There are certain perks to living in Miami, but at times it's rather like being a typecast actor, vainly struggling to escape some early career embarrassments and forge a new image of professional seriousness. Of all the baggage associated with the city, none is more crippling than the idea that Miami has always been -- and will forever remain -- a cultural wasteland occupied by barbarians with an addiction to the art of the tan. As with most prejudices and cursory judgments, a hard kernel of truth remains at the heart of the Miami-as-wasteland cliche, despite the city's ballyhooed emergence as a brave new capital of hemispheric synergy.

In northern cities the residents may concede some civic shortcomings, but even bum-fuck little burgs that couldn't raise a pimple on Miami's ass take some comfort in being patronizing to our metropolis. To locales that pride themselves on relative reasonableness, Miami seems lawless, out of control, and just plain vulgar. It's fine for a winter fling or a campy giggle, but who could live down there with all those plebes, morons, and clueless hard bodies? Invariably this line of thinking is propagated by tourists who sunbathe, screw, and drink more than most native Miamians would consider seemly. They treat the city as if it were the whorehouse of the Western world while simultaneously offering pronouncements on how Miami could improve itself. To my mind, the first step toward improvement would entail sealing off the city from all the invading barbarians -- we have enough here of our own.

A condition of life in Miami, as in so many other American cities that suffer from an inferiority complex, is the penchant of looking elsewhere for approval and confirmation of our position in the national caste system. Nobody in New York or San Francisco or Chicago gives a damn what any other American thinks of their city, and nor should residents of Miami, although people who live in Los Angeles and still love the place have some explaining to do. That said, plenty of out-of-towners -- of varying levels of sophistication -- turned out for the gala opening of the Joan Lehman Building at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami this past Friday night, the newest local bid in the big-time cultural sweepstakes.

Art should be what's left over from life, a sideline of sorts, but in the modern world it's everything at once: a battleground of intrigue, personal definition, therapy, social access, and naked self-promotion. Not quite what the Medicis envisioned; of course, the nature of art has changed considerably. For instance, a notorious California artist who made his reputation in nightclubs with a great act -- climbing a ladder in the nude, inserting paint in his butt, and then spraying the results over a canvas -- is now having major gallery shows in San Francisco. To appreciate his particular artistic discipline requires a certain leap in aesthetic connoisseurship, but let's face it, enema art is definitely on the edge.

MoCA's first exhibit -- and the mere fact of the museum's existence -- could not have been more surreal, ambitious, and informed by a conscious desire to radiate good taste of the audacious variety. In short, it had many of the earmarks of a bold new Miami endeavor, good and bad, though the enema man would have animated all of the white-wine conversation. The artwork on display seemed to embody one of Jenny Holzer's dictums on art and life: "Everything that's interesting is new." From the get-go, the show, organized by chief curator Bonnie Clearwater and director Lou Anne Colodny, set out a bold agenda of national ambitions with its title alone: "Defining the Nineties: Consensus-Making in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles."

It may be a tad early to define the Nineties, and the consensus, if there was one, seemed to be that the marketplace -- collectors, critics, galleries, auction houses, art consultants, et cetera -- was really the important thing, a definite Eighties-art-as-glorified-casino-chip concept.

Clearwater wired into the world of culturati vibration. Yoko Ono, one of the glittering names on the invitation, didn't make it to the opening-night celebration, but quite a few other names did. John Baldessari and Paul McCarthy, who were part of the "Reel Work: Artists' Film and Video of the 1970s" component of the show, flew in for the proceedings. For added punch there were also Gary Simmons of New York and Martin Kersels of Los Angeles, whose Twist -- a huge prosthetic leg thumping randomly against a wall -- lent a loud twang that reverberated in the brain. Artist Larry Rivers played the saxophone at the opening, and some local artists on hand, such as homeboy Robert Chambers, mingled with art celebrities.

The power brigade, collectors and such, spanned the spectrum from DACRA's Craig Robins -- who'd loaned pieces to the show and hosted two parties for the visiting dignitaries -- to Richard Oldenburg of Sotheby's, curator/consultant Jeffrey Deitch, and Greek collector Dakis Joannou. A gentleman of true style, Joannou had spent millions on the festivities associated with an exhibition of his collection at the Fine Arts Academy in Athens. Fragments of the art universe were on hand at MoCA, but once again it was Miami versus the rest of the world. By and large the locals said how great MoCA was for Miami; way too many out-of-town guests added a spin to the same statement, on the order of "It's kind of great for Miami, I guess."

But then it's February, it's Miami, and the action -- any kind of action -- is really what matters in the art world. The sheer ambition of the show, as well as MoCA's actual physical structure, had a certain gravity. Right off the bat, the building is improbably located in the true wasteland of NE 125th Street and Eighth Avenue, next to the North Miami municipal building and an array of lifestyle service stores of a kitschy dimension: the Heirlooms of Tomorrow shop, the Kung Fu Connection training center, Hawaii Nails. Nowheresville, USA. And then there's MoCA, a series of interlocking geometric forms, from circles to sharp angles, fronted by a plaza dotted with palm trees. An outpost of architectural assertion in the void; appropriately enough, the museum was designed by Charles Gwathmey, who made his reputation building enormous homes in the expanse of Hamptons potato fields. Unanimous raves all around.

The emergence of MoCA from CoCA (Center of Contemporary Art), the transformation from a nice little facility (the old museum, in use for fifteen years, now serves as office space) to megamuseum, had a certain sexiness as well, the building having gone up in only two years -- something of a quick conquest. At the gala, Richard Shack, board chairman and long-time entertainment promoter (from his representation of Anita Bryant to his beleaguered amphitheater/performing arts complex in North Miami), seemed happy with the art of the deal. "It's amazing we could put this all together, especially in North Miami," he noted. "What got everything going was the two-and-a-half million[-dollar] HUD grant that Bill Lehman got for us. Another million came in from private grants. We're opening debt-free. Originally we were going to build it at the Performing Arts Center -- no, not the one downtown, my performing arts center -- but when that ran into problems, we built it here instead."

Lehman, the former U.S. representative, asked that the building be named after his wife Joan, a minor favor as these things go. The wheels keep turning, and yet another arts institution enters the supposed wasteland of Miami. Across the board, the local museums -- from the Bass Museum of Art to the Center for the Fine Arts -- want to be bigger and grander in typical Miami style, expanding in the face of a limited pool of patrons and financial support.

After the MoCA gala a group of likable artists jumped into an enormous white stretch donated by a local limousine company for their Miami weekend and headed down to South Beach, a mandatory stop on the fun tour. They eventually wound up in a VIP room with low-rent comedian Pauly Shore, everyone doing the bump and having a grand old time. In the end Miami is nothing but a collection of great moments, wrenched from the arena of possibility.

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Tom Austin