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Miami Splash

Art Basel Miami Beach is a giant fair that's fueling the city's explosive arts scene

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In 2001, Rosa de la Cruz and developer and collector Craig Robins founded Moore Space, a not-for-profit exhibition venue in the Design District that regularly features contemporary art shows. Now de la Cruz has another project in the works—a 28,000-square-foot art space in the Design District to house her permanent collection so that it will be more easily accessible to the public.

Each year for Art Basel, Dennis and Debra Scholl, whose collection includes contemporary art and photography—from an eye-catching staircase emblazoned with bright-colored strips of tape by artist Jim Lambie to conceptual works by photographer and installation artist Olafur Eliasson—ask a curator to organize a selection of works in their bayside home. They also have a gallery they call World Class Boxing, in a former boxing gym in Wynwood, where they show large-scale installation art by the likes of Dutch video artist Aernout Mik.

The Wolfsonian Museum, which occupies a refurbished 1920s former storehouse amid the restaurants and hotels of South Beach, contains some 100,000 industrial design objects, prints, paintings and sculptures dating from 1885 to 1945—all collected by its founder, Micky Wolfson, heir to the Wometco movie theater and amusement park fortune. On the second floor, there's even a 1930 train station lobby that Wolfson found in Milan. "Our mission is to look at design as a cultural agent," says curator Marianne Lamonaca. "To look at the impact, both obvious and more subtle, that design has on our daily life—whether in architecture, everyday objects or advertising." In 1997 Wolfson donated his entire collection and the building that houses it to Florida International University.

North Miami's MOCA is about to get an $18 million addition, designed by its original architect, Charles Gwathmey. For Miami Basel this year, the museum is mounting the first comprehensive U.S. exhibition of the work of Los Angeles-based artist Jorge Pardo. "The Miami art scene is really hitting stride and maturing," says MOCA director Bonnie Clearwater. "The city's institutions are starting to reach the critical mass that will provide the same kind of excitement of Art Basel Miami Beach on a year-round basis."

MAM, which began establishing a permanent collection only ten years ago, is generating the most buzz. Founded in 1996, the museum currently occupies an unassuming stucco building on Flagler Street in downtown Miami. Enter Terence Riley, the former curator of architecture and design at New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Riley, who was one of the key people involved in MoMA's $858 million renovation, completed in 2004, was appointed director of MAM in 2006, and he is now charged with overseeing the creation of its new museum. Designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron (the architects responsible for the Tate Modern in London, the expanded Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and San Francisco's new de Young Museum), the 125,000-square-foot building will occupy a four-acre downtown site overlooking the bay. "I don't want to build an iconic museum," Riley says. "I want to build a great museum. I want to do it the old-fashioned way, and if for all the right reasons it becomes an icon, that's great." Riley plans to unveil models of the new building during Art Basel Miami this year.

Last December, MAM and collector Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, who in 2003 founded Miami Art Central (MAC)—an innovative exhibition space for contemporary art in Coral Gables—announced a merger between MAM and MAC. "This city really needs a great anchor museum," says Fontanals-Cisneros. "Miami has been growing very fast, but it is still lacking that big part of the picture." Other new spaces are on the horizon. Real-estate developer and collector Craig Robins recently moved his company, Dacra, to a building in the Design District that has plenty of room to display his art. "By the time Miami Art Basel opens," he says, "there will be three other new buildings here. And Gibson Guitars has opened a 10,000-square-foot studio, where musicians can hang out and where there will be small recitals. There are a lot of things that are combining in this neighborhood that will transform the way we think about design."

There's no question, says Mera Rubell, the collector, "that the city's art scene is evolving. Last March, MoMA's International Council brought 80 museum patrons here for a tour of Miami and all the collections. Would that have happened ten years ago? Probably not."

For Rubell, the best evidence of change is the art itself and the artists who are making it. "What excites us is that for this Art Basel, our collection will feature an exhibition of the work of a home-grown artist—painter Hernan Bas," she says. "As far as I'm concerned, the artist is the real fruit of the tree. And the fact that we can mount an exhibit like this proves that we already have the beautiful ripe fruit, and that everything has come full cycle."

Freelance journalist Phoebe Hoban writes about culture and the arts for the New York Times, ArtNews and other publications.

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