Art Is In The Air In Miami

Kota Ezawa, The History of Photography Remix: Nan Goldin (after being battered), 2005, 35mm slide projection, dimensions variable. Courtesy Art Basel Miami Beach
Art Basel Miami Beach

It is a typical night in Miami Beach: dancing in the moonlight, booze and bikinis. But, these are parties with a purpose. Not just celebrating, but celebrating art.

Art Basel Miami Beach, an off-spring of the huge art fair held every year in Basel, Switzerland, has helped put Miami on the map as one of the most important contemporary arts centers in the world, CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver reports.

"It's the most important cultural weekend, maybe in the country. The Art Basel Fair and Art Basel Miami has transformed into this amazing series of cultural events to coincide with the art fair and so everyone's in town and it's a perfect moment to display it," Miami Beach real estate developer and art collector Craig Robins says.

Everyone does seem to be in town, at least some 40,000 people connected to the world of contemporary art. The fair's director, Samuel Keller, says 195 art galleries exhibit 1,500 artists during the weekend.

Keller adds that while the art scenes in New York and Los Angeles are better known, Miami, with its large international community, was really the logical spot for this event.

"It's a melting pot. It's a cosmopolitan city and the weather is great," Keller says.

You can buy a $25 million sculpture by Picasso, a Jean-Michel Basquiat for $1.5 million or a James Rosenquist for a mere $125,000. But, it is also a place to discover emerging artists from all over the world if, like Robins, you know what you're doing.

"One of the things that you really have to master is just navigating through the art fair," Robins says.

He tells Braver of his latest acquisition: a piece by Argentine artist Jorge Macchi, which depicts a ruler with hair.

"It's very poetic and simple," Robins says of the piece.

There is no question that the purpose of the fair is to sell art and at first glance, it looks like a rendezvous for rich people, who all seem to know each other.

But, of course anyone can afford to look and there is an array of lower key events outside the fair itself, such as a design show with cutting edge furniture, and there is a whole small city of freight containers with the work of younger and somewhat more affordable artists on display.

For all of its success, Art Basel Miami Beach almost did not happen because the first one was planned to open in 2001. Miami Museum of Contemporary Art director Bonnie Clearwater says the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 made shipping "almost impossible."

So the fair that year was canceled, but, Clearwater says the city's art community decided to go ahead with its own series of smaller shows.

"The thing is the collectors still came," Clearwater says. "They got to visit the museums, the collections, the artists and as a result of that first encounter, even without the fair, they were able to go back to the rest of the world and tell them what an amazing experience they had here in Miami."

In fact, one of the most important side benefits of the fair is a chance to understand that art in Miami is about much more than this one weekend. Though collectors like Carlos and Rosa De La Cruz do open their home to visitors during the fair, they also give viewings during the rest of the year to almost anyone who asks.

"Sometimes the people may want to come to my house and I may be tired, but I open my doors because it's important to show," Rosa says. "So, it's not only about a collection, it's also about giving."

And art is giving a lot to Miami, a reputation not just as a place to buy important work, but also as a place that important work is made. The city's nurturing environment has allowed Cuban-born Jose Bedia to gain an international following.

"It's a growing city you know, with a lot of hope in the -- in that we want to make something different than the other places," Bedia says. "You know, when you have that kind of feeling, no matter what happened, you going to go straight to hit that wall and go through you know."

In fact, art seems to be transforming the whole city. An old warehouse district is now a thriving hub of galleries, some 40 within just a few blocks. The Museum of Contemporary Art has recently opened a new exhibit space where visitors can get lost in "Cloud City," an interactive art project.

And for pioneers of the Miami art community, like gallery owner Fred Snitzer, there's huge satisfaction in the fact that the founders of Art Basel chose his city for the only off-shoot of their renowned European fair.

"There are plenty of warm places that they could have an art fair, but they understood the cultural and timing value of Miami," Snitzer explains.

Now galleries vie to be invited to exhibit at this fair. Snitzer is on the selection committee that decides who makes the cut. Snitzer admits that competition is fierce. "We've turned down fabulous galleries, really important galleries," Snitzer says.

As for whether what is being sold will stand the test of time, that is for the spectators to judge. You may not desire a collection of teddy bears in glass jars or a chrome umbrella, complete with green bananas, but there are magical moments for everyone, Braver says.

And collectors like Robins believe that they are buying more than simple works of art.

"Artistic expression is a frontier from which civilization advances and so I see investing in that as kind of investing in our future," Robins says, adding that art is also "investing in expanding our thought and the way we see the world and helping us move forward."