November 30, 2012 7:02 pm

How culture created Miami Nice

Ten years after its first Art Basel fair, the fortunes of the Florida city have been transformed
Art deco hotels in Miami’s South Beach district©Alamy

Art deco hotels in Miami’s South Beach district

Here are some of the things you can spot in the opening credits of Miami Vice, the 1980s TV cop show that suddenly focused the world’s attention on the Floridan resort: palm trees, flamingoes, racing greyhounds, bikinis, Rolls-Royces, parrots, sleek apartments and a woman who is so good at windsurfing that she arches back to dip her hair into the sea, just for the hell of it.

What you will not find, however hard you look, is a work of art.

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Peter Aspden

That very absence dates the programme even more surely than any of the preposterous outfits worn by its protagonists Crockett and Tubbs. These days, to imagine Miami without art is to miss one of the city’s major reasons for being. The arrival of Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002 galvanised Miami’s citizens, and the wider art world, as never before.

The fragrant colours and thumping rock soundtrack of Miami Vice were all very well, but the moral universe it depicted back then was bleak. The city was, apparently, a place of larceny and violence. The police’s against-the-odds pursuit of extravagantly dressed criminal warlords was determined but ultimately fruitless. The show spawned a televisual genre all of its own: film pastel noir.

Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson in 1980s TV series 'Miami Vice'©Rex

Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson in 1980s TV series 'Miami Vice'

“It was an interesting enough series,” Miami Beach mayor Matti Herrera Bower recalls today, “but it wasn’t a good image at all. It was all shooting and blood.”

That wasn’t (even its residents agree) an altogether misleading image. A famous Time magazine article from the 1980s, “Paradise Lost”, contrasted the art deco glamour of the South Beach area with the crime-ridden downtown area. Overwhelmed by social problems, Miami’s glamour was something you talked about in the past tense.

But then came the art fair. By 2006, a very different tune was playing: Fortune magazine declared that “Wall Street money, edgy art and party-hopping scenesters [have] turned Art Basel Miami Beach into a culture-driven Davos”.

The restoration of South Beach and its wedding-cake period buildings was the first step towards the resuscitation of Miami. “It was the first transformative event,” recalls Craig Robins, avid art collector and chief executive of Dacra, a Miami-based property development company. “It changed people’s mindset. And then the arrival of Art Basel turned Miami into a cultural city of substance.”

“The perception had always been that this was a city of fun,” he adds. But the vote of confidence from the staid Swiss city fair looking to expand its global operations forced onlookers to change the way they thought about the city – and about art.

“The fair has had a tremendous influence on the city – but Miami has also had a big impact on Art Basel,” says Robins. “Prior [to coming to Miami] Art Basel, like a lot of the art world, was known as somewhere where you could have this quiet, rather reserved, experience.

“Miami changed all that. It is an open city, all about entertainment and warm hospitality. And people realised that there was nothing wrong with being around great art and design, and also having fun.”

Design for Miami Collins Park Garage by Zaha Hadid©Alamy

Design for Miami Collins Park Garage by Zaha Hadid

Robins was a student at the University of Barcelona in the early 1980s, and describes the stay as having an “enormous impact” on the way he looked at the world. “To realise that this very beautiful and relatively small city had such an impact on art and architecture was an eye-opening experience. And it was a great place to just walk around, which is something missing in much of the US, but which could apply to South Beach.”

Norman Braman, former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles football team, who with his wife Irma is among the US’s leading art collectors, describes Art Basel Miami Beach as the “Superbowl” of the US art scene. “The terrible reputation the city had in the 1990s was completely changed. Once the fair arrived, people saw Miami for what it was.” He cites the example of the Wynwood district, “which was the scene of major racial disturbances in the 1970s and 1980s; if you go today you see art galleries and restaurants”.

“What is important to remember is that this all occurred without a single dollar of government aid,” he says. “This was a business decision. In the early years, I saw the profit and loss figures, and I can tell you, it is a good thing the Swiss are very patient when it comes to making a profit!”

Braman says he did not expect the fair to have the impact that it did. “What really brought all the collectors and curators here was the quality of the work. And that is the magic of what makes it work. We must never forget: this is a commercial fair. Before the fair, there were fewer than 10 commercial galleries in Miami. Now it is approaching 130.”

Although Braman says he and his wife are not primarily collectors of “cutting-edge art” (they own works by Alexander Calder, Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko), they recognise the fair’s ability to “give us a push” and he enjoys entertaining collectors from all over the world. “We take pride in showing our collection,” he says.

“And we just want to show people the very best.”

The results of the new cultural vibrancy in Miami are a textbook example of the use of the arts for business regeneration. Mayi de la Vega, chief executive of One Sotheby’s International Realty in Miami, says the annual economic multiplier effect of the fair is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Although property prices had been affected by the 2008 crash, she says that in 2012 they are up by 19 per cent on last year.

“Miami has become one of the most important global cities,” de la Vega says. “And I believe it is still undervalued on a price per square foot basis, compared to New York, Los Angeles, London or Hong Kong.”

Miami’s South Beach strip©Alamy

Miami’s South Beach strip

The cultural polish that the fair gives Miami was the icing on the cake for a city that was already known for “weather, nightlife, sexiness”, she says. “The art world fell in love with it.” Whereas the boom in property prices was in the past fuelled by speculative investors, “today the banks are more conservative, and we are seeing a lot of cash deals. There is very little financing going on.”

De la Vega regards the current boom as a sustainable one. “This is not just a vacation destination now, it is a cultural destination.”

Miami is even inventing its own architectural speciality, giving its skyline a vernacular yet spectacular look. “We are becoming known for having the best garages in the world,” says Herrera Bower, with no little pride. The city has commissioned parking areas from some of the best architects in the world, including Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Herzog & de Meuron. “It shows how every building can be a work of art in its own right.”

It is impossible not to think of Crockett’s Ferrari Testarossa, and all that roaring around Miami’s crime-infested neighbourhoods. The supercars sleep in their equally sleek superhomes now, in a place where art has brought material reward and a more civilised set of values.

Art Basel Miami Beach, December 6-9, www.miamibeach.artbasel.com

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