Miami was founded on the fun-above-all principle of nightclubs, and the idea that the august Swiss fair Art Basel would pick the city as its sole satellite has a certain loopy logic. Despite the fair’s focus on edgy contemporary art, Basel itself was (and remains) the polite embodiment of old-line Europe; Miami, now in its fifth year of hosting Art Basel Miami Beach, is all about the shock of the New World, still raw and resolutely democratic, a tropical frontier, the ideal blank canvas. It didn’t hurt that Miami has warm winters, or that the international set had already zeroed in on such glamorama watering holes as the Delano and the Raleigh—or that local art collectors have long been happy to open up their houses to visiting connoisseurs. Once anointed, Miami would make Art Basel fresh again, looser, and simply more fun.
This year, the long Miami weekend that rocks the world of contemporary art will be December 7 to 10. Once again, more than 35,000 card-carrying members of the global kaffeeklatsch that gathers at the intersection of art, money, and society will descend on the Miami Beach Convention Center, and along with numerous regular Joes with $24 to spare for a day pass, take in works from some 200 galleries in 30 countries. Beyond the convention center—the fair is spreading ever wider each year—it will be clear that Basel has become as much about design as fine art. In the epoch of Target as tastemaker and Oprah Winfrey as editor of an interiors magazine, designers and architects are the newest rock stars for grown-ups, and design is once again an important litmus test of status.
If there were a poster child for the current melding of design and art in Miami, it would have to be Terence Riley, the new director of the Miami Art Museum (MAM) and former Philip Johnson chief curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where he oversaw the epic $858 million recasting of the building by Yoshio Taniguchi. To jump-start the buzz about the MAM of the future, Riley, a steadfastly modern architect himself, brought in two design celebrities: the Pritzker Prize–winning, Basel, Switzerland–based team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, to turn the 29 acres of downtown’s Bicentennial Park into the Museum Park complex, due in 2010, centering on MAM and the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium.
"In the last few years, the architectural ante has been raised here," observes Riley, gamely rising to the "Robert Moses for the new Miami millennium" billing that surrounds him in his adopted city. He counts off the star-architect projects going up on Lincoln Road alone: the grand promenade designed close to 50 years ago by Modernist master Morris Lapidus (of Fontainebleau Hotel fame) has become the equivalent of Barcelona’s Ramblas. At its western end, Herzog and de Meuron are designing a combination parking garage and retail center topped off by a private residence; to the east, Mexican architect Enrique Norten is working on a graceful condominium with retail space; and in between, Frank Gehry’s high-tech facility will allow Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony to broadcast around the world with Internet2 technology. To Riley, downtown Miami is the next architectural horizon, and Museum Park will be its first landmark. "We still don’t have a great public building to jolt us into the future in the way that Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall transformed Los Angeles overnight, but Herzog and de Meuron’s vision will create a true 21st-century urban center."
In the meantime, much of Art Basel and its attendant activities will take place in the urban center of South Beach, a district founded on the gentle charms of Art Deco architecture and, despite its too many profoundly pedestrian condo towers, still the nexus of design in Miami. In the more human-scale stretches of the area, Carlos Zapata’s futuristic supermarket, Publix on the Bay, and Arata Isozaki’s addition to the Bass Museum are required stops for Basel’s hordes. In between art-buying stints at alternative art fairs Ink, Scope, and photoMiami, they will also chew over the chic at the better-living-through-design stores Base, Mo851, and Tomas Maier. In the evenings, they will frequent the Shore Club’s Art Lounge and negotiate the Art Loves Film party at the Delano, featuring the rereleased Easy Rider and Dennis Hopper.
In the heart of South Beach, the Wolfsonian-FIU museum, a collection of decorative and propaganda art and design dating from 1885 to 1945, will be drawing its share of design-world celebrities. Kate Spade has orchestrated the opening festivities for Lawrence Weiner’s site-specific installation (cosponsored by the Whitney Museum of American Art), which will remain on display until March 2007. New York–based designer Karim Rashid, recently back from a meeting in Milan with a potential client interested in doing a Miami hotel, is a fan of the Wolfsonian and of South Beach itself: "The Miami version of Art Basel is much more fun than Switzerland’s," Rashid notes, "though Miami has a long way to go before it becomes the city of the future."