Miami-Dade County

It’s not only rich people who should care about Art Basel. Here’s why.

The opening-day crush at Art Basel on Miami Beach at the Miami Beach Convention Center on Dec. 3, 2014.
The opening-day crush at Art Basel on Miami Beach at the Miami Beach Convention Center on Dec. 3, 2014.

When flocks of serious — and seriously loaded — art gatherers descend on South Florida for the annual Art Basel in Miami Beach pageant, they’re coming to snag some of the best contemporary work money can buy from the 268 galleries from across the globe conveniently gathered at the city’s convention center.

But that’s not the sole reason they make their way to Miami Beach and Miami.

Many also come to see art they cannot buy — the increasingly rich side feast served up by the cities’ expanding range of museums and private art collections that are open to all.

Yes, there’s the warm weather, the nice hotels and restaurants (staffed by local workers) — not to mention the two dozen satellite fairs and myriad events that make up the annual December frenzy known as Miami Art Week.

But thousands of art-fair visitors also make it a point to stop in downtown at the four-year-old Pérez Art Museum Miami or the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. Or they check out what’s new at the Rubell Family Collection, the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse and the commissioned crop of murals at Wynwood Walls — all longtime private Wynwood stalwarts with international reputations.

This year, Basel-goers who wander off the reservation will confront even more fresh and compelling choices, with the opening of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, in the Design District, and the reopening of an expanded and reconfigured Bass museum in Miami Beach. And another private collection has established a public foothold: The Juan Carlos Maldonado Collection, formerly Art & Art, which focuses on geometric abstraction from Latin America, is showing its second public exhibition, “Constructing Constructivism,” in its new space in the Design District.

The facade of the new Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, in the Design District. IWAN BAAN ICA Miami

If that’s not enough, there’s also the new Frost Science Museum next to PAMM. While not an art museum, it has plenty to look at, from a dazzling planetarium to spectacular views and striking contemporary architecture by the British firm of Sir Nicholas Grimshaw.

As Art Basel settles in for another five years in Miami Beach, having just signed an extension of its deal with the city, the panoply of local museums and collections has, indisputably, become a big part of the fair’s enduring appeal.

“One of the brilliant things the fair does is, instead of looking just to capture fairgoers, is that they treat the ecosystem around the fair as part of the reason people come,” said Michael Spring, director of cultural affairs for Miami-Dade County, which has helped fund PAMM, Frost Science and numerous other institutions. “They’re going to get an adventure in the visual arts they’re not going to get anywhere else. It’s a Miami adventure.”

Basel Miami Beach fair director Noah Horowitz concurs.

“There are a lot of people who come for our show and for the museums, and that’s one of the reasons it’s been so successful for our galleries,” Horowitz said. “Many of our clients come to buy and sell, but they want more than that. They are seeking enriching cultural experiences in town when they arrive. The more we and the city can provide in terms of that experience, the more likely they are to come back and say, ‘What a great event and what a great city it is.’ 

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View of the piece Pumpkin, 2016, by artist Yayoi Kusama, on display at Victoria Miro Gallery, from London, during Art Basel's preview invitation-only event at the Miami Beach Convention Center in 2016. PEDRO PORTAL

It wasn’t quite that way when the Swiss fair’s first Miami Beach edition opened in 2002.

The fair’s parent was looking to tap into the Latin American market, and settled on Miami Beach in part because of several local top-drawer private collections, including those of developer Martin Margulies, auto magnate Norman Braman and Don and Mera Rubell. In 1993, the Rubells had become the first to exhibit their holdings to the public, in a former Drug Enforcement Administration warehouse. Margulies followed in 1999.

But Miami lacked a major collecting museum. Those institutions it did have were hindered by a small footprint and, consequently, scant cultural heft. PAMM’s predecessor, the Miami Art Museum, had a miniscule collection and operated in a cramped downtown building not designed for a collecting institution. The Bass, too, struggled to make a mark, as some works in its collection, primarily Old Masters donated by its founding couple, were found to be copies or fakes.

The popular, critical and financial success of the Basel fair and the satellite events drawn by its presence acted as an accelerant. Suddenly, many in Miami realized that art — and specifically contemporary art — could be an engine not just for cultural advancement, but for economic development, dramatically redrawing the city’s sun ’n’ fun image. That sentiment provided new impetus for the creation of a new home for MAM, for instance.

To again become relevant, the city-owned Bass pivoted to contemporary art in 2009 under director Silvia Karman Cubiñá. It then embarked on a two-year revamp to expand and improve its gallery space to show off a growing collection of recent works.

Mark Samoylov, 6, plays the part of the clown at Ugo Rondinone’s “Vocabulary of Solitude” exhibit during the reopening of the renovated Bass museum in October. CARL JUSTE

Noted collectors Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz, who every year invited Basel attendees to visit their museum-like Key Biscayne home, were soon so overwhelmed by the droves of visitors that they decided to expand by putting up a building in the Design District to exhibit their holdings to the public. Collector Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, meanwhile, established the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation on the edge of downtown Miami, which puts on several public exhibits every year.

When the publicly owned MOCA split its collection to end a dispute between its board of directors and the city, Braman and his wife, Irma, the museum’s chair, concluded Miami had room for at least one more collecting institution focused on contemporary art. The new ICA was funded fully with private money and will be run with no public funding, while MOCA, which retained more than half its collection, continues to operate as a city-run museum.

Miami’s college-based museums also went through a growth spurt. The Lowe at the University of Miami added a wing in 2008 to exhibit a collection of contemporary glass art. Entrepreneur Phillip Frost and his wife, Patricia, who helped fund the new science museum, also helped underwrite an expansive new building for the art museum at Florida International University that now bears their name. And Miami Dade College installed its Museum of Art + Design in roomy digs at the landmark Freedom Tower. (The museum is under renovation and is temporarily closed.)

FIU’s Wolfsonian in Miami Beach, which houses the donated collection of propaganda art and cultural artifacts assembled by arts patron Mitchell Wolfson Jr., also has designs on expanding.

“We could not have possibly imagined everything that has happened here,” Spring said.

And while it may not have happened without Basel, Spring and others note, the city’s institutional arts ecosystem is a now year-round phenomenon, not a December pop-up Brigadoon. The number of commercial galleries in town has also exploded, though not all yet thrive financially.

“I don’t know if there would have been an Institute of Contemporary Art if not for Art Basel,” Norman Braman said. “I think our friends at the Pérez Art Museum will be the first ones to acknowledge that the will and the desire to create the Pérez Art Museum was also generated by having Art Basel here.

“What has been created in Miami with all these institutions that are within walking distance, almost, of one another is very special. Prior to Art Basel, there were only six galleries that were functioning in Miami-Dade County. Our last count was over 125. Now you have an arts district in Wynwood. That’s part of this whole creation that has just changed this entire community from a community that wasn’t that interested in the arts, to a community where the arts is playing such a role in everyday life.”

That’s meant vigorous annual attendance at PAMM, director Franklin Sirmans said. Since opening its Herzog & de Meuron-designed home in Museum Park downtown, attendance has averaged 325,000 a year and is on track to set a record 368,000 this year, he said.

Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, is pictured with the artwork “Leisure Pit,” by artist Nicolas Lobo. EMILY MICHOT

And part of the reason, Sirmans said, is that the astounding popularity of contemporary art has proven a happy confluence for the city and Art Basel. Unlike older U.S. cities, Miami didn’t have much in the way of collections focused on the Renaissance or even 20th Century modern masters, he noted. But the city’s youth made it amenable to the themes of contemporary art.

“In the last years, there is a desire for people to see themselves in art,” Sirmans said. “And one way to do that is to think about the here and now. In order to understand who we are, we have to be somewhat keyed in to the contemporary. Being relatively new, it puts us squarely in this time. We are the place to learn about the present. We don’t have those old collections like they have in Boston or New York or Chicago.”

For Miami, the Beach and Art Basel and the satellites, that means the relationship is now mutually beneficial and mutually reinforcing. The Art Basel fair, which expects attendance to be around 77,000 people over its five days, lists 35 South Florida cultural institutions and groups on its website. The fair also provides attendees with a detailed guide to the local offerings.

Fair officials visit museum and private collection owners and curators months in advance of each edition to learn about the exhibitions they will open at Basel time, Margulies said.

“I believe they depend greatly on it,” Margulies said. “A lot of these people that come to Art Basel don’t spend more than a day and a half at the fair. These people come all the way from different parts of the world and they want to see art. They don’t want to see just commercial work.”

Plus, he said, collectors like to check out what other collectors are buying, in part because that’s one way they learn about new artists or trends they may not know about back home, said Margulies, whose collection is regarded as one of the most important in the country.

Like the museums, the private collections strive to put their best foot forward in terms of exhibitions in readiness for Art Basel, Margulies and other owners said, and it pays off. The collectors say attendance at their exhibitions during art week ranges from 5,000 to 15,000, most of them sophisticated collectors, curators and museum administrators from around the world with a high bar for art.

This year, the Art Miami fair — second in importance only to the Basel fair itself — has moved to the old Miami Herald site, while the popular emerging-art NADA fair will be held at the nearby Ice Factory facility. As a result, PAMM is expecting even larger crowds than usual during art week, Sirmans said.

“It’s cross-pollination and cross-fertilization. We inspire each other,” Mera Rubell said of her collection’s relationship with the Basel fair. “They bring the whole world here and it compels us to do our best. They come to the fair and they also come to see what we in Miami do. People appreciate coming here and seeing the new architecture, the new museums, the collections. I’m happy to say that Miami really rises to the occasion.”

Part of the reason it works so well, Horowitz and Rubell said, is that unlike New York or London, there aren’t thousands of galleries and dozens of institutions overwhelmingly clamoring for art-fair attendees’ attention. That means Basel visitors can reasonably glean a good sampling of local offerings in five days, adding to the event’s appeal.

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Erwin Wurm’s “Big Disobedience” was among 20 large-scale sculptures and installations in front of the Bass museum of art at Collins Park in Miami Beach as part of Art Basel’s Public program in 2016. MARSHA HALPER Miami Herald file

And some of Miami’s warmth and informality has rubbed off on the famously formal Swiss and the original fair in the city of Basel, Rubell said.

“They’ve been inspired by our friendliness, by the way in which we open our homes and we’ve embraced the public,” said Rubell, who with her husband has been attending the fair in Basel for 30 years. “I think we’ve learned from each other. You go to Basel now, and they’re much friendlier.”

The De la Cruzes say that what they and a host of Basel visitors find particularly appealing about Miami’s increased art offerings is the variety and the uniquely organic way in which it developed.

“It has not followed any guidelines or preconceived ideas,” Carlos de la Cruz said. “We’ve all settled into our own spaces. All of us are feeling more and more comfortable in this ecosystem that has developed.”

And what’s good for Miami is good for Art Basel, and vice versa, his wife said.

“They could have chosen L.A. or any other place,” she said. “But I think they like the idea of Miami. We have a good image now. Look at the hotels we have now. And the restaurants. And the museums. Miami today is a city that people like to come to.”

For PAMM’s Sirmans, who left a job as head of contemporary art at the high-profile Los Angeles County Museum of Art to take the Miami job in 2015, it’s hard to separate out what Art Basel and Miami’s institutions each contribute to art week.

“There is this synergy now. I think it all works together,” he said. “Art Basel becomes the sort of shorthand for a confluence of events. It’s like a universe of fairs. Now a universe of museums. We have this beautiful mix of ways to see art that happens once a year.

“It’s massive. And it’s amazing.”


The 16th edition of Art Basel in Miami Beach opens to the general public at 3 p.m. Dec. 7 and runs through Dec. 10 at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Ongoing renovations at the convention center mean the fair will have a new, expanded floor plan this year with better flow, wider aisles, larger booths and improved dining and lounge options. Only those with VIP cards will be able to enter through the Convention Center’s west side; all others will need to enter through the east side.

The fair’s off-site Public outdoor sculpture exhibition, opens Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Collins Park, 2100 Collins Ave., Miami Beach.

As part of its public program, Art Basel will sponsor a free presentation of the progressive-rock opera “The Ring Cycle” by artist Jim Shaw at 8 p.m. Dec. 6 at SoundScape Park, 400 17th St., Miami Beach.

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