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Miami’s Cultural Boom

Culture Watch
The new Perez Art Museum Miami.

By Ted Loos

When the new Pérez Art Museum Miami opened in December, timed to coincide with the world’s most important art air, Art Basel Miami Beach, it was clear that something had permanently changed in the city that was once derided as either a mindless, sunny paradise or a crime-ridden swamp. It’s now an international mecca for art and architecture, among its many other charms.

This isn’t news to locals, as it’s been building for some time. But currently the evidence is overwhelming and can be shouted to the world. For starters, Frank Gehry’s white and regal New World Center, completed in 2011, gives the most recognized architect a spot in the center of Miami Beach—and he kept his signature style of billowing sail shapes relatively reigned in, as if to signify the city’s newly grown-up status.

PAMM, from the cutting-edge Swiss architecture team of Herzog & de Meuron, establishes, in a stroke a kind of style that could be called tropical modernism, with its deep-set and shady verandas, hanging gardens and fetching combination of wood, glass and steel. (The firm is also designing a deluxe condo, Jade Signature, one of several starchitect-designed residential projects underway in Miami.)

“The successful completion of this project really says something about Miami’s vitality right now,” says Thom Collins, PAMM’s director, who has a major traveling show of Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei up through March 16 and a show called “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World” debuting on April 18.

The Bass Museum of Art is turning a venerable 50 years old this year and is offering a serious lineup of exhibitions to celebrate its anniversary. The Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami continues its strong run, with a show of international art star Tracey Emin on view through March 9 and an exhibition of works by Kenyan-born, New York-based artist Wangechi Mutu opening on April 18. And even the quirky, iconoclastic Wolfsonian-Florida International University, with its incredible holdings of early 20th century art, is expanding. A new space in downtown Miami was donated to the museum by its founder Micky Wolfson, in addition to the main location in Miami Beach.

And, of course, there is Art Basel’s local outpost—founded in 2001 (with its first edition postponed to 2002 because of 9/11)—an art fair that somehow grew from an acorn to an oak in just a couple of years, and which garners more worldwide attention than any other single art event. “Art Basel and Miami Beach grew up together into this cultural powerhouse,” says the collector Mera Rubell, the founder, with her husband and children, of the Rubell Family Collection. “It was the most unlikely place; no one expected it. This used to be a place for only fun and games.”

Of course, the Rubells—now offering a show of their Asian art-buying adventures, “28 Chinese” through August 1—and other savvy families are part of the reason the fair has thrived. Access to the treasures of private collections and private museums created a cachet around the fair from the start. “The idea that private collectors can open their homes—that really came out of Miami,” says Marc Spiegler, director of all three of Art Basel’s worldwide editions. “And no other city in the world can match the size and quality of private collections that Miami has.” He’s referring to bountiful gems like the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, the de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space and the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse.

Those long-established families are being joined by new blood on the art scene, like Alex Gartenfeld, the 27-year-old MOCA curator who is also its interim director. As a New Yorker, he has the perspective to observe right away how Miami is different from other cities. “It’s been fascinating to see how the institutions all work together,” he says. “It’s a really tight-knit community. Sounds corny, but it’s true.”

That means other museums won’t overlap with MOCA’s coming slate of up-to-the-minute contemporary shows of Virginia Overton, Ryan Sullivan and John Miller, artists who haven’t been given the full museum treatment elsewhere. “American institutional debuts, that’s part of our DNA—that’s what we do,” says Gartenfeld. “We try to catch that right moment.”

Identifying and celebrating that moment of emergence has always been a Miami strength across culture at large. “The city is powered by a desire for new experiences,” says PAMM’s Collins. That’s why alternative art spaces have been one of the driving forces in the past 20 years and have helped lead the city to where it is today. Silvia Karman Cubiñá, who now heads the Bass Museum, helped found The Moore Space, one of the most important of them all, and ran it for seven years, putting on a string of memorable shows like “French Kissin’ in the USA.”

The Moore Space is now closed, but Cubiñá actually points to that as proof of the city’s maturity. “Alternative spaces have a lifespan,” she says. “Gradually, the city outgrew the need for what we were doing.” At the Bass, one of the city’s longest established players, Cubiñá has put together a serious lineup for this year, with a traveling show of heralded African artist El Anatsui bookended by two shows organized on-site: one called “Vanitas: Fashion and Art” and the other called simply “GOLD,” a 50th-anniversary homage to the material across many media.

Cubiñá cites the local foundations, particularly the Knight Foundation, as key to the development of the art scene. Just one example is Art Basel’s “Public” sector in front of the Bass, which had its run extended from the week of the fair to a full four months, courtesy of a Knight grant. Both Collins and Cubiñá are in their 40s, and that means the Miami museum future is in their hands. “There’s been this generational shift,” Cubiñá says. “A successful older set of leaders retired, and now the 40-year-olds come in and do their thing. I don’t know what it all means yet, but it’s going to be significant.”

Young leaders are thinking in new ways about everything, including the old idea that Miami could only thrive from December to May. “What has impressed me in my time here, as someone who knew Miami only through the art-fair lens, is that it’s increasingly a year-round cultural community,” says Collins. “Even in the dead of summer, there’s stuff going on all the time.” From PAMM’s downtown location on the water to Wynwood’s galleries and the fair-filled shores of Miami Beach, the energy is palpable.

As Cubiñá puts it, “This isn’t a sleepy city anymore.”

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