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Art Basel Miami Beach

Art Basel not only brings a wealth of premier modern and contemporary pieces, but its pagentry and playfulness overflow this south Florida beach town
| By Michael Kaplan | From Jeff Bridges, July/August 2013
Art Basel Miami Beach
“Narcissus Garden” by Yayoi Kusama, appeared in the Robert Miller Gallery.

For four days in December, Miami Beach becomes the most artful place on earth—and one of the most monied. Private jets jam up all four noncommercial airports, millions of dollars in fine-art transactions smoothly change hands, more than the usual complement of beautiful women wander around in next-to-nothing garb, fine wine flows, fat cigars get smoked, untold pounds of caviar top warm blinis. And if you want a prime hotel room, you really need to make your reservation months ahead. No surprise then that the trendy Gale South Beach and James Royal Palm Hotels both hustled to be open in time for the deluge of tastemakers, collectors and general big-spenders angling for accommodations. Such are the hallmarks of Art Basel Miami Beach, an event that transforms the city into the white-hot center of the international art world.

Stroll through the massive Miami Beach Convention Center, where Basel itself takes place, and you will be excused for believing that art is what it’s exclusively about. After all, some 250 of the world’s top dealers bring their most exquisite works and display them in studio-apartment-sized booths to 50,000 or so potential customers. Enormous pieces by Jean Michel Basquiat seem commonplace, Lichtensteins and Warhols are de rigeuer, and somehow the whole series of Richard Prince’s Nurse paintings—appearing to be pilfered from the cover of a salacious 1950s paperback—are in attendance. I spot a layered abstract by art-world superstar Gerhard Richter and figure that I struck gold. Then I slip over to the next booth and see another one, just as mind-blowing. It’s no exaggeration to say that your eyes get spoiled by a cruise through Basel—and that’s before you even account for the people watching.

Miami being Miami, art is far from the only draw. The city has become expert at attracting a well-heeled breed of cultured tourists who desire more than just nice paintings and sculptures to ogle. As much as Art Basel has become a vehicle for exposing Miami to art, it’s quickly turned into a promotional piece for Miami itself. After all, who can resist the city’s peacocking sense of style, its perfect end-of-year climate and large range of trendy diversions? Regardless of why people come to the fair, they tend to experience everything that Miami has to offer. It’s evident in the artsy folks you see lounging at elite swimming pools, swarming the most desirable dining spots, and cruising via chauffered Escalade to events showcasing the likes of rapper Rick Ross, burlesque queen Dita Von Teese and premier DJ Tiesto.

Beyond that very visible, wide-reaching allure, what’s striking is how quickly Miami Beach’s Art Basel became a force in the art-show world. So much so that it’s easy to forget that Miami is a satellite for the original Art Basel, started in Switzerland in 1970. With its 2002 debut, the Miami offspring quickly evolved into an important fixture on the circuit. In Hong Kong in May of this year, a third offering bowed in. That expansion is a direct result of the success that the Art Basel folks have enjoyed in Miami.

Truly plugged-in people experience an annual party fatigue, receiving piles of invitations that would be must-shows during any other week. For the stretch of Art Basel, though, the realities of time and space dictate that they must be put into piles of yes, no and maybe. You have Wendy Murdoch throwing a party for Larry Gagosian at Soho House, a dinner for Lisa Phillips from the New Museum, and Alex Rodriguez opening his house to a crowd of boldface names. The baseball star, it turns out, had transformed his indoor batting cage into a makeshift gallery where he showed off modern masterpieces by Basquiat, Warhol and George Condo. Then, if you still have it in you, you can figure out which clubs to hit afterwards. Top choices include a roving pop-up put on by French nightclub king Andre Saraiva and director David Lynch’s Silencio.

Basel has become such a magnet for the affluent and influential that companies with nothing artistic to sell have signed on and found angles. That explains why Bugatti provided a Veyron Grand Sport for the French artist Bernar Venet to turn into a canvas (he painted it up with an idealized version of the engineering equation for Bugatti’s innards), the casino-supported Atlantic City Alliance has turned up to promote an art project there, Perrier sponsored a satellite art fair and Davidoff took the big leap of becoming an associate sponsor of the event, complete with a 1,000-square-foot VIP room inside the Convention Center and an outdoor space at the nearby Miami Beach Botanical Garden, specifically delegated as a spot for enjoying cigars.

Inside the VIP room, where guests munch canapés and sip Davidoff cognac and ginger ale cocktails while a Davidoff roller produces one perfect cigar after the next, I meet the elegantly turned out Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, president and CEO of Oettinger Davidoff Group. He explains that cigars and art fit together naturally. “To begin with, there are so many artists who smoke cigars and there are so many works of art that feature cigars,” he says, explaining that Davidoff is stepping up by initiating a program that sponsors Dominican artists to visit art capitals around the world and also brings international artists to the Dominican Republic. “The message we hope to send is that we are serious about art for the long term and that we are a luxury product in the world of pleasure. Sitting down to enjoy a cigar and a piece of art is something that everybody should be able to do. It’s about time beautifully filled.”

A few hours later, while attending a Davidoff cocktail party out in the Botanical Garden, puffing contentedly on a Davidoff Figurado, I can’t agree more. Out in the garden, surrounded by beautiful foliage, under a pristine Miami sky, fine cigars serve as the perfect catalyst for intriguing conversations about art, Miami and life itself.

Early on in the trip, I receive e-mails with spreadsheets laying out parties that are happening. Obviously, I can’t go to every one. There are just too many. So I ask a reporter friend, Andy Wang from the New York Post, a veteran of Art Basel, which events he thinks I need to attend. We’re on a deck at the James Royal Palm, enjoying a bash being put on by Wallpaper magazine, looking over the swimming pool and sipping surprisingly tasty pastel-colored drinks. He looks up and says, “As long you don’t do something stupid, like stay in your room every night, you can’t go wrong. There is so much going on here, it’s impossible not to see something interesting.”

He’s right. Over the course of a couple nights, I wind up at celebrations from one end of South Beach to the other. There’s a party in honor of Mr. Brainwash, the mysteriously self-styled street artist who’s as famous for being a protégé of Banksy as he is for his wall-sized Warhol-inspired splashes. In the courtyard of Freehand Miami, a gussied up hostel (so gussied up, in fact, that a Vogue editor stayed there and wrote about it), the mixology team of Elad Zvi and Gabriel Orta whip up fabulous cocktails at a bar called Broken Shaker. When I’m handed a Little Havana Old Fashioned, made with grain alcohol that has been infused with Cuban cigars, I realize that I have a new favorite place to drink. Later on, following an impressionistic film about Kurt Cobain, a Brooklyn-based punk band tears it up for a crowd of young art lovers and at least one willowy blonde marijuana grower from Northern California. She asks for my address so she can send me a sample.

On another night, at 1 a.m., I find myself standing outside the door of the recently opened, Philippe Starck designed SLS Hotel South Beach, which originated in Los Angeles. Through the whimsical lobby is a pool club, complete with a giant rendering of a rubber ducky at the water’s edge and an idealized surf shack cum nightclub called Hyde (also a spin-off of an L.A. original). People crush toward the entrance and an apologetic doorman says that nobody else can be let in tonight. With the flash of a business card from the SLS’s general manager, I get inside to where there are dozens of fiberglass tiger statues that have been graphically painted up by artist Domingo Zapata and a 2013 Ferrari that was gently set down into the pool area, via crane, at 6:00 this morning.

Inside, past a cabana that has been turned into a mini gallery, an artist in a flowing red gown offers the opportunity to watch her abstract films. If she likes you, she sends you off with a piece of silk cut from a big rectangle of fabric. I’ve got my silk, I’m sipping the house drink of sparkling wine, enjoying the DJ’s chill mix and checking out people climbing up on the painted tigers so they can pose for drunken snapshot mementos. I chat up a feisty, tomboyish artist from San Diego, in town to sell her work at one of a dozen or so ancillary art fairs, the so-called satellite fairs, which attract gallerists and artists who lack the clout and finances for Basel, but have something to market just the same. Mistaking me for an art dealer, she shows me iPhone images of her tendrilly paintings, apparently inspired by neural nets.

Finally she gets restless, stands up, and says, “I’m gonna bounce. Maybe I’ll find an asshole collector.”

And off she goes, seeking her fortune on the perimeter of an art fair that’s as much about money as it is about art. So much so that one dealer later sniffs about the toxic affect that Basel can have on artists. His point is that it doesn’t do them any good to see how their sausage gets sold.

Over the next day, I stretch my legs a little, strolling through the aptly named design district (Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci are all represented there) and heading out to an up-and-coming neighborhood called Wynwood, it’s a haven of small galleries, all shining under the glare of Basel, and a number of the satellite fairs. They capitalize on the thousands of collectors and scenesters in town, and they operate on a more intimate, more manageable scale.

My favorite is Miami Project, held inside a 50,000-square-foot concrete-floored and air-conditioned tent and loaded with dealers who might get lost in the sauce at Basel. Instead of work by Gerhard Richter and Roy Lichtenstein, you see pieces by Gary Panter and John Baldessari. There are terrific, wall-sized photos by Tseng Kwong Chi who chronicled the lives of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol in the 1980s. Out back, a food truck sells pork tacos and short-rib sliders. On one of the nights, fair coproducer Max Fishko (a third-generation art-world entrepreneur, his father owns a gallery called Forum) turns his space into a cool performance spot with the fragile-sounding Hundred Waters trucking up from Gainseville, Florida, to play a show to an appreciative crowd.

Fishko, who puts on fairs similar to Miami Project in San Francisco, Houston, and Bridgehampton, aims for an organic approach that fits well in his moderately sized footprint. “I went to six dealers with whom I see eye-to-eye and got them to help create a vetting committee, so that we maintain quality,” he says, sitting outside the tent, munching on a food-truck slider.  “I followed tangential connections until we put together a show where the dealers are friends or at least friends of friends. They cooperate with one another and recognize that rising tides lift all boats. If dealers are at each other’s throats, how can that make the collectors feel comfortable?”

But even if the dealers are not being overtly competitive, they are all angling for the same hearts and wallets of collectors. It raises an interesting question that goes beyond the parties and sponsorships and dinners: How much does a dealer need to sell in order for his Miami trip to be considered worthwhile? “For every single person in the fair, the answer to that question is the right one piece,” maintains Fishko. “Right now is not like 2006 when money was free; you’re not necessarily going to make $150,000 and buy a new Mercedes Benz when you get home. But would you sell a single piece here for $10,000 [even if your Art Basel nut is $18,000] if it means that you will acquire a customer who might do $100,000 in business with you over the next year? In most cases, the answer is yes.”

It certainly worked out that way for Fredric Snitzer, a well-respected Miami-based dealer with an eponymous gallery. “People from Dusseldorf know about Miami,” he says, crediting Art Basel with closing the loop on his global connections. “I’ve built an international collector base, and that is a miracle. It’s not something that you can hope for. It is a windfall.”

Similar good fortune applies to certain artists who have been sprinkled with Basel’s fairy dust. Inside his booth at Art Basel, Snitzer shows me the work of people he represents, and a painting by a Miami artist named Hernan Bas stops me in my tracks. It depicts a boy in a red jacket embroiled in a forest of fiery color and I can’t take my eyes off it. Bas, it turns out, is a shining art star of the moment. He’s also, as Snitzer puts it, “the perfect Basel success story.” Snitzer began representing him just as Art Basel launched in Miami in 2002, and Bas had his first solo show there. “Now we sell his paintings for $125,000,” says Snitzer. “He succeeded because he is very talented. But he did it 10 years quicker than he would have without Basel.”

Similarly, the ascent of Miami’s food scene runs parallel to Art Basel as well. Restaurants such as new-American Oak Tavern, wildly high-end Tosca, and the newly opened MC Kitchen in the Design District have all elevated culinary options there to new heights. General wisdom has it that the aftereffects of Basel changed Miami in a way that has attracted celebrity chefs such as Andrew Carmellini, Laurent Tourondel and Alfred Portale to launch outposts near the beach. Hotspots of the moment, both attracting the art crowd during and after Basel, include Yardbird (bringing foi gras to traditional Southern cooking and sending fried chicken into the tastebud stratosphere) and Juvia (its former Nobu chef puts a new spin on the Japanese/South American amalgam—expect amazing sashimi served alongside dishes inspired by co-owner Jonas Milan’s upbringing in Venezuela). Juvia, which offers up a rooftop dining room with a stunning view of Miami, has gotten into the swing of things by installing a massive artwork in which plants and flowers serve as the medium. As explained by Yardbird proprietor John Kunkel, it’s all of a piece: “To appreciate art, you need to appreciate good food. Real estate, food, and art, they all seem to go hand in hand. It’s the combination that has transformed neighborhoods like Wynwood and the Design District.”

Among the great features of Miami is a crowd of collectors who really like to show off the work that they own. Some have gone so far as to launch private spaces, open to the public, built for the sole purpose of displaying art. The proliferation of these private museums has become known as the Miami Model, and the city is all the richer for it. Don and Mera Rubell (Don is the brother of the late Studio 54 wizard Steve Rubell), who made their fortune in Miami real estate and hotels, maintain a 40,000-square-foot exhibition space transformed from what had once been a warehouse for the local FBI. It now displays work by the likes of Cindy Sherman, Keith Haring, and Damien Hirst. Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz bankroll an open-to-the-public collection that would be considered world-class in any city. During Art Basel, Rosa buzzes around her museum-quality space, chatting up friends and collecting kudos from visitors. Standing near Jim Hodges’ flowing curtain of flowers, she explains a philosophy that pretty much sums up all of Miami’s private collections gone public: “It involves being inclusive, opening your doors to anyone, and making the collection accessible by being free.”

Dennis Scholl is another big-time mover and shaker on the Miami art scene. An attorney and voracious collector, he maintains a two-room exhibition space in Wynwood (it’s called World Class Boxing, as it had been known pre-Scholl), but the real museum is in his home. Scholl takes a ton of pride in his collection. It includes work by artists who range from
Raymond Pettibon (who first came to prominence by doing albums for his brother’s punk band Black Flag) to his latest interest: vibrant canvases by contemporary Australian Aboriginal painters. Overall, though, Scholl seems to take particular pleasure in his knack for getting involved with emerging artists early in their careers and sticking with them as their visions evolve. “We like to say,” he quips, “that we collect art made last Tuesday.”

So when a friend popped by his home, saw Scholl putting a new piece on the wall and called him a “trophy hanger”—meaning that Scholl was showing off his biggest gets at some aesthetic cost—he took the comment seriously. “I figured we were good at selecting art but not so good at hanging it,” he remembers, figuring that he would get somebody really adept to do the hanging and pull from his vast collection. “Not long after, I called a curator friend by the name of Douglas Fogle and gave him the keys to my house. My wife and I went away for three days and came back home to an incredible museum-quality installation in our home. The next year we invited somebody else to curate for us, and we have since had some of the best curators in the world.”

How much does he trust in the visions of his curators, considering that he agrees to live with their selections for one year? After Fogle installed the work, Scholl remembers being slightly disappointed that a photo by Thomas Demand (depicting his recreation of Jackson Pollack’s barn) was not on a wall. “I told Douglas that I hoped he would install it,” recounts Scholl. “He said he would and pointed to the fireplace. Then he said, ‘Take it out. This is Miami. You don’t need a fireplace.’ So we did”—and the photograph was hung there. “In case you wondered if we are committed, that is my prima facie evidence that we are committed to the process.”

Not coincidentally, Scholl times the unveiling of his new installation for the start of Art Basel Miami. (There wasn’t a debut this year because he is in the process of renovating his home; so he and his wife are temporarily residing in a luxe apartment building—and, yes, it is loaded with his art, and he even purchased the place next door so that he has more space in which to hang his work.) The event is a must-go for art lovers and indicative of Miami’s geniality. During Art Basel, many of Miami’s 100 or so serious collectors open their homes, and their collections, to out-of-town visitors. It helps elevate Art Basel Miami Beach into more than just an art fair and something closer to a series of house parties for the discerning. After all, as expressed by Scholl, it’s the time when “a spotlight gets put on your community.”

What seems to be evident everywhere in Miami—from the restaurants to the clubs to the work hanging on gallery walls—is a growing, resonating awareness in design and art and culture. An argument can be made that it’s all bolstered by Basel. Art dealer Fred Snitzer maintains that the guy who fills your car with gasoline knows what Art Basel is all about and that it has an overall positive effect on life in Miami. Thomas Meding, general manager of the SLS, gushes over fine art merging with the commercial world and loves the fact that Louis Vuitton and Prada both teamed with street artists to add further sheen to their high-fashion shops. Scholl rattles off a series of freshly opening or expanding museums and cultural institutions that may represent distant ripples of the Basel effect on Miami. He considers it for a beat before concluding, “This is a bright time to be here, and it is joyful to watch it all happening.”

Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.