On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, during one of my regular swings through the art galleries of New York’s Lower East Side, nearly every conversation started with a complaint. Other Americans moan about visiting their families this season. In the art world, they moan about having to go to the beach. “[It’s] a cesspool,” one sour black-clad dealer said about her impending trip to Art Basel Miami Beach, the largest art fair in America. “I hate going there,” said another. “I’m so happy I’m not going,” said a third. I eavesdropped on a conversation between a collector and a dealer, who both feigned disgust at vapid, culture-free Miami – and then made plans to meet there.

Well, say what you want about art fairs, those unholy melanges of champagne-drenched social climbing and professional tax evasion. But as for the city that hosts the winter edition of Art Basel, a phrase from the locals comes to mind: ¡Despierta! Wake up!

Miami has taken the place of Los Angeles as the city alleged sophisticates love to hate, but there is so much more to the largest metropolis in the American southeast than sand, cocaine and plastic surgery. Rent is low. The Cuban coffee is fabulous, better than anything brewed by the hipster evangelists of Portland or Williamsburg. The weather is the envy of the eastern seaboard. People dress better to go to the mall than most other Americans do to get married. The majority language is Spanish, and if you call for a cab you have to press 2 for an English-speaking operator. I love it unashamedly, and to the sunburned gringos who moan that Miami culture is either an aggrandisement or an oxymoron, I can only say you aren’t looking hard enough.

Sunshine State surprise

Art Basel, which began in Switzerland in 1970, began its winter edition in Miami in 2002. But it wasn’t the Swiss who came looking for a place in the sun; back in the 1990s, Miami had an unpleasant reputation for drugs and crime, with tourist muggings not uncommon. It was Miami art collectors, notably the car dealership guru Norman Braman, who convinced Art Basel to come to town. Do not mistake the fair for just an art world holiday jolly; it is in large part a local undertaking, and it would never have worked if the city did not have a strong collector base eager to see it through.

Unlike the mega-rich of other cities, too many of whom hide their hordes in vaults or tax-exempt free-ports, most of Miami’s important collectors have opened independent spaces to display their art. They are all free to visit, and the collections can be as impressive as at any museum. In December the reliably blue-chip Rubell Family Collection is opening a surprising exhibition of Chinese contemporary art; the more eclectic collection of Rosa de la Cruz is showing work by artists such as Isa Genzken and Christopher Wool, both of whom are enjoying major retrospectives in New York. Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, a major collector of Latin American art, is opening a 61-artist show curated by a team from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Fontanals-Cisneros was born in Cuba, and her foundation’s show is a reminder that Miami is the de facto capital of Latin America. It is a sort of Hispanophone Hong Kong: a mixing chamber for an entire continent, or at least those who can get past the American immigration authorities. Bilingualism is more and more the norm (though lately one hears a lot of Portuguese poolside), and in a country still embarrassingly hung up about immigration, Miami offers a model of inclusion and cross-fertilisation that should be the envy of the nation. The Pérez Miami Art Museum, reopening in a new building by Herzog & De Meuron this week, is mounting an all-western hemisphere show, with the cleverly bilingual title Americana. And during November’s 30th edition of the Miami Book Fair, an unlikely success story that has become the largest and most diverse literary festival in the United States, English-language writers such as George Packer and Doris Kearns Goodwin mingled with Argentina’s Marcos Aguinis, René Rodríguez Soriano of the Dominican Republic, and even authors from Spain who see Miami as the country’s smartest literary audience. (Also appearing: Dick Cheney, interviewed on stage by his cardiologist.)

Pulsing with life

One of the best moments in a Miami day is when you’re sitting next to a yellow Ferrari or some other six-figure automobile, worrying that the city is just a wealth parade, and then a car covered in Puerto Rican flags pulls up alongside, blasting the newest reggaeton hit. Miami is still a music powerhouse, long after the days of KC and the Sunshine Band, or Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine or the Miami Bass classics of Tootsie Roll and Whoomp! There It Is!. You still hear conga and salsa on the radio and in nightclubs, but the Miami sound these days is darker and less seductive than it used to be: from Trina, the self proclaimed “Queen of Miami” to Pitbull, Flo Rida and Rick Ross, whose video for his five-times-platinum megahit Hustlin’ swept from South Beach to the gritty blocks of Liberty City. And if they are not to your taste, there is always the New World Symphony, the nation’s only full-time orchestral academy, which plays in a Frank Gehry-designed concert hall and whose ambitious program matches orchestras twice its size.

Look, it’s not paradise. The airport is unspeakable, there are way too many real estate brokers, and the whole thing is probably going to be underwater in a century. But Miami is a major American metropolis with the cultural chops to match, and it is high time to drop the stereotypes and acknowledge it for the diverse place it is. My colleagues who despise Art Basel Miami Beach are probably spending too much time with the international collecting class, and not enough with the denizens of one of the great American cities. So, a little advice: go to the fair, do your business, air kiss who you need to air kiss, and then get out of the convention centre. Cancel your lunch plans, skip the parties and the openings. Have a café con leche somewhere instead. Make nice with the older gentlemen playing dominoes.

And then drive over the causeway to the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a Floridian fantasia and my favorite house museum in America. An Italianate villa built in 1916, Vizcaya is a European stately home inflected with all the mysteries of Miami: the walls feature murals of Columbus’ landing, while the ornamental garden contains weatherworn classical sculpture, and American copies thereof that would suit an American remake of Last Year at Marienbad. Standing in the garden, or gazing out as the sun sets over Biscayne Bay, Vizcaya feels faintly ridiculous but also totally irresistible. Just like Miami itself.

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