Best Museum 2009 | Jewish Museum of Florida | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Miami | Miami New Times
Photo courtesy of Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU

Did you know Florida's Jews have been kicking it old-school in the Sunshine State since 1763? With the Torah and the menorah and the dancing of the hora under swaying palm trees? No? Well, there's this nice Jewish lady over on the Beach... she or one of her helpful staff members will set you straight on the long, colorful Jewish experience in the land of alligators and orange trees. Reams of mementos, photos, oral histories, and other items are housed in the two former synagogues that compose the Jewish Museum of Florida. As well as containing an extensive permanent collection of Florida-related Judaica, the museum offers many temporary exhibits, other public functions, and help with research. You know your bubbe would want you to go, so do it already.

Thanks to the sizzling scenery that needs no translation (i.e., the sexy dancers on seemingly every show), América TeVé has plenty of viewers who don't know a lick of Spanish, but for those who can understand the language, Oscar Haza is an even greater draw. As host of A Mano Limpia, he not only dazzles the audience with his knowledge of Latin American history and politics, but also carries on conversations with the likes of Lech Walesa, John McCain, Huber Matos, and anybody who can upset the Castro brothers. Despite the obvious focus on Cuba, he's not just another "Miami Mafia" windbag. The Dominican-born journalist covers hot topics of local, national (that means U.S.), and international interest that have nothing to do with the Pearl of the Antilles. And he does it in a classy, informative way that is as entertaining as TeVé's flashier fare.

With the advent of the now ubiquitous camera phone and cheap broadband, almost anyone can become a famous photographer overnight. Well, not quite anyone. There's still this little thing called talent that isn't quite universally available yet. But Carlos Ramos definitely has it. Ramos is the shutterbug known to his many fans as Miami Fever. Day after day for the last several years, he's uploaded thousands of images that seemingly capture the city's very soul — freezing the most intimate moments in a maelstrom called Miami. Not only does Ramos give the snootiest art snobs rich images to revel in, many of his photographs also cater to the more pedestrian loves of beautiful women and expensive cars, meaning there is something for everyone to like. If Ramos continues to follow his current trajectory, he has the potential to become a photographic superstar on the level of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Garry Winogrand. Yes, he's that good.

Once you get past the nightmarish parking, no venue prepares you as perfectly — aesthetically, gastronomically, or literarily — for two hours in the theater as Ricky J. Martinez's New Theatre. The lobby is small but smartly appointed: Good local art hangs on the walls, and as often as not, there is a smiling young playwright manning the combined ticket counter and bar, selling tix, cashews, candy, and wine. Opposite the bar is a bookshelf, from which you may select and purchase several dozen scripts and works on the theater. Then you file into the theater itself, and: magic. Martinez and crew keep the lights low and sets weird — often they spill out into the audience — and in this cramped, intimate space, you feel like you've been pulled between the worlds. You could be anywhere.

While bicycle gatherings like Critical Mass make for great photo-ops, activists have to do more than just clog traffic during rush hour to affect real change. If you want lawmakers to pay attention to the needs of cyclists, you have to play by their rules. That means sitting through endless commission meetings, endless community meetings, and endless planning meetings when you'd rather play outside in the sunshine. Enter BASIC, a loosely organized group of advocates who doggedly chase local governments to include cycling in their transportation plans. They're the ones who take off their bike helmets and work through every legal roadblock to better bike access. Through their email list, BASIC members stay informed of government meetings where cycling issues might pop up. When that "critical mass" shows up to meetings, it really gets heard. So far, they've been instrumental in creating bike access, particularly bike lanes in Miami Beach, and making sure local governments don't backpedal on transportation reform. And, they still find time to join the rest of us out on the road.

This is simple arithmetic. Even with a wooden leading man, Lakme gets by on the exoticism of its Indian setting and the decadent (but tuneful!) complexities of Leo Delibes's one great opera — the silly libretto of which makes a lot of opera people dismiss the whole thing. But those people are wrong, as they would have learned if they'd seen and heard Leah Partridge in the title role at FGO. Even if she got a tidbit screechy at the end of "The Bell Song," her voice — fresh and supple as a sapling — brought a sweetness and, later, a solemnity to the role that few singers have done. Everything about this Lakme, from its sets to its bevy of talents, was oversize and overwhelming — a reminder of why it's called grand opera.

Leonard Abess ain't your typical banker. This past February, after selling his majority stake in City National Bancshares for $927 million to Spanish bank Caja Madrid, he doled out $60 million in bonuses to all his staff and 72 former employees. First, he made an online video explaining the windfall buyout of the company. A few days later, clerks distributed details of the sums deposited in the staff's payroll accounts. Abess didn't show up in person, announce his generosity to the media, or actively seek the attention his gesture provoked. But once the media found out about it and seized on the story like a pack of hungry vultures, he did the rounds and granted interviews. He explained his good deed thusly: "I just wanted to reward my employees." Abess started his career as a worker in the bank print shop, making forms and documents. He advanced through the ranks and eventually bought City National off the auction block at bankruptcy court, where it ended up after mismanagement by coffee kingpin turned escaped convict Alberto Duque. Abess developed the bank from $400 million in assets to $2.75 billion. "I saw that if the president doesn't come to work, it's not a big deal," he said. "But if the tellers don't show up, it's a serious problem." Abess, thanks for being so filthy rich that giving away $60 million is nothing to you. Next time, double it.

It pains the heart that for the second year in a row, our "Best Of" accolades are forced to compensate for the silliness of those other awards — the ones named after the sculptor. Yet again, Mad Cat Theatre did the most disturbing, artfully executed work of the year, and yet again the old taste arbiters turned up their noses. C'est la vie: New Times readers know better. Neil LaBute's Some Girl(s) was an endlessly repeated scene in which a selfish womanizer-turned-author named Guy confronted a former lover in a hotel room — perhaps, we thought, to apologize. Each time, it was a different lover in a different hotel, and each offered different excuses and sentiments by our protagonist. As our understanding of Guy's history was colored in by LaBute's hints and allusions, our image of him crumbled: Soon we were eyeball-to-eyeball with evil at its most banal. Thanks to Paul Tei's darkly gorgeous direction, we didn't even want to look away.

Meshaun Labrone Arnold both wrote and starred in The Hate U Gave, but the piece had little of the self-indulgent flab most writer/actors can't bring themselves to shear from their own work. His acting and writing were wise, while his subject — and character — was just a savant: a man who saw the whole world clearly except for his own place in it. Watching Arnold, as Tupac, rage against the chasms that divide us (by gender, class, or anything else, but especially by race) — even as he bore helpless witness to his own inability to do anything but widen them — was to see right into the hidden heart of alienation. Arnold's tense, kinetic body and tortured face were pictographs, notating its cost.

Phillip and Patricia Frost aren't exactly new to the Miami philanthropy game. Phillip, chairman of a Miami-based pharmaceuticals company, and Patricia, a retired elementary school principal, have given millions to local nonprofits and served on the boards of the Florida International University Foundation and the Smithsonian. Hell, they even already have a whole school named after them at the University of Miami, after they gave a record $33 million to the School of Music in 2003.

But it's their latest contribution that might leave the longest legacy in the Magic City — and that marked them as our power couple of the year. With an undisclosed gift, they helped make the FIU's Phillip and Patricia Frost Art Museum — which opened in November — one of the most artistically and architecturally significant newcomers on Miami's arts scene in years.

The crescent-shaped museum, built from Chinese granite, steel, and glass by Tampa's HOK Architects, is an instant icon at FIU's Tamiami campus — and it serves as a much-needed centerpiece for Latin American and modern art in Miami.

The name says it all — without the Frosts, the newest jewel in a city rocketing into the national arts conversation simply wouldn't have happened.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®