The strange tale of how Miami became one of the world's cultural capitals

Where there's art, there's hype. With that caveat in mind, Miami is the art destination of the moment, a place saturated with art works great, small and mediocre. Could it eventually put New York, London and Paris in the shade to become the 21st century's art capital? Some believe so. It certainly has enough artists, collectors, dealers, galleries and museums, while its cultural links with New York, vibrant Latin culture and abundant studio space have all fostered a sense of tremendous potential. The jury's still out on whether it can deliver, but right now Miami is contemporary art's hottest ticket.

Where there's art, there's hype. With that caveat in mind, Miami is the art destination of the moment, a place saturated with art works great, small and mediocre. Could it eventually put New York, London and Paris in the shade to become the 21st century's art capital? Some believe so. It certainly has enough artists, collectors, dealers, galleries and museums, while its cultural links with New York, vibrant Latin culture and abundant studio space have all fostered a sense of tremendous potential. The jury's still out on whether it can deliver, but right now Miami is contemporary art's hottest ticket.

The buzz started some 15 years ago, when East Village artists, entrepreneurs, gay clubbers and drag queens started moving into a near-derelict South Beach alongside an elderly Jewish community and Cuban immigrants. The city's cultural ascent was confirmed by the 1996 opening of the Museum Of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in North Miami, where director Bonnie Clearwater, an articulate champion of the local scene, has consistently produced shows which reinforce Miami's growing reputation as a global art centre, while the museum's special projects pavilion has launched many young locals. Not that MOCA is parochial in its choices; it regularly introduces new artists from Latin America, the Caribbean and across the USA.

The official seal of art world approval came in 2002 when Switzerland's Art Basel, the world's biggest art fair, launched its annual Art Basel Miami Beach. Dedicated to modern and contemporary artists, with a strong emphasis on new Latin American art, this massive art fair descends on the Billion Dollar Sandbar in early December, offering art legends, burgeoning contemporaries, the hottest new names, and 175 galleries from around the world showing over 1,000 artists.

Art Basel's arrival helped Miami's cultural growth attain a critical mass. One local gallery owner estimates that Art Basel has "doubled the city's cultural IQ and international status in the last two years". Glenn Albin, editor of Ocean Drive magazine, believes Art Basel chose the city because "a significant number of serious art collectors have been gathering in Miami and expanding their collections over the past three decades".

Fortunately for art-lovers, several of these collections are on permanent public display. Property mogul Marty Margulies houses his awesome array of contemporary and vintage photography, video, sculpture and installation pieces - some 12,000 works - in a 47,000 sq ft warehouse in the Fashion District. With entire rooms devoted to contemporary photographers, sculpture by Ernesto Neto, Antony Gormley and Jason Rhoades, video and film work by Tony Oursler, and a breathtaking installation by Olafur Eliasson, the Margulies Collection is open daily, free of charge.

Similarly, the nearby Rubell Family Collection was compiled by a wealthy New York family and housed in a 30,000 sq ft warehouse for public consumption. The RFC (as it is known) contains major pieces by Richard Long, Carl Andre and Maurizio Cattelan, a large Damien Hirst glass display case full of surgical instruments, with Jeff Koons, Chris Ofili and Jake and Dinos Chapman along the way, as well as Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and dozens of other renowned contemporary artists.

Art and real estate work for each other in Miami like nowhere else. Property developers often display museum-quality collections in a neglected area to raise its status and initiate new projects. After construction, property values get a boost from artworks displayed in communal spaces. And nobody does this better than local visionary Craig Robins.

As a leading light in Miami's Art and Public Places Trust, Robins led the way in integrating art into Miami's architectural landscape. Having assembled a world-class contemporary art collection while revitalising South Beach, Robins is now developing the Design District, a residential-commercial development in a once run-down part of the city. Just wandering around the Design District you'll see major works in atriums, piazzas and malls; more than half his collection is spread throughout properties in this area.

On a more conventional note, the Bass Museum of Art houses Florida's most comprehensive art collection - more than 2,800 works including renaissance and baroque old masters, 20th-century paintings, sculpture, textiles, graphics, photography and design from North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and Europe, offering an excellent introduction to the history of art and architecture. The museum, directed by Diane Camber, has also curated several exhibitions focused on contemporary art and/or the Miami scene.

Though it focuses more on applied arts, a visit to the Wolfsonian-FIU is definitely worthwhile: this museum and research centre investigates the effect of design on human experience through its collection of decorative, propaganda, and fine arts during the 1885-1945 period. It also offers a wide range of lectures, tours and workshops geared to visitors of all ages.

If you want to plug directly into Miami's downtown art scene, head straight for Miami Art Central (MAC), 30,000 sq ft of non-profit-making institution dedicated to visual and performing arts, with an emphasis on performance art, and film and video screenings. (While MAC is a great space with excellent shows, the artists featured have often shown at MOCA first.)

Another feisty newcomer is Rocket Projects, which as part of its "active dialogue with the community" holds some great parties out in its back yard. It's very hip and great fun, and also shows some compelling work by very young local artists.

Opened in 1984 as the Centre for the Fine Arts, the Miami Art Museum (MAM) rebranded itself in 1996 and compiled an impressive late 20th-century collection, which is reinforced during exhibitions with loans from local private collections. However, MAM is currently locked in a huge row over whether public funds should be used for its proposed relocation to a prime waterfront site. Critics say the money should be spent on schools, and that private collectors should be enlisted to pay for any move. Whatever the outcome, next year there'll be even more public art thanks to Florida International University, which is building the new $11m, 40,000 sq ft Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Art, to be completed in 2005.

If all this space is making your head reel and you need something more personal and intimate, the Lincoln Road ArtCenter on South Beach, a series of converted storefronts, offers the opportunity to visit local artists at work in their studios. And if you still want more, there are several gallery walks where, on a certain night each month, local galleries throw their doors open and offer refreshments to the public. The Design District, North Miami (NoMi) and Coral Gables are just three of the areas that offer this kind of programme.

Finally, the best place for any art aficionado to stay in Miami is undoubtedly the Sagamore Hotel (see above right). Even if you don't take a room, make sure you stop by to see the cavernous white lobby cum contemporary art gallery, featuring paintings, photography, sculpture, furniture and other works by the likes of Massimo Vitali, Martin Parr and Tina Dietz. And be careful to keep your voice down when discussing BritArt: Jay Jopling can often be found in the bar whenever he's in town.

MAKING AN EXHIBITION

Museum Of Contemporary Art

770 NE 125th St, North Miami, FL 33161 (00 1 305 893 6211; www.mocanomi.com)

Art Basel Miami Beach

www.artbaselmiamibeach.com

The Margulies Collection

591 NW 27th Street, Miami, FL 33127 (00 1 305 576 1051)

Rubell Family Collection

95 NW 29th St, Miami, FL 33127

(00 1 305 573 6090)

Design District

www.designmiami.com

Moore Space

www.themoorespace.org

Bass Museum Of Art

www.bassmuseum.org

Wolfsonian-FIU

www.wolfsonian.fiu.edu

Miami Art Central

www.miamiartcentral.com

Rocket Projects

3440 North Miami Ave

Miami, FL 33127 (00 1 305 576 6082; www.rocket-projects.com)

Miami Art Museum

www.miamiartmuseum.org

Lincoln Road ArtCenter

www.artcentersf.org

Gallery Walks

Design District: second Thursday each month, 6pm-10pm, www.designmiami.com for details

North Miami: Last Friday each month, 7pm-10pm, tel 00 1 305 893 6211 for details

Coral Gables: First Friday each month, 7pm-10pm. Tel 00 1 305 444 4493 for details

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