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Miami Art Machine

Can a free (and rather free-form) art school make the art world think of Miami as more than its playground?

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Craig Robins with some of his art: Thomas Scheibitz's Eingang and Deborah Thomas chandelier.  

If the glory, freneticism, excess, and sunny evanescence of the current contemporary-art boom has a symbolic home, it’s Miami Beach. Thanks to the appearance of an exponentially more fabulous Art Basel Miami Beach fair each December since 2002, the once-tattered resort town has gained a new sense of itself as an aesthetic destination that goes beyond the mere appreciation of a set of well-wrought silicone implants. Now members of the local Establishment, enamored with their smart new friends—collectors, artists, and curators from around the world—want to see if they can get them to stick around. It’s partly about wishing to be taken seriously as a cultural alternative to New York and Los Angeles. But it’s also a bet that fertilizing the creative class is good economic-development policy—especially in a city hit hard by the real-estate meltdown. Which is why a local developer and collector, Craig Robins, is starting a free postgraduate art program in Miami.

He’s not alone in this municipal-improvement gambit: Terry Riley, a former Museum of Modern Art curator, moved down two years ago to be director of the Miami Art Museum and oversee building its $220 million Herzog & de Meuron–designed home. Riley cites the example of Spain and its Guggenheim Bilbao as a model: “They wanted to catch up, join the European Union, and transform the country. They realized that to do that, they had to go from being a cheap vacation destination of sangría, sand, and sun to a place that could compete with the rest of Europe as a major cultural destination.”

That’s what Robins, a mam trustee, wants most of all, too. “Miami is on the verge, but we need to keep stimulating creativity,” he says, rising from his office desk and passing a John Baldessari painting—a dead plant emblazoned with the credo that always happens. (“Looking at it keeps me sharp.”) “I felt that the only thing missing was a graduate school. Our artists get to the next level and have to leave Miami if they want to continue their education. Why should we lose them to Yale?” In fact, the current Whitney Biennial features three Miami artists—William Cordova, Adler Guerrier, and Bert Rodriguez—more than any other city except New York and L.A.

The son of a local developer, Robins is a Miami Beach native who’s always had an interest in art (he wanted to trade in his graduation Rolex for a Salvador Dalí print). He learned that there’s added value in a cleaned-up bohemia. “Everybody thought these properties were useless,” he recalls of South Beach’s cheaply purchased Art Deco buildings, many of which his company restored as boutique hotels and chic retail strips. Artists were a key part of the mix that revived the area: Courtesy of Robins, many found themselves with subsidized studio spaces or special commissions—enough that in 1992, this magazine christened the resort “SoHo in the Sun.” Art has been part of his real-estate strategy ever since, from the $250 million Aqua residences, bedecked with work by Guillermo Kuitca and Richard Tuttle, to Miami’s design district, where the Robins-founded Design Miami fair (in partnership with the owner of Art Basel) has drawn crowds to otherwise deserted streets. Not coincidentally, Robins is the district’s biggest landlord.

This area will also be home to his new program, headily named Art + Research. If all goes according to plan, it’ll open in September 2009 with eight-to-twelve “resident artists”—who will receive full scholarships, studio space, housing, and stipends. They hope to expand it later. The University of Miami–operated venture already has an impressive roster of New Yorkers onboard. Founding faculty include artists Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija, both of whom teach in Columbia’s M.F.A. program; Yale instructor Steven Henry Madoff; and White Columns gallery director Matthew Higgs (they will all squeeze Miami tutorials into their current gigs). Former Columbia art-school dean Bruce Ferguson consulted on it. And for added star power, sitting on the board of Robins’s nonprofit Anaphiel organization to guide the school are former Whitney director (and Robins’s cousin) David Ross, John Baldessari, and ex–Art Basel director Sam Keller. Robins will kick in $2 million to help fund Art + Research for its first four years, and the University of Miami has promised to help raise another $2 million.

Unlike at Columbia and Yale, there won’t be any formal M.F.A. degrees awarded to those who complete the two-year program, which will revolve around a topical theme that changes with each entering biannual class. Accordingly, don’t expect to see the “resident artists” hunker down in front of easels and live models. “Most art is conceptually based now. It’s art based on an idea,” says Madoff. “It didn’t turn out that the twentieth century’s most influential artist was Picasso. It turned out it was Duchamp … We don’t need to do foundation courses, how to draw, how to sculpt … You don’t need three credits for American Art History From 1945 to the Present.”


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