Skip to Content

Public Art In Miami: PortMiami and Beyond

Bhakti Baxter, Jim Drain, Brandi Reddick and Michael Spring

Jim Drain, The Bollard Project, 2014, PortMiami. Miami-Dade County Public Art Collection

On the occasion of their new public installations at PortMiami, The Rail sat down with artists Bhakti Baxter and Jim Drain, along with Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs Director Michael Spring, and Art in Public Places Curator Brandi Reddick. The conversation moved from the port to the rest of the city to the ideas surrounding public art in general.

HUNTER BRAITHWAITE (RAIL): Perhaps we should start with Art in Public Places, its history, and how it sees itself in relation to art and Miami.

MICHAEL SPRING: We have one of the oldest Art in Public Places programs in the country. It was one of the first in the nation. I wasn’t here for its inception, but it has had a long and distinguished track record of commissioning public art for more than 40 years. There are over 600 public art works in the collection. It was originally established as a stand-alone agency inside of county government. Years ago it hit some tough moments and it was merged into our department, giving me the first opportunity in my professional career to work in my field—visual arts, which was kind of fun, because I had been working a lot in the performing arts up until then. Brandi and I, along with the team, have worked together to reorient the public art program, emphasizing its work with new artists.

RAIL: Bhakti and Jim, how have your experiences been working with the program?

JIM DRAIN: Part of the education process was just doing proposals. Even though this is my first project I feel like I’m familiar with Art in Public Places, and I feel like I’ve learned so much just by proposing.

BHAKTI BAXTER: It’s extremely exciting. To go through that process and actually land a project and see it through. It’s a total honor. To grow up in a city and then be a part of this is amazing.

RAIL: How much time does it take, from proposal to finished product?

SPRING: Some projects can go very quickly and others may take years. We have worked on projects at the airport that have been going on for five or six years. They were enormous in scope—entire concourses being designed by artists. And then there are more compact commissions that are very discreet in scope and can happen in less than six months. It really depends on the project.

BAXTER: We just finished—a year from approval to completion, which was nice to see that.

DRAIN: Mine is ongoing. It’s almost done. I started the same time as Bhakti.

SPRING: But Jim, I think we can safely say that there will always be another bollard.

DRAIN: Exactly. We have a 25 percent overage. We’re in this for the long haul.

SPRING: It’s a lifelong project that we’ve established with Jim on this one.

BRANDI REDDICK: I should say that Jim actually invented a new type of bollard. The fabricator had to learn how to make the bollards—a confetti bollard. It’s a design consisting of two colors, which alludes to the confetti passengers throw when embarking on a ship. Jim hasn’t been happy with the previous mock ups, because it needs to be perfect. And once they get it perfect we’ll start installing.

RAIL: What were the PortMiami project’s initial reasons for being?

SPRING: The way that the public art program works is that 1.5 percent of new local government building is dedicated to public art. Whenever a county department or a city department has a new building, to either partially or wholly accommodate human beings, those monies get generated and we have the basis to start an art project. So PortMiami has been building things, and generating money. I give all the credit to Brandi and the team for getting together with PortMiami staff and thinking creatively about how public art could transform the port, so that it wouldn’t be the standard things that have been done in the port before—sculpture or artistic intervention in a terminal—but it could be something more broadly conceived.

DRAIN: For my project, the feeling was that even though I’m working with bollard covers, it really approaches the Port as a whole design. The Port had this feeling that it was building incrementally, without having a cohesive design. What I was excited about with these bollard covers was trying to unify the port in a new way.

SPRING: Bhakti and Jim inspired the PortMiami Director, who is an amazing guy, Bill Johnson. If you have a good partner like that, who is willing to entertain new thinking about public art, then you can do amazing things. He was so excited about the work that he began to talk to me about doing a public art master plan. I think that Bhakti and Jim’s work suggested that you could look more holistically at the entire port and inform it and make it wonderful. We’re actually talking to Bill about the port commissioning a public art master plan.

In the news recently, there’s been a lot of talk about additional development happening at the port. There’s talk of commercial development, and the new soccer stadium. Whatever gets built there is going to generate a ton of public art money.

RAIL: To speak about the holistics, does that come from the unexpected sites for your projects? The bollard covers? Were you all thinking about that?

BAXTER: That was presented at the beginning. These were the sites that were suitable for transformation. That was the blank canvas we were given. Between Jim’s bollards and my ticket booths, they feel that they work together. The colors and the patterns sort of mimic each other, even though they’re in totally different formats. It was obvious that there was something that could be done there that wasn’t even thought of, that could enhance the visitor’s experience.

RAIL: Before we go further, could you tell me what a bollard is?

REDDICK: Those yellow safety sticks that you see anywhere with pedestrians. They’re a little bit more sophisticated than that, but Jim has created plastic sleeves that go on top of those. There are one thousand throughout the port, and within those thousand, there are five different kinds. This was also to unify the whole aesthetic.

RAIL: Are you doing one thousand coverings?

DRAIN: More than that. Like 1,200.

SPRING: Bollards keep vehicles from running into pedestrians and buildings. In a highly trafficked area like the port, you put them so the taxicabs, trucks and cars don’t run over the sidewalk and kill people who are looking for a joyous vacation.

DRAIN: Bhakti and I are saving lives.

SPRING: That’s part of it. Bhakti’s introducing the life to the port, and Jim is saving it. (laughter).

RAIL: And how are you introducing life to the Port?

BAXTER: The beautiful prints wrapping these ticket booths are living creatures from around the port in the water. They’re native to Miami. I worked with Coral Morphologic to create these images. They’re the ones who dove around the port. You’re not only having a beautiful visual experience, but you’re being informed about what’s under the water. People come on these cruises, and they know the sunsets and the palm trees and the nightlife or whatever, but they don’t know what’s in the water. It was a way to bring the life under the water to land.

RAIL: Are these creatures unique to Miami?

BAXTER: They’re unique to Miami, to South Florida.

RAIL: It’s fascinating that by taking this hyper-local species and then using its image to cover the ticket booths, you’re making a connection between the local site and the international network—PortMiami to the Panama Canal, etc. So when you deal with a site, do you also consider how that site exists in a network, be it global or local?

BAXTER: It was the best way to represent Miami at the port, in relationship to its immediate surroundings. That’s what led me to work with Coral Morphologic. The work that they were doing was the most relevant, both visually and conceptually. It was interesting that this one species of zoanthid had a variety of color variations, so even though there are 18 different parking booths with 18 different colors, they’re all the same species. You have this rainbow of variations.

DRAIN: Kind of like Washington Avenue.

booth wrap activity rendering

Bhakti Baxter, Coral Reef City, 2014, PortMiami. Miami-Dade County Public Art Collection

SPRING: The deeper you get into this, all puns intended, the more metaphors you get. I think good art has lots of layers. On the surface layer, for Jim and Bhakti, there’s just a celebratory feeling which is really what we wanted for the port, because people are going there for vacations, for a great time, but after you dig a little deeper, you find out that there is all this thinking that went into these works, there’s all this meaning associated with the work. I think that’s really great, that’s what Brandi and I aspire to: work that reflects the South Florida spirit.

RAIL: To go back to what you said about people when they come to Miami thinking about the sunset or the beach or the deco. In this program, have you seen certain aesthetic similarities between the works, responding either to the local climate or the local palate?

REDDICK: One of the things we look for when we commission art is uniqueness to Miami. [We want] artwork that can only exist in Miami. So for instance, at the airport, Michelle Oka Doner’s floor work, “A Walk on the Beach.” It can really only exist in Miami because it makes sense here and it speaks to Miami. A lot of artists that work here obviously draw from the light, the environment, the Everglades, the ocean. It speaks to the work here. I find that public work in Miami tends to be more bright and cheerful. That sounds very plain and simple, but it’s true.

SPRING: I want to say something about the direction that Brandi and the team and I have tried to point the public art program. One of the great things about Miami is that in almost every artistic discipline we’re generating people who are making new work. With public art, this was an epiphany for us as we began to transition the program into the department. We really need to direct the program towards Miami artists, which is a tricky bit of business for a public art program. We have artists who have never done public art before, and there’s always an institutional hesitation. How do we know that they’re going to be able to deliver? They don’t have a track record. What we do here is provide them with a team of people that lets them be successful. They get a public art commission on their resume. We make sure that it goes well because we have a team of architects, and a general contractor on staff that work alongside the artist. These guys become capable of getting more work, both locally and nationally. At the very least, they have a major public art work that they can point to, at a relatively early part of their career. I think for government, that’s kind of risk-taking, but we love it. Miami is filled with really great artists that we should be giving these opportunities to, and it’s part of a bigger strategy to keep them working here. Let’s make sure we keep these people in Miami. We have a fellowship program, we have public art commissions, and we have other programs to help support and recognize artists in South Florida. It’s really part of a conspiracy to keep artists here.

BAXTER: It’s totally true that they’ve built a team to make sure that this whole project runs smoothly. I did feel that. I felt at first, like—“how am I gonna do all this?” The whole way through, even at the meetings, logistically, they were super-helpful. I didn’t feel like I was on my own.

RAIL: You’re both very flexible artists. When you’re making large-scale public work, are there any new considerations, be they aesthetic or conceptual? How do you move from the studio to the port?

DRAIN: It didn’t feel scary because I had such great people working with me. Jessica Berthin is amazing. She’s been on top of everything. The biggest challenge for me was talking to a manufacturer and being my own program manager. When you’re in the studio you can function in your own universe. Public art projects like this really take you outside, into the real world. There are bigger responsibilities, to other people. In that way, I think you approach it differently.

REDDICK: When we commission works, we think it’s very important that the aesthetic of the work is in line with the artists’ studio practice. We don’t dumb down the public art; we want it to be an extension.

DRAIN: I can’t wait to incorporate bollards into future work.

SPRING: And the funny thing is, I have a bollard expert now. We’re at this dinner a few months ago, and we’re talking to the interim director of the Hirshhorn, and I’m explaining the work, and he says—“Oh my god, they’ve been pushing me at the Hirshhorn to have bollards. Now I know who to go to!” So beware of what you get involved in.

DRAIN: I know every kind of bollard in Miami now. The new Whole Foods has amazing bollards.

BAXTER: So how does this differ from a normal practice? I think in a way, it is similar. Jim pointed out all the things that are different, but at the same time, if you’re given an exhibition somewhere, you think about that space. You think about the context and the details and how they add up. It’s the same approach with the port. You think “what makes sense here, and why?”

SPRING: When artists get on a short list, we have expert panels that sit down and look at the work (in the abstract, not in relationship to the commission)—we take the finalist artists out to the site, and they get to talk to the Port folks, and see how the operation goes, and what their hopes and dreams are for public art intervention. So, to some degree, it’s a very client-driven process. And along the way, we’re trying to educate the client, because in some cases, they don’t really know much about public art. PortMiami was a good client; they were really creative and good to work with. In some cases, we have to bring the client along, because in the end we want happy people. We want a project that has made a public space more spectacular, but if it’s a county department or a municipal building, we want people happy about going there.

BAXTER: I actually went to the people who worked in the booths without introducing myself and asked if they liked the covers. Every single person had a huge smile on their face. It was as if they got a new paint job on their car. So it was important to me, first and foremost, to talk to the people in the ticket booth, to see how they liked it.

RAIL: That, and, with doing the bollards, which as you said earlier are there to protect pedestrians from car traffic, you reveal a potential and responsibility of public art—social improvement. In Miami, and in other cities across the world, art has been used strategically for urban renewal in certain neighborhoods. Do you see that as one of the missions of this department?


Bhakti Baxter and Jim Drain, MIAMIMAX, 2014. Temporary Installation, PortMiami.MIAMI-DADE COUNTY PUBLIC ART COLLECTION

SPRING: Our perspective about this is not prescriptive. There are artists that work specifically with social change, and we’re supportive of that, and there are artists that don’t, and we’re supportive of that as well. Again, as Bhakti was saying, it’s context. If you’re thrown into an inner-city neighborhood that really could use the intervention of an artist to help lift people, to create new opportunities to dream about life, we respond to that. If you’re in a highly tourist-driven place, like the Port, artists are going to respond to the dynamics of that too. The bottom line for us is great art. It has been in all of the things we’re doing in helping Miami artists develop their work. We’re clear about our goals. If artists have agendas or perspectives or points of view, that’s great. Let them bring them to the table.

RAIL: Jim, what were you responding to with the bollards?

DRAIN: I think there’s some synchronicity between Bhakti’s work and mine. Art in Public Places was able to see that when we did our proposals. I wanted to bring something very vibrant and something that reflected nautical designs, but in a way that was different from the flags that are on the ships. For me, the bollards have their own limitations. I felt that it was a perfect invention already, so it was hard to improve it. It meant going to the manufacturer and seeing new ways to come up with bollards, so that we can have something really special at the port.

RAIL: They haven’t been done before because of scale or shape or color?

DRAIN: They have this mold-making process in which there are different ways to sort of, tweak it, to make it just a little bit different. Just going on their website they have like six colors available, so I asked if they had other colors. When you go around the city you see all these different colors. There is a color typical to Walmart. They have this back stock of all those available. Knowing that it’s a mold-making process, I knew that there were so many colors of plastics. They opened up this inventory that isn’t typically open to other clients. They’ve been really excited about it too. We all want it to be perfect.

REDDICK: Should we talk about your temporary installation?

BAXTER: Miami Max! This was during Basel. It was the most exclusive VIP party in Miami. Nobody could go. We transformed these shipping containers facing the MacArthur Causeway into what looked like this awesome event space/club/private party. It involved working with these companies that produce parties, but in the beginning, it was Jim and I on different sides of the canal, like “Move the light to the left! The fabric’s not right!” We finally got it. We had the sky beams and we had everything going and everyone one the causeway was like, what’s that?

REDDICK: They just weren’t sure.

BAXTER: The press release was hilarious. People were calling the Port, like “hey, what’s up with this party?” I got text messages until that day. “Can you put me on the list?”

REDDICK: Me too! I had people calling, and I’d say, “no I’m sorry, I can’t!” And they’d get really mad at me. “What do you mean? This is a public art piece!” But then I’d explain it and they’d laugh.

SPRING: The whole play on public/not-public was just wonderful. We got a lot of mileage out of it.