Art for the buff

Miami's beauty isn't confined to the beach, you know. Marcus Field looked behind its pastel-pink facade and found a collection of modern paintings to rival Charles Saatchi's

Art For The Buff


A cry goes up: "Hey, Ricky Martin's at Lola's!" The crowd at the hip restaurant Wish lurches as a TV crew leaves followed by a pack of tabloid hacks in search of their celebrity quarry. It's a typical Friday night in Miami South Beach, a place famous the world over for its pretty art deco hotels and even prettier people.

Art For The Buff

A cry goes up: "Hey, Ricky Martin's at Lola's!" The crowd at the hip restaurant Wish lurches as a TV crew leaves followed by a pack of tabloid hacks in search of their celebrity quarry. It's a typical Friday night in Miami South Beach, a place famous the world over for its pretty art deco hotels and even prettier people.

But gosh, bimbos can get boring. In reality the beautiful South Beach of your imagination is an area about three streets deep and 23 blocks long at the tip of a thin strip of land off the Florida coast – in other words, only a tiny part of the infinitely more complex area of Greater Miami. It's lovely – and why shouldn't a holiday place be a ghetto of pleasure? – but you can tire of it. So I'm going to tell you about the glamour and the gorgeousness, but I'm also going to tell you about some things you can do to feed your mind when you've had enough.

For many Brits, Miami is fixed in the mind as the sunny location for the 1980s TV series Miami Vice, in which Don Johnson hunted down the city's baddies. This sometimes makes it hard to remember that the place actually has a back story. In fact, Miami was granted city status in 1896 after the railroad from the north put it within easy reach of the rest of the country (although the number of residents at this time was just 300). The first development was on the mainland in the area now occupied by downtown Miami and it wasn't until later, when a bridge was built and the sea around the spit of land now known as Miami Beach was dredged, that the world-famous resort began to develop in the 1920s and 30s. The city became the winter haunt of the rich and famous, and it was at this time that the hundreds of art deco buildings were constructed on Collins Avenue and the seafront street of Ocean Drive at the southern tip of the beach. Most of these were hotels and more than 800 art deco buildings survive in what is now a protected historic district.

It's a lot of fun to walk up and down Ocean Drive and look at the audacious curved lines and brightly coloured façades of the many freshly restored hotels, and if you're really interested you can take one of the twice weekly tours of the district organised by the Art Deco Welcome Center. You'll hear all about the developers and the designers who created this piece of city to look like a film set. But don't be surprised when you find out that most of the design work is only skin-deep. Like lots of things about Miami, it doesn't pay to pry beyond the surface and the interiors of many of these hotels are as regular as can be. A couple of them are worth particular attention, though. At the southern end of South Beach is The Hotel, a pretty deco building designed by L Murray Dixon in 1939. In 1998 it was refurbished by fashion designer Todd Oldham and now includes the stylish restaurant Wish, with its tiled street-side terrace, and an octagonal roof-top pool. Just a little further up Collins Avenue is the Nash, another classic 1930s hotel with a chi-chi cocktail bar and a restaurant (called Mark's) so metropolitan that the Sex and the City cast would look right at home.

But if you want to experience real glamour in South Beach there is only one place for it: the Delano. Of all Ian Schrager's hotels this is the one in which the location, the theatrical ambitions of the designer Philippe Starck and the aspirations of the people who visit come together most successfully. On the night I visited, the big white curtain at the entrance was pulled back to reveal a vast lobby filled with cocktail-sipping bright young things. (Beware, my vodka tonic set me back $10.) At the end of the room enormous doors are flung open on to a magical garden lit by twinkling lanterns. You can't help feeling that F Scott Fitzgerald would have found rich material in the contrast between the ostentatious wealth here and the dark alleys and beggars just around the corner.

And that's the thing about a trip to Miami. After you've seen the buff buildings and the buff bodies on the beach (the sea is fabulous, by the way: warm and clear but satisfyingly deeper and choppier than the Caribbean), you feel in need of a bit of gritty reality and perhaps a bit of culture too.

Only a few streets back from the seafront at South Beach you quickly come across shabby buildings, sleazy strip joints and homeless people pushing their belongings in supermarket trollies. Suddenly it's just like Blackpool, but warmer. Not many of the tourists walk this far, which is a shame because it's a good place to start discovering the city's deeper side. First stop on my route is the Bass Museum of Art. Here a wonderful and eclectic collection given to the city by John and Joanna Bass in 1963 is housed in a monumental 1930s public library building. The focus of the collection is European art from the Renaissance, with treasures including work by Botticelli and Rubens. But since the museum's $8m facelift and extension by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, the collection has expanded to include contemporary art and the museum now also hosts travelling exhibitions. (The current show, until 11 May, is of work by the Japanese abstract artist Yayoi Kusama.)

If you want to delve further into the real Miami you need to take a cab over the MacArthur Causeway. Here in downtown, where long expressways and office blocks dominate the skyline, you could be in any big American city. But you don't have to look too hard to find the pockets of immigrant culture which offer a welcome relief after the bland Starbucks-isation which threatens to engulf South Beach. Many of the taxis in Miami are driven by Cubans or Haitians and if you ask them they will direct you to the best places in Little Havana or Little Haiti to try the local cuisine. I stopped for a thick, dark and strong Cuban coffee at the famous Versailles café at 3555 SW 8th Street. Its kick was enough to keep me on my toes for next two stops of my art route.

Miami's reputation as a place for seeing and collecting contemporary art has grown rapidly in recent years. One of the reasons for this is the excitement generated by the arrival of Don and Mera Rubell (Don is the brother of Steve Rubell, the late and legendary impresario of New York's Studio 54 nightclub), who retired to Miami in the mid-1990s and opened their art collection to the public. The Rubells have been collecting for more than 35 years and their holdings now include work by celebrated names including Damien Hirst, Keith Haring, Maurizio Cattelan and Chris Ofili.

The collection – which seriously rivals that of Charles Saatchi – is housed in an intimidating, fortress-like building with no windows in a residential area of the city. (Its previous use was as a warehouse for goods seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration.) Inside, room after room is filled with challenging works which would have members of the anti-Turner Prize brigade foaming at the mouth (in particular, the mannequin works by Charles Ray which make the Chapman brothers look tame). On the day I visited, the Rubells were enjoying a quiet afternoon in their library and I asked them about their decision to make the collection public. "For us to be able to do this was a dream come true," says Don. "We hope that other collectors will now show their work too." For the first time this year, the big European art fair Art Basel is also holding a winter sale in Miami Beach (from this Thursday to 8 December) and Rubell thinks this annual event, combined with the increasing number of wealthy collectors moving to Miami, could make the city a rival to New York. "It could become the centre for the contemporary art market in America," he says. It's no surprise to find that artists themselves have spotted this trend and that a growing number is now choosing to work in the city. "Miami is becoming interesting," says Mera. "There are pockets where it's still cheap to live and work."

"It's true," says Bonnie Clearwater, the energetic director of Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art, when I ask her if any significant work is really being made in the city. "We had a show called Making Art in Miami earlier this year in which we showed work by some 20 emerging artists and it received national attention." MoCA is housed in a state-of-the-art new building up in the adjoining city of North Miami (a 20-30 minute taxi ride from South Beach). The idea, explains Clearwater, was to contribute to the regeneration of a deprived part of Miami by housing a growing permanent collection and staging shows of international quality. The result has been a huge success. The collection, which includes pieces by Dan Flavin and Julian Schnabel, now numbers more than 400 works, and the museum's Roy Lichtenstein retrospective earlier this year and current show of work by Yoko Ono (to 26 January) have both been well received. Even so, Clearwater acknowledges that looking at contemporary art is not everyone's idea of a holiday activity. "There's a lot of competition in Miami, especially if it's a nice day," she says. Which makes her job tough when the weather in high season – from November to late April – is almost always sunny and warm.

Finally, even I can't resist the call of the beach as my art lover's legs give way. But it would be a shame if you visited Miami and just confined yourself to Versace country (yes, the house at 1114 Ocean Drive in South Beach is still surrounded by ghoulish sightseers) when there is so much more to discover. The wear and tear inflicted by cocktails and culture might make you tired, but don't forget this is the city that prefers to abide by the rule of the deco district's most famous architect, Morris Lapidus, who created many of the best hotels on the beach and died in 2001 aged 98. He called his autobiography Too Much Is Never Enough.

The Facts

Getting there

Marcus Field travelled from London to Miami with American Airlines (0845 606 0461; www.aa.com) which offers return fares from £274.

Being there

The Hotel Nash, 1120 Collins Avenue (001 305 674 7800; www.hotelnash.com) offers rooms from $135 (£90) per night. The Delano, 1685 Collins Avenue at 16th Street (001 305 672 2000; www.ianschragerhotels.com), offers rooms from $325 (£217) per night. The Ritz Carlton Key Biscayne at 455 Grand Bay Drive (001 305 365 4135; www.ritz carlton. com), offers an ocean-front setting 20 minutes' drive from South Beach, with rooms from $229 (£153) per night.

The Miami Visitors' Bureau is at Suite 2700, NationsBank Building, 701 Brickell Avenue, at SE 7th Street (01444 443355; www.tropicoolmiami.com). The Bass Museum of Art is at 2121 Park Avenue at Collins Avenue (001 305 673 7530; www.bassmuseum.org). The Rubell Family Collection is at 95 NW 29th St at 1st Avenue (001 305 573 6090).

Further Information

The Art Deco District Welcome Center is at 1001 Ocean Drive at 10th Street (001 305 531 3484; www.mdpl.org). For information on Art Basel Miami Beach call ArtNexus (001 305 891 7270; xbertot@artnexus.com).

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