City has summit to talk about

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 November, 2011, 12:00am

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Miami was the place where old people went to retire and young people went for hedonistic weekends. As long as it stayed sunny, nothing much else mattered. Culture and art were rarely high on the agenda.

Driving around Miami with any clued-up local today will give you a quick indication of how much this picture has changed. 'That's new,' they'll tell you, proudly pointing to the recently opened New World Centre, a futuristic concert hall designed by Frank Gehry. 'This whole neighbourhood wasn't here a few years ago,' they'll say, as you drive through the stylish Design District. 'No one would have dreamed of living here before,' they'll add, as you pass rows and rows of new condos downtown.

Thursday marks the opening of the 10th Art Basel Miami Beach, which is considered one of the turning points in Miami's revitalised cultural reputation.

Once referred to as the Olympics of the art world, the Swiss art show could have chosen anywhere in the world for its second outpost, but picked Miami. Since then, attention has continued to shift away from people watching on the beaches and has moved inland, where much of the innovation and redevelopment is suddenly focused.

This year, more than 260 leading galleries across the globe will take part in Art Basel Miami Beach, showcasing work by more than 2,000 contemporary artists. The event is centred on the Miami Beach Convention Centre, which becomes a giant one-stop shop for collectors. There are plenty of fringe events to look out for, too, such as pop-up galleries, fashion shows and opening parties.

'Miami had an interesting arts scene before Art Basel, but it was never so international or so contemporary,' says Liana Perez, publisher of Arts Circuits magazine. 'There are some great, long-standing private collections here - including de la Cruz, the Rubell Family Collection and the Margulies Collection at The Warehouse - and the international events have created a harmonious marriage between these and the wider scene. Now, once a year, we know the best artists in the world converge here.'

One of the areas with the most change is the Design District and neighbouring Wynwood, which lie north of downtown. In the 1990s, this was a forgotten, run-down region. 'There was nothing to see here; it was quite undesirable,' one local tells me. 'Now it's all families and gay couples.'

The makeover has been dramatic, and, in the case of the Design District, this is mainly due to one man - Craig Robins. In fact, much of what makes modern Miami stylish can be traced back to this influential property developer. Those art deco buildings by South Beach that now grace postcards? Many were one step away from being razed before Robins recognised their role in the city's heritage and stepped in to renovate them.

As for the Design District, Robins' aim was to 'bring design to the street' rather than confining it to trade-only malls. He bought up numerous lots and moved in the galleries and showrooms. These were followed by new restaurants and cafes. Robins also wanted to make the area suitable for pedestrians - an unusual move in such a car-dependent US city.

Today, walking around these streets is a pleasure. Hibiscus and other subtropical foliage offer bursts of colour, while many beautiful old buildings have been restored. Two of them are the former Moore Furniture store, now an events hub, and a 1920s post office, now a tapas restaurant called Sra Martinez, run by award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein. You find surprises around each corner, including a 30-metre sculpture of half a living room on North Miami Avenue and 40th Street. According to its Argentinian artists, Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt, this artwork is a 'metaphor for the unfinished nature of Miami' and a commentary on the need for public space.

The transformation of Wynwood has also caused a stir. Here, the streets of a Puerto Rican neighbourhood, formerly known as Little San Juan, have been turned into an open-air gallery of street art, while murals by Shepard Fairey, best known for his iconic 2008 Obama 'Hope' posters, decorate hipster hangout Wynwood Kitchen & Bar.

Early December is the time of year when the city's artistic scene - and these areas in particular - goes into overdrive. Aside from Art Basel, on Tuesday the city will lift the lid on Design Miami, which is entering its sixth year. This year, it has a new director, Marianne Goebl, former head of PR at furniture designer Vitra. The New York Times described her appointment as provoking 'a palpable sigh of relief among dealers and designers'. Along with increasing the number of exhibitors this year by 40 per cent, high on her agenda is making design more accessible and appreciated.

'We are on an educational mission,' says Goebl. 'I think that, for a large audience, design is considered either as part of the arts or something that is not an artistic discipline in its own right. It's true that it is not art; it is about functional objects, which is a very different process. You don't have to see the work that went into it.'

Openness seems to be at the heart of this year's event. Goebl's main tip to visitors is to 'stroll through instinctively'. She says visitors shouldn't feel afraid to ask questions as they move from gallery to gallery. 'It's the stories that bring it to life. It is meant to be a forum, not academic, so go and speak to people; they are there to help.'

Even if you can't attend these events, there is plenty to see throughout the year. You'll find a calendar and details of themed walks at artcircuits.com, although one of the most intriguing ways to get around is with tour company Roam Rides (roamrides.com), which hires local artists to take you from gallery to gallery on a Vespa scooter.

Marcos Valella is one of the artists leading the tours. 'I think people are surprised,' he says. 'Tourists tend to have one image of Miami, which is South Beach. But this is a very different side of the city. It's a big cultural boom in just two square miles. The graffiti alone is visually very loud and stimulating.'

The economic crisis may have slowed the progress, but many exciting projects remain on the horizon, including the scheduled 2013 opening of the Miami Art Museum (miamiartmuseum.org), designed by Herzog & de Meuron, known for its work on London's Tate Modern and Beijing's 'Bird's Nest' Olympic stadium.

And then there's Miami cuisine, which is another way the city shows off its creativity. Food here mixes influences from across the world, especially Latin America and the Caribbean, so expect to see creations such as Brazilian sushi (sushisamba.com) and Haitian mojitos (taptaprestaurant.com). Chef Norman Van Aken, a pioneer of fusion food in Florida, says: 'Someone once said that Miami is where the future comes to rehearse.'

If this is just the rehearsal, the future certainly looks bright.

Miami advice

Getting there

Delta flies from Hong Kong to Miami from US$1,000 (www.delta.com).

Art and design highlights

The 10th Art Basel Miami Beach takes place on December 1-4 www.artbaselmiamibeach.com

Design Miami runs from November 30 to December 4 www.designmiami.com

Design Miami's Designer of the Year is Londoner David Adjaye (www.adjaye.com), whose specially commissioned installation, Genesis, will welcome visitors to the fair's temporary structure on Miami Beach.

Miami's carparks have got the world talking. The new 1111 Lincoln Road, by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron (www.1111lincolnroad.com), is already being hailed as a design icon, and architect Zaha Hadid has been lined up to create a garage on Miami Beach.

Gallery Diet (gallerydiet.com) in the revamped Wynwood district offers some thought-provoking modern works.

Where to stay

The Standard Hotel (www.standardhotels.com) is a 1950s resort that has been given a hip makeover without losing its retro charm. It is well situated between Miami Beach and the ever-emerging downtown district. Try the Bay View suite at US$479.

Where to eat

Sra Martinez (4000 NE 2nd Avenue; www.sramartinez.com)

Wynwood Kitchen and Bar, 2550 NW 2nd Avenue, www.wynwoodkitchenandbar.com