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One of the world's biggest and most prestigious art fairs is splash-landing in town today, and its arrival will mean a lot to you and me. Yes, Miami has long been a convention and tourist destination, but this event's different. Art Basel, named after the Swiss city in which it originated, has been a major cultural institution in Europe for three decades, pulling in tens of thousands of enthusiasts, dealers, galleries, collectors. And being European, it's never before felt the need to leave the Old World.
Now, for the first time ever, it will cross the sea and come ashore in ... Miami? Fine-arts center of the Americas? Indeed Art Basel decided that Miami's comely compass point between north and south, its Art Deco, its weather, and the very nature of its nascent cultural identity made it the best place for a fresh start in the New World.
Perhaps most significant for us is the potential for favorable international buzz. Unlike the thousands who show up for, say, a Microsoft convention, many of the people who fly home on December 9 will take with them the notion that Miami is an arts town, with a particularly Latin sabor. This, most of us would agree, has never happened. The Winter Music Conference has helped us along, but in terms of international PR clout, electronica aficionados simply can't compare to the heads of every major art museum in the world -- many of whom will be here. This is what the immodest organizers of the huge fair have to say: "Art Basel Miami Beach is set to become the most important art show on the American continent and a cultural and social highlight of the Americas." (It was to debut last year, but post-September 11 tremors delayed it.)
The official exhibit itself is also a cool thing. From December 5 through December 8, the Miami Beach Convention Center will be filled with the kind of art you normally must travel to see. Major works and contemporary trends from fertile zones such as Britain, Germany, Spain, New York, and Los Angeles will be on display, courtesy of 150 galleries (including four from Miami) selected by an international jury. For $15 you can familiarize yourself with already-famous and almost-famous contemporary artists, 1000 of whom will be shown at booths set up by each gallery, featuring work ranging in price from the hundreds to the millions of dollars.
In conjunction with the main convention exhibit, ancillary events will take place at other Miami Beach locations. You can check out international offerings from so-called emerging artists, shown in cargo containers set up on the grounds around the Bass Museum. Thirteen alternative galleries from throughout the United States will display their artists at 1674 Meridian Ave. in an exhibit called "artpoint" and organized by Janet Phelps, who curated last year's successful "FAST FWD: MIAMI" show. Several local artists, including José Bedia, Robert Chambers, and Wendy Wischer, will have sculptures straddling Collins Avenue, while others will be presented at Art Center/South Florida on Lincoln Road during its special exhibit highlighting 22 in-house artists. Then, each day when the official convention business winds down, it'll be party, party, party.
Art Basel may also help us to see ourselves. Arriving as it does at a moment when Miami's indigenous scene is still prepubescent, the fair -- a winter sister to the main Basel show in Switzerland -- itself could become part of our cultural heritage, especially if it becomes a permanent annual event, as organizers hope.
But fair is fare -- Art Basel is first and foremost a commercial operation. It is geared toward curators, dealers, and collectors -- the more endowed the better. The artists themselves are almost secondary, and they know that.
Aside from the outdoor works and samplings from the four Miami galleries in the convention center itself (Fred Snitzer, Ambrosino, Diana Lowenstein, and Bernice Steinbaum, who for instance will show her stars Maria Brito, Edouard Duval-Carrié, Karen Rifas, and Glexis Novoa), local art will not be a major component of Art Basel on the Beach. But that doesn't mean it will slip out of view. The opposite.
Which is why for the general populace of Miami, Art Basel is a good thing yet again. Local artists who want to put their best faces forward have been forced to discover innovative ways to show themselves off. Just to be noticed. Just in case a rich Frenchman decides to fill up his empty chateau with their work. So if you put on your jogging shoes, and especially if you cross the causeways from official Art Basel, you'll find an aesthetically exciting playground of homegrown art -- and loads of it. Tonight (Thursday), around the Design District alone, about 50 events, shows, and performances, many of them Miami-sprouted, will compete for attention.
Although the art scene here is still young, Miami boasts a number of internationally important collectors with names like Rubell, de la Cruz, Shack, and Scholl; visitors and locals alike have already booked up tours of those private collections that will be on view during Basel. In the commercial art world, prominent names mean perceived power. If you want to see and be seen -- and those buying and selling generally do -- you want to be Prada-clicking down the collectors' corridors.