No longer islands of isolated culture, South Florida's bastions of art are burgeoning, and increasing interrelated. Ocean Drive connects the dots, from Palm Beach to downtown Miami.

Miami Art

Most of Florida seems “just off the highway.” This holds especially true for our area’s now booming art scene. The 67-mile stretch of US-1 from West Palm Beach to downtown Miami takes you from the art world’s first foothold nearly three quarters of a century ago, past landmarks both new and forgotten, neighborhoods dicey and chic, to the hanging gardens of the new Pérez Art Museum Miami. It’s an ever-connected archipelago of art, and our journey starts, both geographically and historically, in the north. Before the Swiss architecture, before the red-carpeted sand dunes of Art Basel and blockbuster shows by Brit Tracey Emin and Beijing-born Ai Weiwei, there were a Chicago steel man and West Palm Beach, circa 1939.

That’s when industrialist Ralph Hubbard Norton retired to this sturdy middle-class community across the Intracoastal from the Gatsby-esque lights of Palm Beach, Henry Flagler’s resort island. A longtime patron of the arts, Norton in 1941 built and endowed one of South Florida’s first museums (Naples’s Ringling Museum opened in 1927), and one of its greatest. The Norton Museum of Art’s (1501 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach) mission is “to preserve for the future the beautiful things of the past.” That preservation is achieved by way of a stately Art Deco/Neoclassical structure designed by Marion Sims Wyeth, which will soon undergo another expansion at the hands of design team Foster + Partners. Today, the Norton’s holdings can be divided into five categories: European, American, Chinese, contemporary, and photography; at more than 7,000 pieces, it is the finest historical collection in a state where the new has lost much of its novelty.

Miami Art
Paul Gauguin, Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1889.

Palm Beach may be wealth spelled backwards, but the greater Palm Beach County, with more than 1.3 million people and a median household income hovering around $50,000, is decidedly middle class. Realizing this, the museum now serves the entire community, from “the most esoteric, the most influential, to the absolute bedrock of our society,” says Hope Alswang, the Norton’s director.

On one wall, you see Night Mist, Jackson Pollock’s 1945 painting that foreshadows his later adventures in dripping; on another, an existentially raw Paul Gauguin, in which the post-Impressionist has rendered himself as Christ, but with a shock of red hair referencing his relationship to Vincent van Gogh. Then, there is the treasured Chinese wing. “There is not an institution with a major Chinese collection who would not remove most of their teeth to be able to have our bronze and jades,” Alswang puts it bluntly.

The Norton also has outstanding local private collectors to turn to when putting together its impressive displays. Contemporary art curator Cheryl Brutvan is currently working on a selection of pieces from local collector Beth Rudin DeWoody opening in February. DeWoody stands apart from other art patrons not only because of the size of her collection but her continual devotion to emerging artists. And since she lives in West Palm Beach, she is more accessible than the rest of the slipper set.

Miami Art
Nova Southeastern University’s Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.

The museum also knows how to strike a balance, putting on populist shows that encourage snickers from the Basel crowd. This summer’s show, “Wheels and Heels: The Big Noise Behind Little Toys,” had more than 1,000 people at the opening.

From here, begin your journey south. From the Norton, take a brief detour across the Intracoastal to the Sarah Gavlak Gallery (249B Worth Ave., Palm Beach, 561-833-0583). Gavlak, a curator and writer, opened her gallery in 2005 with a prescient show of Wade Guyton, establishing her space as the gallery in Palm Beach. The unique program features a blend of Hollywood, New York, and South Florida in which pinups by Bunny Yeager share walls with the scuffed glitz of Jack Pierson.

From Gavlak, head south 10 miles until Lake Worth, not quite yet Boca, but just far enough away from Palm Beach for a change of scenery. Although home to a slew of restaurants boasting cheap shots of Fireball, on the corner of South L Street stands an old Deco movie theater with a fluted façade. Here, in 1981, a wealthy collector from Palm Beach named J. Patrick Lannan opened a museum, bringing in a young scholar and curator named Bonnie Clearwater to run it. The museum closed in 1988, but Clearwater stayed in the area. After nearly two decades as director of the former Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (MOCA), she recently moved to Fort Lauderdale, the next stop on our journey.

Miami Art
A visitor taking in a piece by Daina Stabulniece at the Guild 5 Forty Five in Fort Lauderdale’s FATVillage.

Clearwater’s new home, the Nova Southeastern University Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale (1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; moafl.org), opened in 1986 in an 83,000-square-foot building by Edward Larrabee Barnes. Until the mid-’80s, Fort Lauderdale was known mainly as a spring break destination, the place “Where the Boys Are,” as the 1960 coming-of-age film had it. But that began to change with the opening of the museum. Now there’s much more to do than chug, chug, chug.

The museum boasts two niche collections amid its 6,000 pieces, including the nation’s largest collection of William Glackens, the American realist painter associated with the Ashcan School, and a large body of work from COBRA artists. (The name is an acronym for Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam—three bases for this group of post-WWII avant-garde artists.) Attached to the museum stands the AutoNation Academy of Art + Design (4 W. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale), a 17,000-square-foot educational facility. Clearwater has always stressed education: Since a museum helps us “rethink how we look at the world, it raises our empathy,” an education department is a must.

Miami Art
Tracey Emin, I Whisper to My Past Do I Have Another Choice, 2013, from the Girl’s Club Collection.

But more than the collection and the resources, Fort Lauderdale represents a hub, a gyre connecting the art scene of Miami-Dade to that of Palm Beach County. “We’re not bound by geography and our buildings,” says Clearwater of her vision, building a bridge between the two worlds. “It’s about fluidity and connection. It’s about making an extended art coast.”

Sensing this, Miami artists are also heading north. This summer’s exhibition, “Research and Development: Concerning Belonging,” has Tom Sicluna, Agustina Woodgate, Antonia Wright, Rick Ulysse, and Natasha Lopez de Victoria moving their studios into the museum and orchestrating community outreach programs. With the exception of Ulysse, who lives in Sunrise, all of those artists are based in Miami.

Fort Lauderdale also has some collections worth visiting. A block away, the Girls’ Club Collection (117 NE Second St., Fort Lauderdale), founded in 2007, showcases the collection of Francie Bishop Good and David Horvitz through a series of annual exhibitions. This year, Miami’s TM Sisters have compiled 50 works by 42 artists ranging from Tracey Emin and Cecily Brown to hometown heroines like Jen Stark and Jiae Hwang.

Miami Art
Miami’s Locust Projects.

Just blocks away and yet worlds apart and you’re in FATVillage Center for the Arts/ Flagler Arts Technology (NW Fifth St., Fort Lauderdale), a pint-size creative and tech hub that has Wynwood’s aerosol-covered façades but lacks its sprawl, for now. Artist Sri Prabha moved into a FATVillage studio in March 2014. Not only is Fort Lauderdale centrally located, allowing him to easily head north and south, it’s effective for business—every month 500 to 700 people pass through his studio. “It’s easier for people to find you,” says Prabha. “The art walks are crazy. There’s a ton of people, an older art collecting crowd.”

Leaving Fort Lauderdale, you slip under the New River on US-1. Soon the road changes names to Biscayne Boulevard; continue south, and it will lead you to the grand finale: Miami.

Miami Art
Xu Zhen, Empire’s Way of Thinking, 2011, produced by MadeIn Company, from the Rubell Collection.

Today, seven large museums of all different contexts, from the histories of the Wolfsonian to the curated exhibits of the Bass museum; four private collections that are open to the public (and many more which are not); a smattering of legitimate galleries and a smorgasbord of less legitimate ones—not to mention several artist-run or alternative art spaces—the street art and gallery crawl of Wynwood (32 galleries there alone); and two jam-packed residency programs make up the largest art community south of the Mason Dixon. After tourism and real estate, the art scene, which saw over $3 billion worth of art displayed at Art Basel Miami Beach 2013, might give any other industry down here a run for its money.

From his corner office on the third story of the new Pérez Art Museum Miami (1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami), museum director Thom Collins’s view is allegorical to say the least. Not only does Biscayne Bay glisten in the sun, it laps against the ruins of the Miami Herald building, once a landmark. Things change quickly here.

Miami is a place where history collects around the storm drains—many are tempted to divide art time into Before Art Basel and After Art Basel. But 19 years prior to the fair’s 2002 arrival, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped islands in Biscayne Bay. In 1985, Ed Ruscha painted his third public commission, Words Without Thoughts Never to Heaven Go, a series of literary-inspired murals, in the rotunda of the then-recently constructed Miami Dade Central Library (now at the Miami Dade Cultural Plaza). And in 1989, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen completed the 16-foot-tall sculpture of a shattered fruit bowl in a downtown park. “One should expect a city of this size to be this culturally rich, and it is,” says Collins, who arrived in 2010. “Cultural institutions, by their very nature, resonate here because so many people who visit or relocate here enjoy the kind of rapid change and frequent refreshment of ideas and experiential offerings that a town like this one promises.”

The broad and flat PAMM, half 21st-century temple and half banyan-tree homage, opened in December 2013 to unanimous applause. Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron designed an open, flowing network of galleries to display the museum’s growing collection. Works by Cuban luminaries such as José Bedia, Wifredo Lam, and Ana Mendieta share the galleries with pieces by Duchamp and a beautiful Gerhard Richter squeegee painting from 1991. (The painting, which last sold at auction in 1998 for $168,341, would go for a lot more today; at Sotheby’s in February 2014, his 1994 painting Wand (Wall) sold for $29.2 million.) In the first four months, PAMM saw 150,000 visitors, blowing past its yearly prediction of 200,000.

Miami Art
An installation view of CIFO’s 2005 “Beyond Delirious” exhibition. FROM LEFT: Andreas Gursky, São Paulo, Sé, 2002, and Massimo Vitali, San Marco, Venice, 2005.

Even as Art Basel Miami Beach powerwalks into its second decade, the city’s large-scale private collections distinguish the community year round. Some, like the Bramans’ $900 million worth of art are, for the most part, out of sight. (Take the 125th Street Causeway to the beach and look right just as you hit the first Bay Harbor island. You’ll see a Richard Serra the size of a racquetball court in the backyard of their Indian Creek home.) Others, like CIFO (1018 N. Miami Ave., Miami; cifo.org), the de la Cruz Collection, the Rubell Family Collection, and the Margulies Collection, all within a short drive from PAMM, are more open and have larger spaces and stronger collections than most museums.

While the collections all point towards blue chip, CIFO is the world-renowned Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation collection, which focuses on Latin American art. Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz have been instrumental in preserving the legacy of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the deceased artist whose heart-baring art draws in viewers with free candy and takeaway souvenirs. Don and Mera Rubell’s space, an old DEA warehouse in Wynwood, houses a rotating assortment of art, but certain pieces remain: Jason Rhoades’s Technicolor orgyscape, for instance, or Cady Noland’s This Piece Has No Title Yet, which is, simply put, a room filled with cans of Budweiser. Then there is Martin Z. Margulies, whose $700 million collection includes Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns. These collections schedule programming, host interns, commission projects, even, in the case of the de la Cruz collection, take groups of highschool students on European trips.

To capitalize on this local jackpot of collectors (although not all are willing to fork over their collections), PAMM and the other museums have worked to both build relationships with truly private collections behind the city’s closed doors, and to develop a new generation, those who were “inspired by Basel, and collect at a much smaller scale, but collect thoughtfully and energetically,” as Collins puts it.

Another thing that sets Miami apart from the region is a number of alternative, not-for-profit, and artist-run spaces. Locust Projects (3852 N. Miami Ave., Miami), which was founded in 1998 by a group of local artists, has grown in stature and reputation, alternating exhibitions between local artists and big names like Theaster Gates. Meanwhile, Swampspace (3940 N. Miami Ave., Miami), in its new home next to Harry’s Pizza, keeps it hyperlocal, giving Miamibased artists free rein and showing student work. Then, there are the artists themselves. “The glue that holds it all together is the actual artist community,” says Collins. “It’s the stuff, the dark matter.” And with new opportunities stretching up the coast, they’re busier than ever.

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