At first glance, Miami’s Design District looks like a dozen other hipster enclaves that have sprung up in cities across the country. There are the big, old industrial buildings (perfect for loft living), upscale designer retail outlets (Water Works and Holly Hunt among them), a sprinkling of cool galleries (Kevin Bruk is a local favorite), a few trendy restaurants (young Bohos prefer the casual 190), and at least one ironically named building (the Madonna has cone-shaped lights rimming its first floor).
Spend a few minutes exploring, though, and you discover some alluring surprises, like the giant outdoor living room complete with an appropriately giant sofa that dominates one street corner. On the upper wall of the Buick Building, near where the district begins, you’ll find an eye-catching painting of boxers in action alongside a portrait of a sleeping man. An entire floor of prime Second Avenue real estate has been converted into a nonprofit exhibition space full of cutting-edge works by nationally known artists. Plus, if you happen to show up on the right once-a-month night, you’ll see the galleries open late, a deejay spinning records on the sidewalk, and the entire neighborhood in full-blown party mode.
Add this all up, and it becomes clear that Miami’s Design District is more than just your typical happening neighborhood. It’s actually the hub of a big-time, big-money art scene that is transforming the city into a place where the visual aesthetics are becoming as beautiful as the people who patronize Ocean Drive’s outdoor cafes. The new visual currency adds another dimension to an already dynamic city, turning Miami into a burgeoning SoHo by the sea, where visitors can absorb cutting-edge culture and bring home a souvenir more ambitious than, say, a stuffed baby alligator. Suddenly, it’s a place where you can spend one night watching experimental art films in a packed museum auditorium and devote the next to catching a presentation by art stars like Jenny Holzer and Richard Prince.
While Miami boasts its share of art museums, its sensibility — and, indeed, the museums themselves — is largely being defined by a handful of influential modern-art collectors, including Jason Rubell, a hotelier whose family maintains a public art exhibition space; Norman and Irma Braman, whose collection is the most important and most valuable in town; Craig and Ivelin Robins, he a real-estate developer who, not coincidentally, owns 80 percent of the art-intensive Design District; Dennis and Debra Scholl, whose massive assemblage appears to center around photography until you find out that the couple recently purchased a warehouse for stashing their even more massive sculpture collection; and Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz, who are so into collecting that they’ve transformed their ultramodern home into something closer to a gallery.
Robins, who truly gets off on exposing people to his art, runs his company out of a large office with enough high-quality paintings to fill a small museum. A Miami native, Robins first got bit by the art bug while attending a university in Spain. His passion for collecting began with two minor sketches by Dali and is now defined by his insatiable lust to buy every important, under-appreciated work he can get his hands on. “Miami is very quickly becoming one of the important cities of substance in the world,” says Robins, who put his money where his mouth is by commissioning Richard Tuttle, Guillermo Kuitca, and others to create public art for his current real-estate project (a high-end waterfront housing development called Aqua). “The city is at a merger point. So many different influences are coming in here. Miami is becoming profound at a geometric pace.”
This fact has not gone unnoticed by Samuel Keller, proprietor of one of, if not the, most important art fairs in the world. His Art Basel, held every spring in Basel, Switzerland, attracts collectors and dealers from around the globe. When Keller decided that he wanted to host a spinoff in the United States, he immediately focused on Miami. “There is a real community of collectors there,” he says, acknowledging that they provide a ready market for locally produced work and will all but guarantee another fabulous turnout when his second annual citywide fair/party kicks off on December 4. Besides the more than 150 art galleries displaying 20th- and 21st-century works in the Miami Beach Convention Center, there will be off-site activities that include cocktail receptions, studio tours, video-art presentations, and site-specific work (like the giant living room). “Miami has always had artists living there, but most of them used to leave town as soon as they had success,” says Keller. “Now there’s a young generation — people like Naomi Fisher, Hernan Bas, and Jose Bedia — who are all successful and are helping Miami to gain its reputation among international collectors. One social spot of the moment is the newly opened Rocket Projects gallery, where codirector Nick Cindric seems to put as much emphasis on hanging out and exchanging ideas as he does on actually selling art. Of course, under the right conditions, the former will effortlessly lead to the latter, and Cindric seems savvy enough to know this perfectly well.
Following midafternoon drinks in his comfy backroom, which has been doubling as a salon lately, he provides a detailed tour of the work for sale. Occupying a prime spot in the front gallery at Rocket Projects is an odd-looking display: five cinder blocks (made from dirt, plaster, and glue) and a resin cone (very much like what’s used to redirect traffic). Cindric goes into a long explanation of what it all means, but the most memorable thing he says is that the blocks go for $450 apiece, or you can buy the whole shebang (cone and blocks) for $5,500. And, it turns out, he’s already sold a few blocks (apparently, the artist has extra blocks in case anyone wants to buy the set).
Perhaps that single fact, that collectors are actually paying local artists good money for the sorts of things most of us stash in the garage, is the ultimate proof that Miami’s modern-art scene has arrived. And while the lasting value of Cindric’s bricks has yet to be determined, it’s worth noting that works like these can become incredibly valuable. For example, back when New York’s SoHo had more factories than art galleries, people used to snicker at Andy Warhol’s early paintings of soup cans. Today, they sell for more than $1 million, and nobody is laughing. Consider that as you take your goggle-eyed tour of Miami’s modern-art scene.
graciela cattorossi is a florida-based photographer whose work has appeared in travel + leisure, travel + leisure golf, and conde nast traveler.
miami art tour
if you want to explore the art scene in miami, the following are great places to go. you can also log on to www.designmiami.com for lots more information. for details about art basel miami beach and a list of events, go to www.artbasel.com/miami_beach.
beach house bal harbour
9449 collins ave.
situated north of south beach and owned by a family of art collectors, the hotel features art in its lobby.
the raleigh miami beach hotel
1775 collins ave.
no art per se, but it was recently purchased by andre balazs, of mercer and chateau marmont hotel fame, so it will be artful.
190 n.e. 46th st.
cool and funky, exuding a vaguely bahamian vibe.
28 n.e. 40th st.
hot spot of the moment.
769 n.e. 125th st.
fredric snitzer gallery
3078 s.w. 38 court
house (by appointment only)
2330 n.e. 4th ave.
kevin bruk gallery
3900-b n.e. 1st ave.
3440 n. miami ave.
3550 n. miami ave.
2121 park ave.
center for fine arts
101 w. flagler
museum of contemporary art, north miami
770 n.e. 125th st.
1001 washington ave.
privately funded exhibit spaces
440 n.e. second ave.
rubell family collection
95 n.w. 29th st.