Clouds and mirrors

A trip through the mirage of Art Basel into the scarred face of Miami

David Hockney's sailor on display

Carl Fisher turned a mosquito-plagued, malarial sandbar into Miami Beach, "The Sun and Fun Capital of The World," in less than a decade — dredging up sea bottom to build the island paradise, an all-American Las Vegas-by-the- Sea, where Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason partied and Richard Nixon received two Republican nominations for president. Art Deco hotels lined the beach, bold as Cadillacs, defiant in the path of hurricanes, their confident Modern lines projecting postwar American power. Morris Lapidus, the architect of the Fontainebleau Hotel, understood that the skin-deep city Fisher conjured out of neon and sunshine was a stage for the leisure fantasies of the ruling class. When his iconic Collins Avenue hotel opened in 1954, Lapidus said he wanted to design a place "where when (people) walk in, they do feel 'This is what I've dreamed of, this is what we saw in the movies.'"

For many years in Miami, that movie was Scarface, as Colombian drug lords shot it out in mall parking lots. A shiny new downtown skyline of banks and condos emerged during a recession economy from the laundered proceeds of drug smuggling. Today the cocaine cowboys have all died, or done their time and moved on. Their descendents are selling art.

Art Basel came to Miami Beach in 2002, and the rise of Miami as an international art world capital neatly coincided with the glory days of the housing bubble. According to Peter Zalewski of, around 23,000 new condo units were built in and around downtown Miami during the Art Basel era — twice the amount built in the 40 previous years. The success of the international art exhibition has inspired a fever dream among city leaders, in which Miami's skyline and neighborhoods are radically transformed by art world-related real estate development.

Cesar Pelli's $461 million, 570,000-square-foot Carnival Center for the Performing Arts opened in 2006 in a moribund section of downtown known for its proximity to the faded 1970s-era mall, the Omni. That same year, the Miami Art Museum (MAM) hired as its new director Terence Riley, the former curator for architecture and design at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Heralded in his new city as "the Robert Moses of the new Miami millennium," Riley initiated the development of Museum Park. This 29-acre complex would be home to new buildings for the Miami Art Museum and the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium. It was to be built on the site of Miami's last public waterfront park, Bicentennial Park, long a sort-of autonomous zone for Miami's homeless residents. While the new MAM is not scheduled for completion until 2013, by 2007, a 50-floor, 200-unit luxury condo development, 10 Museum Park, had already been finished across the street.

Art Basel Miami Beach brings an estimated 40,000 people to Miami each year to look at art, party, and more important, look at celebrities as they look at art and party. The art fair, once dubbed "the planet's highest concentration of wealth and talent," generates an estimated $500 million in art sales each year. Yet while Miami leaders seek to present to the world Basel's image of wealth and glamour, the iconic image of South Florida today has abruptly become the newly built and entirely empty condo development. Zalewski estimates that 40% of the condo units built since 2003 remain unsold. Florida's foreclosure rate is the second-highest in the nation, and for the first time since World War II, people are leaving Florida faster than they are arriving. Just months before this year's Art Basel Miami Beach, a New York Times cover story told of the lone occupant in a towering Broward County condo that had gone entirely into foreclosure. As the fair approached, I wondered: can art really save a city like Miami? Or is its reliance on art world money part of the city's collapse?

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