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As Basel Expanded Beyond The Beach, Miami Became Its Muse

Alicia Zuckerman

Basel is back in town and the annual artistic spotlight is swiveling around Miami, highlighting nooks and crannies the city normally passes by with nonchalance. Now in its 12th year, Art Basel Miami Beach has not only grown, but changed the landscape of the city and South Florida.

It’s easy to be cynical about the general milieu. I have been snarky about the crowds and traffic before and I most likely will be again. But taking a step back and appreciating what Basel has changed can be boiled down to a few simple questions.

Would the brand-new keystone Perez Art Museum Miami have opened this year had Art Basel not shifted Miami’s prominence in the art world? Would Alex Gartenfeld, all-star curator and now interim director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, have moved to Miami if Basel weren’t here? Would not just the whole art world, but more interestingly, the entire city of Miami be talking about Basel right here and right now?

“I would say that Art Basel, in terms of its engagement with the local community, has been hugely influential,” suggests Nina Johnson-Milewski, owner and operator of Gallery Diet in Wynwood. “Ten or 11 years ago, when it came, Basel was just a satellite of the art world. People flew in and that was it.”

It may seem like stating the obvious, but Art Basel Miami Beach and all that it entails is no longer just Basel; it’s a national and international phenomenon and a whirlwind culturally decadent experience that has to be lived to be believed.

Like I said, it’s easy to take the opposing cynical route: Would Kanye be here in discussion with starchitect Jacques Herzog? Would I have seen Val Kilmer hug and kiss the most famous performance artist in the world at the opening night of satellite fair UNTITLED? Would the newly arrived Art Basel Death Count website by local artist Bleeding Palm not be totally hilarious?

“I hope it inspires Miami to shift away from its apathy,” local art and culture writer Galena Mosovich says of the newly opened PAMM and of Art Basel in general. And it has. Though it can’t be quantified, nearly every single person in the city of Miami knows Art Basel is in town and, in some small way because of that, they are actually thinking about art. Maybe not critically in most instances, but it is on their tongues and in their thoughts.

It’s because Art Basel is now — for one week at the beginning of December — not just on the beach but all over Miami. Countless satellite fairs range from the sands of Ocean Drive to the western outskirts of Wynwood. Everyone has a hustle and everyone is trying to either make money or gain recognition.

Johnson-Milewski goes on to explain that Basel is now, “ingrained in the programming of the local institutions and the fabric of the community,” and its benefits, “enhance the cultural scene and the financial viability of Miami.” In fact, a recent Miami Herald report suggests that the galleries are actually beginning to reflect a Miami-specific aesthetic in the works they choose to bring. It’s fascinating that galleries from other parts of the world are catering their product around Miami themes. It can only mean that output from the artists themselves is beginning to be dictated by Miami and the motifs that surround our city’s brand.

So while bemoaning the usual shallowness of the art world, we should all stop and thank Art Basel Miami Beach for what it’s brought to the city. The world isn’t simply starting to notice us -- the world is reverentially creating in our city’s honor. The art is beginning to become homage and Miami is the muse. And being a muse is an honor, a privilege worthy of respect not to be trifled with.

Nathaniel Sandler is a contributing editor for the arts at WLRN. He is also the co-founder and Head Librarian of the Bookleggers Mobile Library, serving Miami with free books on a monthly basis at literary events throughout the city.
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