A trip through the mirage of Art Basel into the scarred face of Miami
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 Condovulture.com, 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?
At this year's Art Basel, the glitz was, of course, played down, what with the global economic collapse and Art Basel's main corporate sponsor, top Swiss bank UBS, now the subject of an FBI probe on charges of helping billionaire clients evade taxes. In the weeks before the opening of the fair, it was announced that the legendary UBS free caviar tent would not be open this year. One could not help but notice that the ice sculptures on the beach itself, hallmarks of the recent boom, were gone, already as fabled as the lost city of Atlantis.
Still, the epic "Arts and Power" issue of Miami magazine hit the stands on time, luxurious full-color spreads on oversize glossy pages. Press from all over the world wrote a month's worth of previews leading up to the event, and on the day of the VIP vernissage, TV news reporters from all continents were there to dutifully record the arrivals of billionaires, celebrities, and fashion models at the Miami Beach Convention Center. As Art Basel Miami Beach 2009 opened, the floor of the convention center was eerily quiet, with hardly a sound except a hushed, determined whisper a bit like paper money being rubbed together. It seemed to me like everyone was doing her or his part, as if the whole art fair was a sort of performance art piece demonstrating the vigor of the free market in dark times.
This murmur ceased completely, and the air filled with the muted clicking of camera shutters, as Sylvester Stallone passed me on the convention floor. Stallone, too, was stoic, his expression hidden by dark sunglasses at mid-day. He stopped next to me and began to talk to TV news cameras about his own paintings on display, presented by the gallery Gmurzynska. Close-up and in person, clumps of the actor's face, now just inches from mine, seemed to lay inert and dead like the unfortunate globs of oil paint he had arranged on his own canvasses. Pieces of puffy cheek hung limp and jowly under taut eyebrow skin, Botox and facelifts fighting age for control. For a paparazzi flashbulb moment, I thought I saw in Rambo's sagging face a metaphor for the doomed efforts to prop up a whole failing way of life.
The Miami Beach Convention Center's 500,000 square feet had been blocked out into booths and concourses that comprised a pseudo-city of art. As a city, it most resembled some parts of the new Manhattan — crowded yet curiously hollowed out and lifeless, under relentless surveillance, full of nostalgia for its former, more vital self. Groundbreaking art that once had the power to shock, move, or startle — Rauschenberg's collages, Richard Prince's Marlboro men, Barbara Krueger's text block barrages — were presented here as high-priced real estate. In the city of art, time stood still; Matisse, de Kooning, and Duchamp had all retired to the same street. A sailor portrayed in a 2009 life-size portrait by David Hockney seemed to gaze wistfully across the hall toward a 1981 silk-screened print of a dollar sign by Andy Warhol. The life-size portraits by Kehinde Wiley felt just like the city in summer, how the radio of every passing car seems to be blasting the same song. A print of a photo of Warhol and Basquiat together in SoHo stood catty-corner to a 1985 Warhol paining of the text, "Someone Wants To Buy Your Apartment Building."
I wondered if this city of art offered clues as to the kind of city that developers imagined Miami might become.
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.
Not surprisingly, Robins was adept at explaining the art theory behind his development projects, and the ways Dacra is bringing art, design, and real estate together "to make Miami a brand name." He said he learned from the successful preservation of historic buildings in his South Beach projects that consumers were starting to reject the cookie-cutter commodities of the mall and "starting to value unique experiences" made from "a combination of permanent and temporary things." On the streets of the Design District and Wynwood, Robins sought to bring together restaurants, fashion showrooms, and high-end retail stores, surrounded by parties, international art shows, and public art. "This gives a richness to the experience of Miami," Robins said. "That is the content that Miami is evolving toward right now." I thought of Lapidus, the Godfather of Art Deco, and his quote about the Fontainebleau: In Wynwood, Robins wanted to turn not just a hotel lobby but an entire neighborhood into a place where visitors feel they have entered a movie.
Robins grew more excited as he discussed his vision. "With my work at Dacra, I build communities," he told me. "When we brought Art Basel here, Miami immediately became recognized as a world-class city."
Others are skeptical. "Miami will always be an attractive place for people to visit in December, but you can't graft culture onto a city," says Alan Farago of the widely read blog Eye On Miami. "It's a mistaken belief that art can be a totem or a symbol of a great city without there being any substance. Miami will continue to be a pretender because there is no investment in local culture beyond building massive edifices like the Performing Arts Center."
Indeed, the center — now renamed the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center, in honor of a wealthy benefactor — has become perhaps another in a long line of tragicomic failed improvements for the area. Bunker-like, it has been likened by some architecture critics to an upside-down Jacuzzi. Though 20 years in the making and long heralded by boosters as a building that would instantly make Miami a "world-class city," the center has operated at a deficit and suffered from poor attendance since its opening. The future of Museum Park suddenly turned cloudy a month before the opening of this year's Art Basel, when Miami Art Museum director Terrence Riley unexpectedly resigned days after unveiling the architects Herzog and de Meuron's final model for the new buildings. Riley sited a desire to return to private practice as an architect, but online speculation had it that he already knew cash-strapped Miami would ultimately be unable to raise the money to build the museum.
Farago wonders what would change if the city did have the money. "In Miami on one hand, we have public school teachers using their own salaries to buy art supplies for their students," he says. "Then we have these one-off art events and a performing arts center that brings us road shows of Rent, Annie, and 101 Dalmatians."
When I asked Robins what lasting benefits Art Basel provided to the community, he cited a roster of new restaurants opened by star chefs and fashion showrooms. "It encourages people to come down here year-round," he said. It was clear that Robins was discussing amenities designed for tourists, or for a speculative community of future residents who might be enticed to come to Miami.
I suggested that there were actually two different communities in Wynwood with potentially opposing interests. I told Robins I'd attended a community meeting held by the activist groups Power University and the Miami Workers Center. There, Wynwood residents discussed how their rents had doubled, how the city continued to neglect the facilities at Roberto Clemente Park, and how the increased presence of police escorting the art patrons to the new galleries had made them feel like they didn't belong in their own neighborhood.
Robins, who had been very loose and calm during the first 45 minutes of our talk, became visibly upset. He launched into a sustained rant. "Well, look, active communities are a good thing," he said, shaking his head. "But just because a community is active doesn't mean it is rational. You go and sit in these meetings and half the people are nuts. Half are just there because they are miserable people and they have some soapbox to go and rant about all these things that they think they have some entitlement to attack government about when they never do anything themselves for anyone. I find that 20 percent of these people are totally irrational, mean-spirited people who would never agree with anyone about anything good."
"What kind of people do you mean?" I asked.
"People who feel disenfranchised! They're very angry. They have psychological problems and they want a forum to vent. I'm not implying we should stifle democracy — I'm a big believer in it! I'm saying these people should not be taken seriously by enlightened people!"
Robins rose to look at a clock on his desk. Not surprisingly, our time was up. I politely excused myself to the restroom. When I returned it was like no tantrum had ever happened. Robins' impish grin even returned as I asked him to pose for a photo in front of one of his Baldessari prints. I had him stand in front of Cigar Smoke to Match Clouds That are Different (By Sight/ First Version), a 1972-3 triptych of photos. As the artist looks into a mirror at clouds over his shoulder in the sky, he blows out a mouthful of twisting cigar smoke, trying to match their elusive shape in the air.
Out on the streets of Wynwood, it was still mostly quiet, expectant, but the scene at David Lynch's art opening gave one a sense of what the coming weekend would be like. Lynch was presenting photos from a book of staged stills he is releasing with a CD of music by Danger Mouse. Hundreds of hipsters, mostly locals, guzzled free booze and gawked when new Miami resident Iggy Pop showed up, shirtless as usual, in a Miami Vice-style blue blazer. As I watched the Godfather of Punk pose for pictures with his arm around Danger Mouse, I thought of the city of art, the Jackson Pollacks and Donald Judds together at last, on the convention center floor. I had the eerie feeling that the Internet had come to life.
I left the opening and walked at random through the streets of Wynwood at 2:00 a.m. While looking at murals and thinking about the changes Art Basel had wrought, I unexpectedly came upon a small street party of people I knew. The side street intersection was lit up like a stage with an enormous floodlight. Street artist SWOON stood high on a scissor lift, painting a mural on a warehouse wall, while below a couple of kids dressed like old tramps wrestled with a big, brown stuffed bear.
The bear split open, and thousands of tiny white particles of stuffing poured out into a warm Miami breeze, swirling high into the air and reflecting the glow from the floodlight. I ran to join the kids, who were now playing and laughing in the sudden snowstorm. A guy I recognized from Brooklyn rode by on a tall bike. Bay Area artist Monica Canilao went careening by on a scooter with no helmet. A cop drove by and smiled and waved. Guys from Overtown with cornrows and gold teeth were laying out a spread of huge chicken legs on a flaming grill. Some punk kids from Brooklyn sat on the curb, drinking beer. A girl in the group laid her head on a boy's shoulder as they all watched SWOON work.
For a second, I flashed back to the Stallone scene earlier in the day, back on the convention floor. Here, in this intersection, I had found something living and breathing. This could be the real city of art. But I also knew the SWOON mural was commissioned by Jeffrey Deitch. I stood and watched the painting and the dancing and laughing and eating in the fake December snowstorm and contemplated what the city would be like if we all had the free time, resources, and permission to take to the streets and transform the city any way we pleased. Was this a window to a different world where anything might be possible?
Or was it just art?
The second half of this essay will run in the Jan. 27 Guardian. *