A photo of a young woman riding a bicycle past a colorful mural on the outside of a large building.
Franz Ackermann's mural 'About Sand' adorns the exterior of the newly renovated convention center. Robin Hill

The city spent an unprecedented $7 million on a mural, sculptures, and other artworks around its newly renovated convention center.

In their quest to carve out a global footprint, cities are still betting on big buildings. In Miami Beach, the city and Miami-Dade County have invested in a massive $620 million makeover of the circa-1957 Miami Beach Convention Center. The final touch—an impressive program of public art—will be fully unveiled this month. The works chosen reflect the city’s understanding of how to build for the city while also building for the world.

A young city shaped by extreme forces, Miami is still in search of a unifying identity. As Alejandro Portes and Ariel C. Armony write in their book The Global Edge: Miami in the Twenty-First Century, “The city is no longer on edge due to the confrontation between rival ethnic powers, but it faces the prospect of an increasingly amorphous social order, splintered among different interests and to which no one really belongs.”

Amid this hyper-fragmentation and rapid growth, public art and art fairs have consistently played a role in shaping the city. Miami Beach unveiled its first public artwork in 1979, Mermaid by Roy Lichtenstein (also his first public-art commission). With the arrival of Art Basel, the nation’s largest art fair, in 2002, Miami Beach—and in turn greater Miami—formed an identity that is closely bound to art, its market, and the wealth that follows it.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Mermaid, with part of Ackermann’s mural visible behind it. (Robin Hill)

Jonathan Schwartz is CEO of Atelier 4, an international fine-art logistics company, and the chairman of ICEFAT, an association of international fine-art movers. A long-time veteran of Miami Art Basel and the art-fair circuit, Schwartz says: “For all of the fairs in New York—Frieze, Armory, Independent, antique shows, et cetera—I think New York would survive perfectly well without them. L.A. is always trying to get in on the action ... Other cities have an art-fair presence: Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas. [But] really, only Miami seems to have actually been transformed by the art-fair phenomenon.”

Well aware of this, city and county leaders place great importance on art as an economic and civic investment. The two curators of Miami Beach’s Art in Public Places (AiPP) program, Dennis Leyva and Brandi Reddick, had an unprecedented budget for the Miami Beach Convention Center, where Art Basel Miami Beach is held every December. Although small by art-world standards, the budget of $7 million represents the largest percent-for-art expenditure by a municipality in American history.

Percent-for-art programs are city or state ordinances that apply to capital-improvement projects where a certain percentage of the total project budget is set aside for public art. A Miami Beach city ordinance, adopted in 1995, allocates funds totaling 1.5 percent of all capital costs for city projects and joint public-private ones.

“The idea of having significant pieces of art really makes [the city] a destination for people who want to meet, and part of something that’s uniting,” says Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber. He describes the convention center as “probably the most important organizing point not only for the tourist community, but for the visitor community.”

The transparent glass exterior of the convention center ensures that those inside are not hermetically sealed off from the city surrounding them. The sun, the palm trees, and the low-lying Art Deco buildings that line Washington Avenue are part of the setting, as is the new outdoor sculpture garden that is part of the overall public-art program.

Nearby is the oldest public structure in Miami Beach, the Carl Fisher Clubhouse, built in the Mediterranean Revival style a century ago by the real-estate speculator who was “the father of Miami Beach.” It is in the process of being restored—a reminder that the city first established its international bona fides by preserving its impressive stock of Art Deco buildings.

Like the city around it, the public-art program aspires to be both local and global. According to curator Reddick, the projects, by six internationally-renowned artists chosen from over 500 who applied, “are exemplary of the artists’ strongest body of work and also incorporated so much of Miami Beach … the common thread of these works is about where we are.”

The sculpture garden, already colonized by some of the city’s many iguanas, may be the most significant addition to the city at large, providing an immersive experience to anyone who visits Collins Park. The sculptures titled Humanoids, by Dutch artist Joep van Lieshoot, appear as organic manifestations that arose from the canal they sit near, and which seems poised to reclaim them. The ground between the sculptures and the canal’s edge is meant to be slowly subsumed, the water and other elements colliding with the structures.

Joep van Lieshoot’s Humanoids. (Robin Hill)

Inside the center, astride the doors to the grand ballroom, is Brooklyn artist Ellen Harvey’s enormous 1,000-square-foot Atlantis. Comprised of a series of glass panels and based on NASA images of South Florida, it references the countless bodies of water that feed the region’s ecosystem. The artist spent a full year hand-painting the black-and-white panels, which were then sent to be translated into mouth-blown glass. The result is extraordinary, and probably the most immediately accessible to convention-goers, who stop to study the map and look at their own reflections in it.

Artist Ellen Harvey with part of Atlantis. (Robin Hill)

Joseph Kosuth’s Located World, Miami Beach is made up of 248 painstakingly-formed neon city names, located throughout the convention-center lobby, just out of reach. They represent cities from around the world; the sizes and intensity of light correspond to the distance of Miami to the respective city. (To illustrate the scale and ambition of the program, and of the artist: The comparable works by Kosuth are his installations at the Louvre and the Querini Stampalia Palace in Venice.) In a city famous for its neon signs, Kosuth’s work causes each visitor to survey these signs for their own city, their own neon connection.

A detail of “Located World, Miami Beach,” by Joseph Kosuth. (Robin Hill)

The most ubiquitous symbol of the sunny Miami Beach vacation, the cool blue pool, has been turned into an arch at the west entrance: Elmgreen & Mark’s Bent Pool stands and welcomes visitors there. And at the northeast entrance, Sarah Morris, the New York-based British artist, evokes an architect who shaped Miami with Morris Lapidus, a large-scale ceramic tile installation offering an evolving spectrum of color, geometry and organic forms.

One work did debut in time for Art Basel this past December. The German artist Franz Ackermann’s mural About Sand greeted visitors outdoors with its geometric bursts of bold color and energy, conjuring Miami’s particular brand of multiculturalism and flash. Ackermann actually moved to an apartment near the convention center for a period of months in order to understand the space, the city, the light, and everything else that might affect the experience of the art and the building.

This impressive public-art program not only sets apart the building as a convention center, it also anchors art as intrinsic to the identity of metro Miami. A recent study by the Knight Foundation found evidence of a true, prolonged “arts boom” in greater Miami: spending among arts organizations went up 168 percent from 2005 to 2015, and attendance at arts events has climbed steadily.

However, the city’s art scene relies on a small number of funders, the Knight report pointed out, and many arts organizations operate without much in the way of financial reserves, leaving them vulnerable to the next recession. Then there’s the threat of climate change. Already beset by sunny-day flooding, the city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on water pumps and consultants. The renovated convention center has new safeguards against storms and flooding, but like the rest of Miami Beach, it stands in the way of rising water.

For now, though, Miami Beach and the region continue to be a major tourist destination and financial center, with a growing philanthropic sector that is looking to leave a legacy. This big, carefully planned art buy is what it looks like when a city takes the economic power of fine art seriously.

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