Art is everywhere in the beach city of Miami
Miami has acquired so many Hollywood associations — the vacation ground of the stars, beaches that provide scenic locations for movies, a tropical metropolis whose glitzy nightlife adds drama to detective shows — that it’s easy to miss out other aspects like Miami’s art scene.
The city’s respect for art and heritage is apparent in its zeal for architectural designs falling under the categories of Art Deco, Mediterranean Revival and Miami Modern. Such buildings are championed by the Miami Design Preservation League, which endeavours to preserve the aesthetic and cultural integrity of the Miami Beach Architectural Historic District and other significant areas of the city. As a part of its educational and outreach programmes, MDPL conducts Art Deco District Guided Walking Tours. Though ticketed, the 90-minute tour doesn’t require advance booking. One drizzly morning we visit the Art Deco Welcome Center, where a cheerful volunteer is ready with umbrellas and ponchos to start our tour.
The buildings we might have passed by without noticing take on a new importance as we observe the elements pointed out by the guide: the solid pastel shades used on the walls, the porthole windows, the ship-like facades, the pronounced geometric and zigzag shapes, and the ‘eyebrows’ or ledges shading the windows — the last feature seeming so familiar to those of us used to hot summers and monsoon rains. Admittedly, if you are from a country whose monuments are centuries old, the enjoyment and learning we get from this walk around the buildings of the Art Deco District, which date back only to the 1920s and ’30s, might seem disproportionate. But the MDPL’s untiring efforts to preserve this architectural history (legislation is in place to ensure new constructions don’t disturb the aesthetic integrity of the area, both in height and design), and its ability to generate enthusiasm and income in the population, make this a conservation model Indian tourism and archaeological agencies could consider.
Also located in the Art Deco District is an unusual museum headed by a somewhat unconventional curator. This is the World Erotic Art Museum (WEAM), owned and run by the diminutive Naomi Wilzig. Before showing us around the exhibits that range from the ancient to the contemporary, she explains that her message to the public is that her museum is neither a collection of pornographic material nor an adult store. That said, she peppers her tour with humour — her approach to the observance of the displayed sculptures, paintings, drawings, tapestries and photographs nothing like the reverent mysticism of the East.
Naomi began collecting erotic art from around the world by accident, she says. Her interest was sparked when her son asked her to buy a piece for him on her travels. Gradually she became an avid collector and founded the museum in 2005.
Vastly different from the enclosed space of WEAM is the sprawling compound of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Once called simply Vizcaya, it belonged to James Deering, a wealthy farm equipment manufacturer and socialite. Quite the shauqeen, Deering spent ample wealth on the Italian Renaissance style building, completed in 1916, and its landscaped gardens. The lavish ornamentation and art collection owe much to Deering’s artistic director, Paul Chalfin.
Apart from room after room filled with Italian furniture, paintings, Renaissance tapestries and decorative accessories, the vast gardens designed on the lines of European gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries make for a luxuriant walk through an amalgam of art styles. The house was meant to be enjoyed as a vacation home, so, while Chalfin employed themes — such as the Milan-inspired music room, the Venice-inspired bedrooms, the Napoleonic era furniture of Deering’s personal suite, and so on — and ended up making Deering the owner of a collection covering a range of centuries and styles including ancient Roman, Renaissance, Rococo, Neo-classical as well as early 20th century, the house still gives the impression of being a wealthy aesthete’s whimsical dreamland rather than a museum.
Here too, the will to preserve art and heritage is coupled with a pragmatic sense of income generation. Sections of the premises can be rented for parties, weddings and photo shoots.
Another people friendly art initiative is the Wynwood Arts District. Once a warehouse district, the area is now known as a hub of art galleries, designer shops and museums. Found here are the Wynwood Walls — a set of 12 murals in a former warehouse complex, transformed and revitalised as a street art museum in 2009 by Tony Goldman of Goldman Properties, in partnership with Jeffrey Deitch of Deitch Projects. The Wynwood Walls feature street art and graffiti by a number of eminent American and international artists specially invited to make their contribution to the concept. There is also a set of Wynwood Doors — rolling shutters on which artists have painted portraits. Street art is known for being anti-establishment, and officials showing us around say the artists are free to depict their ideas. Entry to this street art museum is free, which seems significant in a country where museums are big business.
Next door to the Wynwood Walls is the Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, where restaurant patrons can view large murals amid a décor that matches the street art concept. Each of these projects exemplifies how readily the fine arts can be woven into popular pastimes and made accessible to ordinary citizens and tourists — thus widening their reach and increasing their support base.
(The writer was in Miami on the invitation of Visit Florida)