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I'd been to South Beach only once before for a brief winter respite in the early 90s, when the main strip, Ocean Drive, was awash in models and open-air cafes. The Art Deco architecture and wide beach were impressive, but I stayed mainly in SoBe. I had little sense of the art and culture but for some very colorful but not overly interesting work in galleries outside of Miami. Then the pedestrian mall, Lincoln Road, was only dotted with people and a few small, impressive galleries; now it’s a vast, indoor/outdoor European-flavored restaurant and cafe row and social mecca.

Back then Madonna and Versace were the names. Now Nicky Hilton's new hotel and Rosie O'Donnell's homestead are beacons of Hollywood's grip there. Apparently Kanye West and Martha Stewart herself were in attendance this year at Basel Miami.

Attending the massive and more formal “big tent” of Art Basel at Miami Beach Convention Center is similar to visiting a multitude of different countries and seeing their best modern art, all the big names of the twentieth century and more. It was a refresher course in art history. It also gives artists an opportunity to drop our stereotypical sensitivities and bohemian airs and step up to the plate of big business, to schmooze with the big fish, including the sharks, in air-conditioned comfort. Having worked in galleries and museums and at other trade shows, I respected that they might have their eyes peeled for the major demographic: wealthy collectors. To the contrary, most dealers I talked to were exceptionally relaxed and open to talking about art and ideas, names and trends. I even got one hip French gallery contingent from New York to giggle with me.

Other smaller yet substantial art fairs housed in more primitive venues – huge circus tents in industrial and bungalow neighborhoods, small parks, and schoolyards in the Wynwood Art District – had cool names such as NADA, Pulse, and Scope. Miami offers incredible year-round contemporary art venues to visit. Major treats for my artistic eyes were the vast warehouse-like museums of The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse and The Rubell Family Collection, which had a distinctive post-80s conceptual raunch, occasional shock, and figurative bite to their exhibitions. The edgiest work I saw, rife with conceptualism and gender issues, was located in a gallery in the upper reaches of the design district among bungalow homes, not a typical place for high art.

Miami’s atmosphere, inside clubs and out in the air, induces sensuality into the Northeastern native’s body and mind. I'd danced in clubs like I hadn't danced in many years. I had the beat – big time. My culinary and social lives were expanded nicely. I attended a private party for artist Saya Woolfalk at a fantastic multi-million-dollar apartment overlooking Biscayne Bay and downtown Miami in the ultra-chic South of Fifth neighborhood hosted by the dynamic and glamorous Robin Brooks, CEO of Brooks Food Group.

At Crust Grilled Pizza, I experienced my first and delicious beef tenderloin and mashed potato pizza, accented with truffle oil, caramelized leeks, and three kinds of cheeses with my cousin Steven. He is also known as Mister Plant, an entrepreneur with a booming landscaping business who wants to transform his vintage condo building in the Wynwood Art District with public art. We traipsed through elegant design exhibition openings and enjoyed free martinis and chic outdoor VIP spaces, landing in the front seat of event sponsor Audi’s $120K R8 for a quick photo. Another relative, Chef Andre Bienvenu, gave me a behind-in-the-scenes tour of the mammoth restaurant Joe's Stone Crab, where I indulged in fresh stone crabs and authentic key lime pie.

Some friends and relatives, transplants now living in Florida and Miami, expressed ambivalence, such as the transient and expensive nature of the city. A few former New Yorkers talked about the lack of a richer cultural life, the beauracracy of daily life, and lack of quality service there. But each of these same folks are pioneering and tough and have made a new life far from home in a happier climate.

I was fortunate to have been hosted by two brilliant men who together have built a beautiful life for themselves and who kindly introduced me to a very art-friendly Miami. They now live at the development Aqua, located on Alison Island in northern Miami Beach. In 1997, Bruce Lieb, a Needham-born realtor, and Larry Magras, a physician working at New England Medical Center, with a satellite office on Columbus Avenue, dating for two years, both found themselves with employment opportunities in South Florida. Together, they decided to make the migration.

Their friends in the South End gasped at the news and reacted as if they were moving to an intellectual and cultural gulag. They say: “Our experience has been the polar opposite. Arts and culture in South Florida abound. Shows and fairs draw on the international clientele which Miami is known for, and bring together artists and audiences from diverse backgrounds, adding to the entertainment value of it all.”


Read more about Big RED's report from Miami Art Basel in Issue 55

Images are courtesy of the author (top), and Larry Magras (bottom).


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