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When most tourists think of Miami, they think three things: beach, nightlife and entertainment. Increasingly, though, people are adding art to that list. In 2002, when Miami Beach started hosting Art Basel, the city suddenly became an international centre for art. The Swiss art fair, commonly considered the most prestigious in the world, came to Miami when a group of influential collectors convinced the directors that the city could draw wealth and talent from Latin America, Europe and the US.

But Miami did not always have such a strong art culture. A few decades ago, explains art historian Perri Roberts, there were hardly any museums in the city, let alone major art shows. Roberts, art history professor and dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of Miami, spoke with us about how Miami's art scene got to where it is today, cluing us in to some of the best places to discover fine art around town.

Travelwise: Miami's art culture has really flourished in recent decades. Can you outline that progression for us?
Roberts:
Let me preface this by saying, I'm an art historian who's lived in the city for 30 years. I moved here from Rome. It was very different back then. The number of venues where you could go to see contemporary art... was extremely limited. There was the museum here on campus, the Lowe Art Museum. Other than that, the next major museums were in Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach.

Over the past 25 years, you've had the Miami Art Museum founded. In North Miami, you had MOCA (the Museum of Contemporary Art). Florida International University opened up their museum, the Frost Museum. And you've many more private collectors opening their collections to visitors.

T: What factors contributed to all that growth?
R:
It's really been linked with private collectors and real estate development - where you have many more places to go and see art. Craig Robins, who was a developer in the Design District, was very instrumental in supporting art education; and, he's opened up gallery spaces for contemporary art.

Also, Miami is a Latin city. So, the fact that you've had a lot of well-heeled Latin American individuals coming to the city - that fueled the growth in commercial galleries selling Latin American art.

The biggest impetus has been the fair, [Art Basel]. We're still at a point where the indigenous community of artists is growing, but slowly. It's really been within the past 10 years that you've seen a significant growth in galleries, buyers and then the art fair.

T: What styles of art is Miami best known for?
R:
In terms of historic [architecture] styles, starting off with Spanish Mediterranean, then Art Deco and then the Arquitectonica buildings in town - which now don't look so modern.

With the new Miami Art Museum building, we're starting to get more contemporary architects building major buildings. What's really given growth to contemporary design in the city is Art Basel.

T: How has the landscape changed since Miami won Art Basel in 2002?
R:
Even with our own small graduate program, students want to come here because they know Art Basel is going to be held here...

There are also many more artists coming to live and work in Miami. There are many more commercial outlets, so an artist working here doesn't have to move out of the area.

T: As an art historian, where are your favorite places to find interesting art in the city?
R:
Definitely the fair itself... As an art historian, I love the Wolfsonian, because it's a funky collection. It's of propaganda art from 1875 to 1945. And they always have interesting exhibits there - like The History of Bathing Suits or Airplane Travel in the United States.

You shouldn't miss the Margulies gallery space - [there's] a collection of photographs and videos from the full span of the history of photography. Then, there's the Rubell Collection downtown - somewhat risque, really shocking contemporary art. And the de la Cruz's new place - a lot of 21st century Latin American art... All of those exhibits are free.

There's also the Art in Public Places Program... And, I don't want to plug a particular place, but the Four Seasons Hotel on Brickell, has used art by local artists. It is quite beautiful.

T: Any tips for travellers visiting Miami this week for Art Basel?

R: The best part of the fair is the people-watching. You're seeing extremely well-heeled individuals. You want to see what the women are wearing, the shoes they have on, what they're carrying. It's a very stylish event. Very Miami.

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

 

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