AUDIE CORNISH: It's not the beaches or the nightlife that's drawing tens of thousands of visitors from around the world to Miami, Florida, this week. It's the art. Art Basel, Miami Beach, opens tomorrow. The annual event has turned the city into a giant art fair for more than a decade. And one of the reasons it's in Miami is because of the city's history of strong private art collections. NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: Miami has a lot going for it - good weather, beaches, wealthy visitors and residents. But as a young city, it doesn't have a great publicly owned art collection, though it has just built a 220-million-dollar art museum to house one. What the city does have is some great private collections of contemporary art that are open to the public. The Margulies Collection lives in a large warehouse. It was started by developer Martin Margulies 30 years ago and includes sculptures that are literally monumental.
KATHERINE HINDS: This particular sculpture is a wonderful work made out of lead and the wings that you see here span 17 feet. It weighs three tons.
ALLEN: Curator Katherine Hinds is standing in front of a piece by sculptor Anselm Kiefer. Two bird's wings sprout from a stack of ancient books. Nearby are other large pieces by Willem de Kooning, Joan Miro and George Segal. The Segal is a well-known piece from the 1960s, "The Subway."
HINDS: That's something that we really try to do here at the Collection. It's not important have a George Segal, but it is important to have the right George Segal for this collection.
ALLEN: The man behind the collection, Martin Margulies, doesn't like to give his age. But he's at a point where the parties and nightlife associated with Miami Beach and Art Basel hold little appeal. On his desk is a stack of invitations.
MARTIN MARGULIES: Dancing until early morning?
HINDS: Did you get this invitation? I'm sure you did.
MARGULIES: Yeah, I think I more or less...
HINDS: You have to go to that.
ALLEN: Depending on whom you talk to, Miami is home to between five and ten major private art collections. Just about all are focused on contemporary art, Margulies says, for a reason.
MARGULIES: You're not going to see someone getting first-grade work of Monet or Manet or Picasso or constructivist kind of work. It's a young city and contemporary is the only area where they can reach for.
ALLEN: Just blocks away, another private collection is also housed in a warehouse, one that formerly belonged to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Last week, several artists were busy installing new works at the Rubell Family Collection. Don and Mera Rubell started buying art as a young married couple in New York in the 1960s. Fifty years later, Mera Rubell says, they're celebrating their golden wedding anniversary with new works and an exhibition of their favorites.
MERA RUBELL: In this room, you've got Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring and George Condo. These are all people that we bought in - this is '84.
ALLEN: Mera Rubell recalls climbing through George Condo's fire escape because he hadn't paid his rent and the landlord had locked him out. Don Rubell says the quality of the art they were collecting pushed them to acquire a large space where they could make it available to the public.
DON RUBELL: The artist always gave us some of their best pieces, or at least allowed us to buy some of their best pieces. And it did not seem right that they should go into storage.
ALLEN: The Rubells were instrumental a dozen years ago in luring Art Basel to Miami Beach. Since then, interest in contemporary art has continued to grow. Art galleries and artist studios led to the gentrification of some formerly gritty neighborhoods. And the Institute for Contemporary Art in Miami, led by private collectors Irma and Norman Braman, just announced plans to build an new museum and sculpture garden.
M. RUBELL: And the region has gone art crazy. It has gone art crazy.
ALLEN: Mera Rubell.
M. RUBELL: And of course, when you see all the condos that are being built, it doesn't hurt that people have a lot of wall space. And why not decorate my home with something original and something special?
ALLEN: And art dealer Gary Nader is there for them. Even he's announced plans for a new museum of Latin American art in downtown Miami showcasing works from his private collection. Nader says the museum will be part of a larger development that will include - and here's the Miami touch - two residential condominium towers.
GARY NADER: It's the only way I can build it. And what is interesting is that these two towers are going to be built specifically for collectors.
ALLEN: Ceilings will be 12 feet high to accommodate large artworks, and there will an outdoor sculpture park. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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