Art Basel turns Miami into one big artist colony

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The Contemporary Fine Arts Gallery at Art Basel Miami 2016.
The Contemporary Fine Arts Gallery at Art Basel Miami 2016. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Art Basel

Sometimes at Art Basel Miami, it can be tough to tell the art lovers from the art. Like the "genie" who "flew" from gallery to gallery on his magic carpet (OK, it was a converted hoverboard) at last year's event. Was he a patron or performance art?

"He was dressed in a full genie outfit, tooling around the fair until they stopped him," recalled Nicholas Christopher, the president of Turon Travel. "At the fairs, you go look at the artwork and you see people dressed outrageously to be noticed. You are looking at the art and turn around and go, 'OMG, what is that? It's a person.'"

Yes, that line can get blurry at times; but that's just one of the things that make the annual event so fascinating. The contemporary art fair, which kicks off on Dec. 7, hosts some 77,000 art dealers, collectors, artists and aficionados, who come to show, sell, buy and otherwise immerse themselves in 260 galleries showcasing works from 30 countries and more than 4,000 artists. And Art Basel Miami has steadily expanded its borders from the Miami Convention Center, where it's been based since 2002, into what is now known as Art Week Miami.

Today, about 20 satellite art fairs have taken root throughout the city during Art Week, when every Miami art institution and gallery mounts their preeminent shows. Add to the mix luxury brands that alight on Miami, adding to the non-stop parties, dinners and receptions hosted at hotels, restaurants, bars and galleries throughout the city.

"People go to immerse themselves in art for the week," said Christopher, whose New York-based firm specializes in travel to worldwide art fairs and shows and is Art Basel's official agency for travel and accommodation in Miami Beach. "They go with friends, it's a social week. There are so many events; there's something different almost hourly."

Public viewing for the main event, Art Basel Miami, begins Thursday, Dec. 7 at 3 p.m., and the show continues through Sunday, Dec. 10 until 6 p.m. Tickets are available online starting at $50 for a day ticket and $120 for the entire show.

Though the multimillion-dollar renovation of the Miami Beach Convention Center won't be officially completed until next September, Art Basel Miami will be the first exhibitor to use all four fully renovated halls. Good news for the city: Art Basel has signed an agreement to continue to bring the show to Miami for at least five more years, from 2019, with an option for five more.

Good news for clients: They don't have to be a VIP, celeb or blue-chip buyer to take part. Christopher says that anyone remotely plugged in will be receiving emails or see postings on social media and ads on the web promoting parties, events, galleries, art fairs. The ancillary art fairs are more egalitarian, too, where people can pick up a piece of art for $50.

Christopher has been involved with Art Basel in Switzerland since the early 1980s and in Miami since its first year. What does he consider to be the standout satellite shows getting a lot of attention? "Art Miami, Untitled Miami, Contact, Aqua. It just goes on and on," he says. Many of the art fairs take place in less-visited neighborhoods, such as the Art of Black in Little Haiti, giving visitors more reason to explore local art, shops and food.

There are two reliable guides to all of the main fairs; one is from Greater Miami and the Beaches, and the other is by art-collecting.com.

Though the event is only a month away, it's not too late to book hotel rooms. However, most rooms are booked 30 to 90 days in advance, according to both Hector Diaz, director of revenue management for the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, and Paul Pebley, corporate director of sales for the MDM Hotel Group, whose three downtown properties are the Hotel Beaux Arts Miami and two JW Marriotts.

"Now is the busiest booking period," said Pebley. ""We have groups that book up to a year in advance for Art Basel and the many satellite fairs that make up Art Week. The majority of our individual travelers coming to Miami for Art Week start booking in late August, right up until the week before the fair."

The Hotel Beaux Arts and JW Marriott Marquis Miami are the official hotels of the Art Miami fair, which predates Art Basel, and both are nearly sold out, but the JW Marriott Miami does still have rooms, Pebley said.

Turon Travel lists 36 hotels in South Beach, most of them within walking distance of the convention center; the Loews Miami Beach is close to full due to its proximity to all the main venues during Art Basel.

An additional seven are in the Mid-Beach area a little farther north, including the Eden Roc and the Fontainebleau Miami Beach.

The key to tackling Art Week is planning and transportation, according to Christopher and Pebley.

"Some clients don't mind cabs; others want to walk. Everyone should bear in mind that on peak days, especially evenings, getting a cab will be next to impossible," Christopher said.

Christopher suggests travel advisers schedule transfers for clients, something that Turon Travel does frequently. He adds a caveat: "It will be expensive. This is the money week for South Beach."

Christopher has some practical sartorial advice for clients, as well: "Bring a sweater. It could be hot all day and then the sun goes down and it can be freezing."

But his most important advice, he says: wear comfortable shoes.

Unless, of course, you have a magic carpet.

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