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March 5, 2015updated 11 Jan 2016 1:36pm

How Art Basel Miami Beach came to town – and other Floridian stories

By Spear's

It was early December and I was in a cab, inching through Miami’s Wynwood Art District. Art Basel Miami Beach was in full helter-skelter mode, and if the director of a sci-fi movie wanted to show an art world that was literally that — a planet dominated by art — it would perhaps look like this, kind of a hectic video game of galleries, art spaces and private museums, with performers and rubberneckers spilling in every which direction, billboards, banners and an acreage of graffiti looking not confrontational in intent, but like exuberant self-promo.

Our driver shot us a gleaming grin. ‘A few years ago you wouldn’t have come down here with a Swat team,’ he said. It was, he added, down to ‘the fair’. An exaggeration, but with a germ of truth. ‘You can’t imagine the difficulty this community had during the Eighties and Nineties,’ says Norman Braman, a car dealership magnate who moved to Miami in 1969 and is a long-time serious collector of Contemporary art. ‘There were tourists from Germany that were murdered. It was written up all around the world.’

The city was down at heel, druggy, kind of nothing. My first visit was at the end of the Seventies and came about because I had heard about the Art Deco hotels in South Beach while staying at the frowstily fashionable resort Palm Beach (see page 126). I went for a look. They were captivating, spared from the wrecking ball by a moribund economy. There I met Andrew Capitman, a New Yorker. He and his mother Barbara had bought up seven of the hotels and had contrived to have a square mile of the Art Deco district protected, making it the largest historic district in the United States. So art began playing a part in the transformation of Miami early.

That transformation has been enabled by demographics, particularly the massive influx of Cubans, says Carlos de la Cruz, a Cuban who arrived in 1975. ‘What changed is that, from being a vacation place for people from the North-East and the Midwest, all of a sudden when a lot of Latin Americans started coming, the city became completely international,’ says de la Cruz, one of Miami’s core collectors of Contemporary art.

You may be picking up that art is kind of a leitmotif here. Bonnie Clearwater, then the director of the Lannan Museum, a collection of Modern and Contemporary art north of Miami in Lake Worth set up by entrepreneur Patrick Lannan Sr, finds another premonition of what was to come in an early-Eighties condo development by Marty Margulies on Grove Isle.

Margulies is also an art collector and he garnished the space with pieces from his sculpture collection. A local columnist wrote: ‘On Grove Isle, one can fidget in the outdoor Jacuzzi, reminisce about the good old days in Bogota, and, staring past a Calder, a Noguchi, or a Donald Judd, marvel from a safe distance at beautiful Biscayne Bay and all that lies beyond.’

‘He didn’t do it with the idea of marketing the property,’ Clearwater says. ‘But in a way it became the model for the future collectors/developers because Grove Isle became known because of Marty’s great sculpture collection there.’

Christo and Jeanne-Claude arrived in Miami in 1983, invited by one of their collectors. They were driven around by Beth Dunlop, then the design director of the Miami Herald, while they were scouting the terrain. Bingo! After the prolonged and pricey legal wars and public hearings that are part of any of their projects, they surrounded eleven islets in Biscayne Bay with 6.5 million square feet of woven pink polypropylene. Like all their pieces, Surrounded Islands was up for just six weeks. But South Florida was on the art world map.

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Not dead centre, perhaps. After Patrick Lannan Sr died in 1983, his son Patrick Lannan Jr moved the foundation to Los Angeles. In 1988 he told the magazine Art & Auction that Florida was ‘too much on the outskirts’ of the art world action. Ouch.

In 1990 Mera Rubell paid her first visit to Miami. She and her husband Don were — and are — serious collectors of Contemporary art. ‘I fell in love with Miami,’ she says. ‘And I couldn’t believe the opportunity here.’ She moved there full-time two years later. ‘It was clear that here in Miami we could find a 40,000 square foot building for the price of a one-bedroom apartment in New York and show our collection — and live with it. Because most of it in New York we didn’t live with, we were just being eaten up alive by the storage fees.’

Every year the Rubells went to Art Basel. ‘We said, “Why don’t you check out Miami as a possible space to have a fair, instead of the usual?”‘ Mera says. Their son Jason then suggested they could have an art fair in Miami like no other — on the beach. The Basel people didn’t know what he meant, so he said: ‘Well, we are located on the sea. A gallery can have a shipping container on the beach.’

Mera resumes: ‘They loved that idea, because it was unique. The beach, in Miami, in the winter… They loved this idea. That was the cherry on the cake that caught their imagination. Europeans could come here in the winter. Picasso would go inside the Convention Center and the young art would go outside.’

The Rubells had a tough time persuading the Convention Center to give them a slot, though. ‘They thought, “Oh, we don’t need another schlocky art fair,”‘ Mera says. ‘They thought it was on the same level as their antique fairs and their craft fairs.’ Accordingly, the Rubells talked Art Basel into coming up with the moolah to fly a delegation from Miami to Art Basel, including themselves, the mayor of Miami Beach and some commissioners.

Well, you know the result: Art Basel Miami Beach.

It was not, of course, that simple. Art Basel Miami Beach was to be launched in December 2001 — and then 9/11 happened. It was cancelled, but too late for all exhibitors, and many shows went ahead anyway. ‘I did a huge Roy Lichtenstein show that became the main event, so everybody came for that,’ says Bonnie Clearwater. ‘Leo Castelli was there. Everybody was so vibrant and wonderful. We were all together.’

The effects of the fair on the economic life of the host city have been startling. Carlos de la Cruz observes that the fair has had help: ‘[Ben] Bernanke favoured an easy money policy for a lot of the years that we’re talking about. If you analyse the influence of Basel, you also have to analyse the impact of Mr Bernanke at the same time. By lowering interest rates to nothing he has made investments easier in the types of assets that appeal to and are acceptable to precisely the types of people that go to these art fairs or would be natural customers for these art fairs. We went into the 2008 recession halfway through the life of Basel Miami, and yet we pulled out of that recession quicker than practically any other city that I know. And there’s a whole slew of new condominium builders, with equity from foreigners that want to play the game in Miami — the same buyers that are at the art fair. One of the penthouses has just been sold for $50 million.’ And art is the core of it all.

‘I don’t think we would have had the Perez Museum here without Art Basel. I think the fair was a magnet for creating that,’ Norman Braman says. ‘Or the new ICA in the design district.’ Your museum, I asked? He had neglected to mention that he was funding it. ‘Yes. And the private museums here. Here we have five located about a mile and half from each other. There’s no other community in the world that can say something like that.

‘These are just some of the attractions this fair has created here. And I’m not even talking about the economic benefits of it. Look at the art area: all you see are cranes there and new buildings being built. It’s extraordinary. I think this fair kick-started this entire economy here.’

One interesting phenomenon at Art Basel Miami Beach this winter was the use of art lingo and art connections just about everywhere.
Two Miami openings attracted my attention — one for the Brickell Flatiron Gallery, the other for the 1000 Museum. The Brickell Flatiron Gallery turned out to be not a gallery but a new condo building, with art and furniture by Julian Schnabel. And the 1000 Museum was not a museum but ‘an ultra-luxury, pre-construction condo development with prices ranging from the mid-$5 millions, for a half-floor residence, to $50 million’ by Zaha Hadid, who showed up for the ground-breaking, if that was the appropriate word. And so the art world roars on, from strength to strength. And really, why not?

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