A trip through the mirage of Art Basel into the scarred face of Miami
Across Biscayne Bay, away from Miami Beach in the city of Miami, the fever dream of art was turning a down-and-out neighborhood in the poorest city in America into an outdoor art mall. Fifteen satellite art fairs and 60 galleries staged simultaneous exhibitions in Miami during the week of Art Basel Miami Beach. Virtually all this art was crammed into about 80 square blocks north of downtown Miami, bisected by North Miami Avenue. The area included Miami's African American ghetto, Overtown, the warehouse district of the low rent Puerto Rican neighborhood, Wynwood, and the resurgent Miami Design District up to its shifting borders with Little Haiti.
Walking up North Miami Avenue and Northwest Second Avenue the night before the exhibitions began, I could see the usually moribund main drags transforming before my eyes. Warehouses vacant the other 50 weeks of the year were hastily being turned into galleries or party spaces. Solely for Art Basel week, the Lower East Side hipster bar Max Fish had built an exact replica of its Ludlow Street digs in an Overtown storefront. In Wynwood, the paint still appeared wet on a fresh layer of murals and graffiti running up and down the streets.
The modern-day Carl Fisher most perhaps most responsible for dredging this new art world Miami up from the bottom of the sea is Craig Robins. "I transformed the image of my city from Scarface into Art Deco," is how Robins put it when I talked to him in the Design District offices of his development firm, Dacra. Widely considered to be the person who brought Art Basel to Miami Beach, Robins is, at a youthful 46, the man who perhaps more than anyone embodies the values and tastes of a new Miami where art and real estate have become as inseparable as fun and sun. Robins takes art seriously — he is a major collector of artists like John Baldessari, Elizabeth Peyton, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Richard Tuttle — and he made his name and fortune by restoring the derelict Art Deco motels on his native Miami Beach during the early 1990s into the international high-end tourist destination now known as South Beach. Today Robins is one of the principal owners of the warehouses in the Miami Design District and Wynwood.
With his casual dress, shaved head, and stylish Euro glasses, Robins could easily fit in as one of the German tourists who flock to the discos on the South Beach that he developed. His offices offer a rotating display of the works of art in his collection. Around the time of Art Basel, his staff had installed many works by the SoCal conceptual artist John Baldessari, in honor of Baldessari's upcoming career retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London. Robins was friendly and projected a relaxed cool; when I'd met him on the convention center floor and asked for an interview, he gave me an affectionate shoulder squeeze and said, "Call my assistant and we'll hang, OK?" A few days later, he grinned somewhat impishly when I sat down said, "I notice you sat in the Martin Bas chair," as if it was a Rorschach test. Honestly, it was the only piece of furniture in the design collector's office that looked dependably functional.