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Language and login selector end n° 6-7 : What's happening in...Miami, the capital of Latin America?


Miami is the hybrid city 'par exellence': a mix of North and South America, in its morphology as well as in its organization. It's a business as well as vacation city; a glass and cement metropolis amidst an exuberant natural reserve that invades its every corner. It's both terrestrial and aquatic; has both cars and boats; is bilingual in Spanish and English; is conservative and progressive, and it's an enclave of the market economy a stones throw (or a raft's drift) from Castro's Cuba…A city with two internationally celebrated art fairs, Basel Miami and Art Miami, that are held in the scant period of one month. Its mysterious ambivalence is reflected by the perplexity that the state of Florida induced recently during the U.S. presidential elections, disputed to the point of manual recounts of republican and democratic votes. For a Spaniard accustomed to spending time in the U.S., and who traveled at the age of 18 some 5000 miles by Greyhound bus, from East to West and from North to South, to go to Miami is still a new experience. New York is far from being a typical American city (I call it the "World's Federal District"), and Miami isn't either, for various reasons. Its an intermediary point between Spain and the U.S., and between Europe and America. It's a place privileged by nature. I'd like to know what it was like when Juan Ponce de León discovered it in 1513, and when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés finally conquered it for good, founding St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, in 1565. The Spanish conquistadors never imagined, when they landed on these shores, islands and keys, now connected by bridges, ferries and helicopters, that it would become one of the world's principal social, economic and artistic regions. Nor did the Spanish government suspect it when it sold all of Florida to the U.S. in 1821. Miami was a mangrove forest that today the wealthy pan-American bourgeoisie (from the U.S. and Latin America, not to mention a growing European colony) is attempting to preserve in order to build their mansions beside the water, with private marina included, as though it were an American Venice. In this city, where 65% of the inhabitants speak Spanish, Spanish names are everywhere, like the 'Villa Vizcaya,' a mansion built in 1916 with spectacular gardens overlooking the waters of "Biscayne Bay," in whose construction no less than 10% of Miami's population at the time worked. The city was already renown for its fondness for luxury, sensuality and art. In its extensive beach front housing (Millionaire's Row) can be found the house that once belonged to Al Capone. Another example is the home of Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz, hosts of the traditional breakfast offered during Basel Miami, featuring coffee, tea, pastries and the latest art. While enjoying the wonderful December weather in the lush bay-side garden, you can view the artworks from outside through the house's large windows, though it goes without saying that you can freely circulate throughout the house as well. There are three art-collecting families in Miami who, with Latin hospitality, open their doors to those attending the fair: the De la Cruz, the Margulies, and the Rubell families. Collecting here is a profession that is carried out with exemplary 'mestiza' vocation, combining the traditional Anglo-American open house with Latin informality.

Basel Miami 04 © Art Basel

Art Basel Miami

There are parallels between the landing of the Spaniards on these shores 500 years ago, and what, moving on now to the world of art, Samuel Keller did as director of Art Basel just three years ago. Actually, it was four years ago when it was supposed to happen, but just as the Spaniards postponed the conquest of Florida for 50 years because of the resistance offered by Indians and corsairs, Keller had to cancel the first edition of Basel Miami after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001. It was in 2002 when the big event finally happened. The Swiss art fair of Basel, considered the world's most important, opened an offshoot in Miami, where, due to strictly physical (geographic) and structural (sociological, economic and cultural) conditions, it has enjoyed an expansion that's beginning to exceed even the original. The climate, together with the festive Latin atmosphere have helped turn Miami's entire metropolitan area, from Miami Beach to Coral Gables, into a 'fiesta' of art the first week of each December. And who could doubt that all this also favorably influences collectors? As Kerstin Wahala, director of the Eigen + Art gallery (Leipzig, Germany) says, referring to the recent 2004 edition: "We've been able to establish more intense contacts with collectors thanks to the relaxed atmosphere." And it's telling that Ernst Hilger, Viennese gallery owner, now has his own apartment in Miami. One of the best things about Art Basel Miami is the exquisite manner in which the social and festive activities which surround and add spice to the event are planned and looked after, because in Miami, sociological (and economic) capital of Latin America, that's something inherent to the city's idiosyncratic character. Proof of this is the importance given to the public relations department, headed by Marlen Melone, and the leading role of the Host Committee, in both its 'junior' and 'senior' versions. Numerous decisions to purchase are surely made at the nighttime parties which are thrown almost daily in the hotel gardens of the Delano, Raleigh, Shore Club, Carlton and Sagamore, this last displaying its collection of contemporary art in its public areas. The notion of surrounding and combining the strictly artistic with activities like film, design and music results in a spectacular synergy and guarantees that all of Miami's resources are mobilized, helping ensure that all the enthusiastic foreigners attending the fair feel at home in the city (especially if they're Spaniards), at least those of us who belong to the art world during the five magical days of Basel Miami.

Murals on the outside of a Dacra building © Dacra

Craig Robins, the "Design District" and Public Art

The renowned "Design District" merits it own mention. Any discussion must begin with Craig Robins and his multifaceted real estate empire, Dacra, founded in 1987 and self-defined as "a creative force which combines urban design, architecture, art and innovation." Craig perceived the power of contemporary art, glamour included, and purchased buildings and tracts in what was at that time a depressed area (even today the numerous spaces dedicated to artistic activity in the district are oases in the midst of a danger zone). He began to cede them to artists as studios, exhibition spaces and anything else related to creativity, similar to Madrid's famous cultural eruption known as the 'Movida' at the beginning of the 80s. The idea worked like a magnet: galleries, designer furniture stores, and many others with creative interests were soon attracted to the area. As a consequence property values increased apace, and now it's one of the creative capitals of the world for the arts, fashion, architecture, music, and a myriad of activities that escape easy categorization. During Basel Miami's run the district acted as a nighttime extension of the fair, and in the last edition its stellar event was Art Loves Design, on Saturday, the 4th of December. With several streets closed to traffic for concerts of all kinds, more than 10,000 people circulated through the multiple exhibitions until the early morning hours…and a lot of us ran out of the calling cards we had with us. Given the success of Dacra, other real estate promoters are following in the footsteps of Robins, among them Jeff Morr (also owner of the Liquid Blue Gallery), launching art-related initiatives not only in the District but in other Miami neighborhoods too, spurred as well by the arrival of Art Basel to the city, opening a Pandora's box to a variety of more or less latent projects, along with others of a new generation. Art & City is another enterprise striking for its artistic sensibility, and which is behind the awards of the same name. The latest venture of Miami's almost compulsive alliance between real estate and art (not yet officially announced as we go to press) is Craig Robins' commission of the Spanish architect Juan Ábalos to design and build the museum which will house his own collection, located, of course, in the Design District. But we haven't finished with Robins yet. His next surprise will be called Aqua Allison Island, a residential community that seems designed expressly for art collectors, for which Guillermo Kuitca y Richard Tuttle will develop public art projects for the first time. Evidently, public art is Robins' specialty and is very much a part of the city's countenance, maybe encouraged by the climate, and also for the important part that street life plays in its social style, a European and Latin feature that doesn't exist in the majority of the U.S. Living Room, by the Miami-based Argentinean couple Behar and Marquardt, is a landmark work in the history of public art: the Living Room Building (property of Dacra) was designed around the piece, and not the contrary as is usually the case. Located on a corner in the Design District, its provocative scale makes the building's entrance look like the door of a doll house on the floor of this unexpected living room. The Rubell family's collection (or rather, part of it) is also headquartered in the Design District. At this year's breakfast we were shown the acquisitions from the previous 12 months, among which the highly regarded Leipzig group's interest in painting stood out. Part of the euphoria that imbues Miami's art scene, the Rubell's took advantage of the fair to publicly present the building's expansion: 18 new exhibition rooms, a research library, a new sculpture garden, rooms reserved for new media and a conservation lab. The Margulies collection is located not in the Design District, but in the nearby Wynwood Arts District. A new building, with more room than before to display some of the 12,000 pieces in the collection, was recently inaugurated. The space, which features photography, video, sculpture and installations, is open to the public.

Galleries, museums and art centers

Curiously, Miami doesn't yet have a museum infrastructure in keeping with its passion for contemporary art, at least as far as quantity goes. The Miami Art Museum (MAM) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) are the main institutions which seriously foment current art. MAM, according to its own aims, "looks at international art from the perspective of different cultural traditions, reflecting Miami's exceptional situation as gateway to the Americas." Its fantastic show dedicated to Fabian Marcaccio (an Argentinean resident in New York) Miami Paintant, was a good example of that outlook. MOCA has gained well-deserved world acclaim for its permanent collection and for its truly risky and innovative program of exhibitions. The Bass Museum of Art, on the other hand, is more haphazard and conventional in its exhibition agenda, though its proximity to Art Basel Miami's office at the Convention Center has recently been forcing it to get its act together so as not to remain stuck in the past. For its part, the Centro Cultural Español has a surprising number of activities for this kind of establishment. As for the galleries, they are evidently the first to reflect the city's artistic exhilaration, since they represent commercial stability and permanence. Not surprisingly, the majority, such as Karpio, Kevin Bruk and Steinbaum, are located in the Design District…MOCA is another focus of attention, as is Ambrosio, which occupies two almost contiguous spaces across from the museum. Diana Lowenstein and Snitzer, for their part, are found in Coral Gables. It's strange that no really important gallery has yet opened in Miami Beach.

Text : Fernando Galán © salamir creacion y arte, S.L.

This article is a contribution from the magazine, issue 6-7 (Nov. 2004 - Feb. 2005).
Fernando Galán is an art critic and independent curator. He is director and editor from

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