Letter from Miami Beach

December 30th, 2014  |  Published in December 2014

Art Basel Miami, the most flamboyant art fair in North America ran December 3-7, 2014, at the Miami Beach Convention Center.  More than 70,000 people attended this 17th annual event, which features a curated collection of international galleries that specialize in cutting-edge contemporary art.  The art attracts collectors, art professionals, and celebrities who come to browse, buy, sell, and learn. Some folks claim another 50,000 or so philistines fly in solely for the non-stop parties.

The art fair has played a key role in transforming Miami into a global city, and it has stimulated a sustained economic boom. Art Basel is held each year in Basel, Switzerland and Tokyo, Japan, as well as Miami Beach.  UBS is the international sponsor.  The fairs attract an ultra-upscale audience.

For art lovers, one of the chief artistic attractions of Miami Beach is the visually exciting historic and contemporary architecture, which ranges from the South Beach Art Deco and Art Nouveau hotels and public buildings of the 1930s through the lavish middle beach mid-century modern masterpieces of Morris Lapidus in the 1950s. The late 20th and 21st centuries brought a renewed emphasis on high-styled hotel design, beginning with the Delano redo for Ian Schrager by Philippe Starck.   The 2001 Sagamore retrofit as “The Art Hotel,” made it a showcase for the owners witty and enjoyable art collection. The Sagamore was a pioneer.  Now, it is assumed that every high-priced Miami hotel must have an art collection.  The SLS, an artistic brand designed by Phiippe Starck, the sophisticated Beaux Arts in the JW Marriott in Miami, and now, in the second decade, luxury playgrounds by star designers and architects Ian Schrager, John Pawson, and Martin Drubnizki, some of which opened this December to welcome Art Basel, all show art.  Plus, they aspire to be works of art.

My husband, Mark, and I, have visited Miami in late November through early December for nearly a decade. Originally, we chose to vacation there because it was warm and air travel was convenient.  But we returned for the resort culture and lively urban vibe.  And it is still warm.  I like to explore the architecture and museums.  He like the trendy restaurants, hotels, and people watching.  (Dining on the veranda of the News Cafe on Ocean Drive and 8th Street or on Lincoln Road provide unique experiences with entertainment nightly by unicyclists, convertible-drivers, and promenading fashionistas.) it is little  wonder that Miami Beach has acquired a reputation comparable to New York City, as one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world.  Last month, when we checked into the Courtyard on Collins Road  (the renovated Art Deco Cadillac Hotel), the lobby was filled with pretty young women in expertly tailored red suits. They were the attendants on the Virgin Atlantic flight, which had just arrived from London, one of multiple flights from international cities.

Sometimes, we are fortunate enough to be in Miami for the full week of the Art Basel exhibition, but this year our hotel reservation ran short, so I did not view everything. The sculpture garden in Collins Park adjacent to the Bass Museum was electrifying and a public favorite.  In general, the art was as colorful and glittery as the audience.

Among the more noticeable effects of Art Basel are the dramatic jump in hotel rates corresponding to show dates.  The beautiful party people tend to arrive early for Art Basel, so their designer clothes and wheels keep us entertained during Thanksgiving week.  We paced the boardwalk while watching the tent riggers, party decorators, and landscapers create venues around the beach-front hotels.  Workers stayed overtime to complete facilities and to train hospitality staff for grand openings.

The arts fair has attracted a strong audience from South and Central America.  Many of these visitors own or have recently purchased a second home in Miami.  This corollary of the fair has bolstered the already thriving development and construction industries in Greater Miami.  Travelers from the U.K. are coming in record numbers, and developers have taken pains to appeal to British tastes.  Martin Brudnizki, a leading London interior and architectural designer especially known for his Le Caprice restaurants, was brought to Miami to design the Soho Beach House and its lovely Cecconi’s garden restaurant. The Soho was crafted from the Art Deco Sovereign Hotel. The designers managed to fuse the forties interior with a sleek contemporary addition, while adding weathered floor tile, wood siding, and vintage accessories that could have come from a country house in Cornwall or Wales.

The British design effect proved so popular that Thompson Hotels called on Brudnizki to renovate The Crown Apartments (located on Collins between the Soho and Cadillac) for its flagship hotel in Miami Beach.  Its charming decor pays tribute to the 1950s in a pastel palette and pale molded furniture.  The centerpiece of the Thompson’s public spaces is the Seagrape, a glittering yet cozy bar-restaurant presided over by celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein, a Miami native.  Mark and I were invited to one of the private dinner trials, and found the dining experience first rate. The Soho, Thompson, and the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc, a few blocks north, were the settings for numerous Art Basel private parties.  We also tried Stripsteak, a posh Michael Mina restaurant at the Fontainbleau, which opened during Art Basel week.

During the fair, a few realtors chartered vans and buses to tour potential home buyers.  Most of the luxury hotels are building residences as part of startups or expansions.  The Edition Hotel, a new brand by Marriott, rushed furnishings to open by Art Basel. The Miami Edition is at 19th and Collins not far from the Bass Museum of Art,  Designed by Ian Schrager, whose Delano Hotel started the boutique hotel craze in Miami Beach, and British architect John Pawson, the Hotel and ultra-high priced Residences incorporate the site and remains of the beloved old Seville Hotel.   Schrager’s nightclub, named The Basement, was the site of major Art Basel parties.  The hotel house bowling alleys and an ice-skating rink. The hotel managers emphasized to me that while everything looked shiny and new, the design incorporated key historic elements, like the gold mosaic columns, the diving platform in the pool, and the exterior wall clock.  The bar was kept in the same location, which I was told, “pleased locals.” And the lovely sculptured shape and coved ceiling of the showroom restaurant was retained.  Named the Matador Room, it is now directed by the famed New York City-based French Chef Jean Georges Vongerichten.  (Trendy, gourmet dining rooms, like art collections, are essential to hotel success in Miami.) The menu is inspired by Latin American cuisine, so matador art dominates the decor.

Adjacent to the Edition, encompassing the historic Saxony and Versailles hotels, Argentine developer Alan Faena is creating an art-inspired district, consisting of a hotel, residences, and an art forum modeled after the Pantheon in Rome.  He enlisted an all-star cast that includes Rem Koolhaus/OMA, Thomas Heatherwick, and Foster + Partners.  Faena had engaged Sir Foster and Philipe Starck to design an art district in Buenos Aires  Hotel interiors and uniforms will be created Hollywood set designers,  Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin, whose credits include The Great Gatsby.  Antwerp’s Studio Job is creating metal work, fountains, and other decorative arts. Although the project is underway and the target opening is December 2015, the players seem to change.  I was not able to tour the site.  This is a huge development, which the owner allegedly speaks of as a “utopia” and a “country.”  (It has a flag.)

One of the development highlights of Art Basel week was ground-breaking for One Thousand Museum, a condominium residential tower on Biscayne Bay designed by Zaha Hadid.  It is the first residential tower by the famed architect, designer of the Rosenthal Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.

The top-dollar architectural news in Miami has been the proposed redesign of the Miami  Beach convention center, which has an elusive price tag of up to $1 billion.  The commission and the cost has been subjects of an ongoing controversy.  In truth, most of the new developments in Miami Beach are sources of conflict among residents.  Preservationists lament the loss of old familiar buildings and the rise of new towers.  Even Zaha Hadid told the Wall Street Journal that she had planned the design her exotic condo tower so it would bear no resemblance to Miami’s mainstream contemporary architectural efforts.  And she has succeeded in that goal.

Despite some tensions, there is no question that the awakened artistic sensitivity, which has swept Miami in response to Art Basel, has been an economic driver for tourism, construction, and real estate. Gallery owners complain that rents have risen in the Wynwood District and that few locals have become collectors; local artists complain that it has not helped them significantly, and they still cannot make a living from local art sales; and tourists complain that prices escalate in early December.

But people were planning already to return for Art Basel 2015.  Art Basel Miami and its offshoots demonstrate the power of art, and of advertising to bring people, excitement, and revenue to a place.  I continue to be impressed with the fair, and I am happy for Miami. I am happy, too, that in Cincinnati, the FotoFocus Biennial is bringing a prestigious national art event and media attention to our community.  It is not likely to stimulate a similar construction boom, but the national media attention enhances our city’s reputation for art and culture.  Art Basel and the other Miami art fairs offer a powerful lesson for American political leaders and urbanists: art can, and does, spur economic development.  And serves to build a vibrant city.

–Sue Ann Painter

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