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.
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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.
Herb Katzenjammer will be one opening the doors to his "Kollection of Kontemporary Konceptual Art" in the Design District. Katzenjammer and his wife Kitty began collecting after seeing the famous -- and famously shamelessly hyped -- "Sensations" exhibit in 1999, which prompted New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to try to cut funds from the Brooklyn Museum of Art because of the show's supposedly obscene content. According to the release from the "Konceptual" show, it is "a stronghold of prestige and influence, and is nothing short of a testimonial to the extraordinary taste and knowledge of its proprietors. After a profound period of introspection and eventual consultation with a host of internationally important curators and dealers, the Katzenjammers decided to concentrate exclusively on artists whose names begin with the letter K."
Before any Kleins or Kowalskis attempt to force their art on this particular collector, know that Katzenjammer is really performance and visual artist David Rohn, who himself was on the verge of being locked out during Art Basel. Even artists like Rohn, represented by galleries, were having a hard time finding a place at the table. For most local galleries and museums, this inaugural Basel is no time to take chances. You put your biggest guns forward -- and your most marketable. If a gallery represents twenty artists but will only be exhibiting one or two during Art Basel -- well, you can do the math. So Rohn decided to make up his own collector and collection.
The spoof, of course, is on the business of art. It may be lighthearted, but Rohn wants to provoke questions. "We do need to look at how the [art] system works. It is money-driven," he says. "We have this idea that highly knowledgeable curators and other experts find art and talent, and bring it to the public." But increasingly, says Rohn, those experts are less influenced by what they really think is talent, and more concerned with what a deep-pocket collector will buy: "[Collectors] made their money selling stock or automobiles or something, and then started buying art, which is a good thing. But within a few years they are 'experts,' which isn't necessarily such a good thing."
Since Rohn couldn't break the commercial system, he decided to break into it. He says the germ was planted several months ago, after talking to a local woman involved in the arts about what would be happening during Basel: "'I'm putting together tours to visit collectors and stuff,' she tells me. I said, 'Oh really, do you have the Katzenjammers in there?' 'Who?' she asks. I said, 'These really big collectors.' Quiet on the other end of the line: 'Well, no, but tell me more about them. I'm interested.' 'Okay,' I say, 'they only collect artists whose names start with the letter K....'"
Rohn developed the parody further and eventually presented the concept to Design District developer and art patron Craig Robins's company, Dacra, which has been organizing myriad Basel-time events. Dacra liked it and gave Rohn space.
What you'll see as Katzenjammer leads you through the collection is also a spoof -- takes on artists or art movements, all of them painted, sculpted, and photographed by Rohn, who as Herb will sport heavy black-rimmed spectacles and short black hair, but who as Rohn actually has no hair at all. For instance, there is John Luke Kerra, "whose smiley face/mailbox pipe bomb piece literally exploded on the scene this past season.... As per usual these days, the Katzenjammers seem to have gotten there first," reads the faux catalogue. In fact the painting is a U.S. map with smiley faces pinned on, the faces themselves forming a giant smiley across the country -- what in real life Luke John Helder was allegedly trying to create in his mailbox pipe-bombing spree earlier this year.
Or the work of Kiki Karl -- er, the real-life conceptual sculptor Carl Andre. "I don't know what's good or bad art," says Rohn. "But there is some art that sells and some that just doesn't. Carl Andre is one who sells -- every self-respecting collector seems to have an Andre. [But] his work hasn't really changed in twenty years." So Rohn thought he'd change it for him in the Kollection. "I didn't just want to knock off other artists; that's too easy, or too uninteresting, and it's been done. Kiki Karl is maybe what Andre would have done if he'd moved on."
Even though Rohn's performance pieces are often satire, he takes them seriously. Last year he became female real-estate agent Gretchen Bender as part of gallery owner Brook Dorsch's events meant to coincide with the Art Basel that never was. Rohn took over a neighboring house that used to be a crack den, decorated it, and tried to sell it. "There were these collectors, a couple who've been very good and have helped me out a lot," Rohn remembers. "They came separately, and he arrived first. But you can't let your cover down for a minute. He seemed very mystified at the whole thing, and he looked at me and said, 'I'm here for David Rohn's show. Do you know where it is?'
"I said: 'Well, I'm not sure, but I do know that this neighborhood is coming up in the arts and it's very important and we're all very happy about it. This is a great place to invest in real estate.' I just kept doing Gretchen Bender, and he didn't recognize me."
Same goes for this show, when Rohn says he'll have to stay in character as collector only: "I can't do Herb Katzenjammer and sell the works at the same time." So will anyone buy David Rohn? "I'd love it if someone bought the whole Kollection, but that's not likely."
"Kollection of Kontemporary Konceptual Art," opening 7:00 p.m. December 5 through December 8 at the Buena Vista Building, 180 NE Second Ave. in the Design District, Miami; 305-576-2000.
Over the years Craig Robins, in whose building "Katzenjammer" will exhibit, also has enabled Argentine artists Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt to decorate the Design District with what amounts to the most prominent display of public art in Miami. Robins commissioned the couple to do several projects, including the wall murals visible from I-195, as well as the giant mauve Living Room, with mega-size sofa and lamps, at the other end of the district. Tonight, Behar and Marquardt will unveil their latest monumental addition to the area, this time in the courtyard of the public Design and Architecture Senior High, which commissioned it -- about as public as art can be.
On the opposite end of 40th Street from the Living Room, two eight-foot-high statues of students will be erected atop two existing giant columns towering in the courtyard above neighboring buildings. Kids!, as this project is called, will also be part of the sightline when you drive along the freeway. "It's like two huge pedestals," says Marquardt, wearing her trademark square black glasses. "When you are driving you'll see these two kids rising up."
"Instead of having a pope or a general on a pedestal," adds Behar, wearing his trademark porkpie hat, "we want to subvert that idea and put up kids. Instead of celebrating power, we want to celebrate youth."
It may be the only local work that some Art Basel visitors see, as they whiz from the airport to Miami Beach. But these two social activists want the art world to see Miami -- as a whole, as one big installation -- rather than an individual artist's work. This first time around, Basel should be less about how an artist or gallery owner can network at a party, says Marquardt, and more about positioning our community as a viable art center. "It's more about what we all did to get ready for this. In a way, it's [already] done something for us, no matter who sees it during those days."
In an organic sense, the event could, over the years, become part of our own history. "The Europeans will be coming here to witness our [artistic] birth," suggests Behar, "and to be a part of it. It makes it exciting from both sides. It's more about defining ourselves at this crucial time than about selling the art."
Which puts a lot of responsibility on a place that has a tradition of embarrassing itself. But Behar and Marquardt, sitting in their South Beach living room surrounded by their colorful artworks, aren't worried. Miami's warts make it attractive, they claim, as a free-forming new center. "Let's face it, these guys are coming from Switzerland," says Behar, referring to the notoriously well-run mountain nation. If being an unpredictable, unformed city weren't an intriguing part of who we are, Behar says, "well, they would have stayed in Basel."
All the commotion stirred up by Art Basel may inspire you to become a collector yourself. Say you're contemplating the work from the local artists' collective Guerra de la Paz at Brook Dorsch's big warehouse gallery in Wynwood. Just look for the cigarette girls milling about there, as well as at neighboring Locust Projects, the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery a little north, and other galleries. But instead of cigarettes, they'll be selling baseball trading cards in packages of five, with bubblegum of course. But wait! That's not Barry Bonds -- that's artist Adler Guerrier, Bass Museum director Diane Camber, Miami Art Museum curator Cheryl Hartup. Flip over the card and you'll find interesting stats about your favorite artist, collector, or museum. Not your favorite? Trade 'em at the next opening! That's part of the concept of this "traveling exhibit" of 88 people in Miami's art world.
Brainchild of local artist Julie Kahn, the trading cards are a way for people to get to know our scene. You can collect them all or trade and gather a select few. There are 950 copies of each card, with some limited editions (and three wildcards, Kahn herself being one of them). Kahn wanted participants to be creative and have fun with what we already have here. The idea hatched after last year's non-Basel week, when even then, remembers Kahn, "people were grumbling about how their stuff wasn't seen, and that was when the fair didn't even come! And there was frustration from artists who were anchored to a space -- if you were in the wrong place, you were invisible."
So Open Season came to her mind because miniatures, collectibles, and fetish objects were already ideas she wanted to explore. She e-mailed artists asking them to answer a questionnaire and send in pictures of themselves and their artwork. The respondents could be truthful, conceptual, funny, whatever they desired. "I wanted to make a snapshot of the local arts community," says the woman who last year, as part of her exhibit at Dorsch, offered visitors breakfast cereal. "And I don't want Miami's voice to get lost in the shuffle."
Open Season, December 5 through December 8 at various gallery events.
Venezuelan artist Eugenio Espinoza is sticking to his home base, and he hopes others will join him there. He's opening his house, near the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, as the latest addition to alternative, noncommercial art space. We have a couple of such houses already -- The House and its residents, recent art-school graduates, in the Edgewater neighborhood; and the home of Chilean-born artist Eugenia Vargas in Miami Shores. But these, along with a few others, are pathetically few, says Espinoza, who believes that developing truly alternative spaces is integral to the growth of Miami's art scene.
So Espinoza will open his doors for the first time during Art Basel, the inaugural exhibit featuring his predominantly black-and-white works, and those of Frank Wick. The soft-spoken, paint-covered artist is not laboring this hot afternoon in his house/studio under any great illusion that his show will be an epicenter. "I know I can't attract a big audience [during Basel]. I'll be happy if I could bring in people I've met here in Miami over two years. I'm just hoping to show people here this house." It's the house Espinoza wants to build so that future visitors to Art Basel will encounter a more diverse artistic landscape, one that fosters the spiritualism of art as well as the business of art.
"Alternative space is really, really important," he stresses. "Right now even the alternative spaces are not always open to new people. How do you get shown if you've never been shown before? That's why alternative spaces are necessary for the growth of the community." Necessary also for people like him, even though he's already represented by a gallery here, Casas Reigner, and even though he represented Venezuela at the 1985 São Paulo Biennial in Brazil. "How to promote my own work? The traditional gallery way is so slow, too conventional. Some places plan their shows and exhibitions years in advance. I can't wait for that to happen."
But more than simply showing off work, Espinoza dreams of nurturing Miami culture. "I want to bring people here to read and talk, not just to drink wine and stare at walls." Because frankly, while Espinoza thinks there is great talent sprouting in Miami, it needs to get a little education. "People here, they don't have a good sense of the history of art," he laments. "It's related to science and history and to whatever." Art Basel, he believes, will be a start in exposing us to the currents and histories of other art scenes -- a lack of exposure that kept us, isolated at the peninsular tip of America, fresh. But we now need to grow up. "We don't have places where people meet to talk about ideas, about plans, real exchanges. We need more of that."
"Eugenio Espinoza/Frank Wick" at #831 Art through January 1, 831 NE 123rd St., North Miami; 305-892-6331.
Would you like art in a house, or would you like it with a mouse ... and geese, and ducks? The latter, decided Patricia Risso. She wants to bring Art Basel, but mostly nature-loving Miami, to the first large exhibit in a county park. Approach the lake in Tropical Park and you'll see a path of floating logs leading to a sculpture of a pregnant woman -- lit at night -- suspended above the water from a pyramid anchored in the lake's bottom. She's "pregnant with truth ... her arms transmute to branches embracing the acceptance that we are nature," in the words of her creators, artists Rimaj Barrientos and Lina Eichenwald. Out of an arm sprout real leaves.
It's one of nine installations that are meant to interact with nature -- and with the joggers, moms with strollers, and hikers who pass through West Miami-Dade's park. Of all the local shows, "Arts to Nature" may be the least accessible to fellow Basel travelers, but the one that might expose our own fellow citizens to contemporary art for the first time in their lives. What will they make of Vivian Marthell's skinlike substance covering the dock? Or Veronica Scharf-Garcia's fairy-tale installation, with rowboat, cloth-sculpture seahorse, and paper plane hanging from a tree? (On opening day, November 22, reaction was, well, mixed: A teenager thought the pregnant sculpture looked like a hanging dead woman, and park officials were on the verge of tearing it down until the artists rescued it at the last minute. Scharf-Garcia's paper plane was stolen.)
Whatever you may think of contemporary local art, Risso, director of the division of arts and culture of the Miami-Dade Park and Recreation Department, wants you to start seeing it in a natural setting. Not just for Basel but for posterity. Miami-Dade's pathetic attempts to protect the park spaces themselves might not bode well for the Peruvian-born crusader, but she plans to move from park to park with art. Up next in March, she says, will be an exhibit in A.D. Barnes, where artists will work with the special accommodations the park provides for the handicapped.
"Other cities do such great things with their parks, and art there is absolutely so accessible," she says at her Liberty City office in the African Cultural Arts Heritage Center. "And I wanted to get away from confined spaces and confined attitudes."
Risso scouted parks and decided on Tropical -- and the arrival of Art Basel -- as the best place and time to start the process. She picked out artists she thought would work well with the idea of earth and nature, and they all got together and talked. Eventually, she says, the nine installations took seed around the lake. Gretel Garcia put up a tree house, which looks as though it has been there for years, branches breaking out of the worn-looking wood to join the trees crowding it. Kyle Trowbridge thought the whole idea of a park is unnatural -- nature can only exist fenced-off and isolated? He put images on small signs in front of trees, like the arboretum plaques that usually announce the scientific names of individual specimens. But his "announcements" proclaim his unease with a system where "real isn't necessarily natural and natural isn't necessarily right." Hence one image that includes the familiar bomb and fuse that pops up on a computer screen to signal: "system error."
"Arts to Nature," through January 13 at Tropical Park, Miller entrance, 7900 SW 40th St., West Miami-Dade; 305-226-8315.
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