in a respectful and passionate and engaging way,” Mikesell said. “It opens doors and creates new opportunities that you just can’t crack. They only happen organically.”
Editor’s note 10/12/23 6:30pm EST: This article has been updated with comment from AJ and MVW Partners.