On a recent night in the Design District, lately littered with heavy equipment and engulfed in construction dust even as it grows more and more posh, a crowd celebrated the opening of Maman Fine Art, the first outpost of Buenos Aires’ largest modern/contemporary gallery.
It’s one more sign of a Miami art scene gaining muscle — and as chatter at the gallery proved, there is little that Miami’s urbanites love more than counting the ways their city is on the rise. By far the biggest sign is the bayfront Pérez Art Museum Miami. The city’s first grown-up art museum debuts this week (on schedule and within budget) during the 12th Art Basel in Miami Beach with a show as intrinsically Miami as it is internationally first-rate.
Several forces have lifted the city, but there is no denying the impact of Basel, the largest contemporary art fair in the hemisphere, opening Wednesday at the Miami Beach Convention Center and pulling in its wake about 20 ancillary art fairs. With it all come enough glam happenings to send locals scrambling to score impossible invitations and pull together extra eveningwear.
“Basel has been like steroids to our community. I don’t think anyone would dispute that the PAMM happened at a more accelerated rate than it might have without Basel’s presence,” says Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs. “When something like Basel lands in your city, you either come off as country bumpkins or you bring your best game.”
Over the past dozen years, the city has pressed to step up, to create serious cultural infrastructure, to build more significant architecture, to shake off some of its reputation for being laid back in favor of a more-polished hospitality scene. It has even shown more affinity for such grown-up city conceits as minding the clock.
“Miami is taking itself more seriously,” says Jessica Goldman Srebnick, who along with her father, the late Tony Goldman, helped to transform Wynwood into an increasingly hip (though still gritty) neighborhood filled with street art, galleries, work spaces, cafés, shops.
“During Basel, the city is inundated with the most sophisticated tourists and the top international press,” she says. “It gives us a time certain for getting the next project completed. In the past, projects often dragged. Now, everybody knows to push, push, push. It’s in everybody’s best interest to be ready by Basel.”
Alejandro Muguerza, president of Le Basque, one of the city’s top catering and event-design companies, has orchestrated dozens of the top Basel-related events, and has watched as many in his industry have risen to the ever-escalating occasion.
“Quality control was not always easy to achieve in Miami. To get purveyors to meet our deadlines was a headache,” he says. “But something has permeated our skin. I remember a couple of Basels ago doing a massive event at the New World Symphony with Maybach and Julian Schnabel. I had four other giant events that night. I knew everything that could go wrong, would. But I look at the crew, I look at the kitchen, and everything is being executed perfectly. I felt like a proud father appreciating how much everyone had grown up.”
When Art Basel began in 2002, there were hardly enough hotels to accommodate the high-end crowds. The restaurant scene was spotty. Fairgoers who ventured over the causeway into Wynwood and the Design District for satellite fairs and other events often found themselves thirsty, hungry, stranded. Not even taxi drivers had figured out that these desolate neighborhoods were teeming with tourists the first week in December.
But when Basel organizers settled on Miami as the place to start a U.S. version of their long-running Swiss fair, the city’s cultural scene was already finding its footing, and a building boom was already underway.
“Basel recognized we were at a tipping point,” says Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the Miami-based Knight Foundation, which more than any other local entity has put its money behind the growth of the city’s cultural institutions. “But let’s not forget that Basel came here with a very short commitment before they decided to stay. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the explosion of culture.”
Daniel Maman, the art dealer from Buenos Aires who in late November opened an 8,000-square-foot gallery in the Design District, had been keeping a close eye on Miami from before Basel’s arrival.
“In 2000 I was looking at a space just a few blocks from where the [Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts] was going to go up. It was selling for about $2.8 million. I hesitated. Six months later, the property was going for $18 million,” Maman says.
“Miami already understood that deepening the cultural scene was the thing that would help transform it into one of the great cities,” he says. “For my purposes, it’s Miami, not New York, which is the center of the world. It is easily accessed by Latin America, Europe, the entire United States. It also has weather that can’t be beaten.”
For all of the advances, Miami struggles with an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Traffic only worsens. The town’s track record for indicted politicians is holding strong. And while the Knight Foundation and others work to foster entrepreneurship, the region remains dependent on tourism as its leading industry.
“This may sound glib, but tourism is a great industry to have,” says Andrea Heuson, finance professor at the University of Miami. “People come here in a good mood. They go to the ballet, the theater, restaurants. Part-time residents can be very profitable for a municipality. You don’t have to educate their kids or worry about their long-term health needs. The truth is, our economy is becoming less volatile.”
And as Miami’s profile continues to climb, it will become easier to attract global business, city leaders believe.
“We have been doing work all over the world for years,” says Bernardo Fort-Brescia, head of the Miami-based international architecture firm Arquitectonica. “But many of our clients wanted to know why we weren’t based in New York. Miami was perceived purely as a resort town, a shallow place. Now we are perceived as a very relevant place. Now people all over world want to have offices in Miami.”
December after December, Basel has brought more and more of the moneyed at exactly the time of year when many of the places they hail from happen to be frozen over. The sun, sea and swaying palms have always been the city’s best sales pitch.
Bringing the money
Developers knew a captive market when they saw one, which gave rise to a long string of condo-sponsored, champagne-soaked Basel parties, which delivered more and more multimillion-dollar sales. Which set off more groundbreakings for luxury towers and hotels.
“The clientele that is buying in Miami now wants to live in buildings that are works of art themselves,” says developer Edgardo Defortuna, whose Jade Signature rising in Sunny Isles Beach (with units ranging in price from $2 million to $25 million), was designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & De Meuron. That same firm designed the PAMM, the acclaimed parking garage at 1111 Lincoln Rd., and global landmarks such as the Tate Modern in London and the “bird’s nest” Beijing National Stadium.
In just a few years, a roster of famed architects, among them Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Sir Norman Foster and Richard Meier, have been enlisted to put their stamp on the city’s skyline.
In 2000, Nadim Achi, who is redeveloping Surfside’s historic Surf Club with a 285-unit Meier-designed condo-hotel, bought a house on North Bay Road to complement his primary residence in Washington, D.C. Two years later, he made Miami his full-time home.
“Miami is no longer like someplace in the Caribbean with nice beaches but not a lot of cultural offerings. Now there are museums, world-class performance centers, restaurants — all of the things that the important cities of the world have,” he says. “And that’s why the people who are buying today are staying half the year, not just for a couple of weeks to go to the beach.”
By 2015, the PAMM will be joined by the $275 million Patricia and Philip Frost Museum of Science at downtown’s 29-acre Museum Park. But as the cultural offerings multiply and as the curatorial quality climbs at established art museums such as the Wolfsonian-FIU, the Bass and the MOCA in North Miami, the local gallery scene continues to be uneven.
Still, there is reason to be optimistic, says the New York-based independent curator Claire Breukel, who from 2009 to 2011 was executive director of the Locust Projects art space in Wynwood.
“I’m amazed at how much the art scene in Miami has grown up,” she says. “There is a year-round dialogue there now. And a wider range of art being made.”
Developer Jorge Pérez, whose gift of $40 million in cash and art granted him naming rights to the new art museum, says this may be a time for celebrating. “But we need to keep the same momentum through the next 10 years. We are not a city of Fortune 500 companies, which means some individuals and businesses will have to step up over and over again.”