The Design District is, as locals say, the new South Beach, adding a touch of New York's SoHo to an area formerly known as downtown Miami's "Don't Go." The district is a hotbed for furniture-import companies, interior designers, architects, and artists and is loosely defined as the area bounded by NE 2nd Avenue, NE 5th Avenue East and West, and NW 36th Street to the south. Just south of the Design District is yet another burgeoning arts district, a sketchy strip of Miami bounded by NE 2nd Avenue to the east and NE 36th Street to the north, known as Wynwood. While most of the galleries are open during regular business hours, some are open during gallery nights and by appointment. Call ahead to make sure. For a complete listing of galleries, showrooms and studios as well as information on events and openings in the Design District, go to www.miamidesigndistrict.net.
Miami has never been known as a cultural mecca as far as museums are concerned, though its reputation is improving thanks to the international attention brought to the scene by such esteemed fairs as Switzerland's Art Basel, which comes to Miami for a few days every December. Though several exhibition spaces have made forays into collecting nationally acclaimed work, limited support, political infighting, and, of course, the dreaded recession have made it a difficult proposition. Recently, however, things have changed slowly but surely as museums such as the Wolfsonian, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Bass Museum of Art, and the Miami Art Museum have gotten on the bandwagon, boasting collections and exhibitions high on the list of art aficionados. It's now safe to say that world-class exhibitions start here. We've listed the most lauded museums that have become a part of the city's cultural heritage and are as diverse as the city itself. Art lovers should check local listings for periodic gallery walks. Please note that many art museums and galleries are closed in the summer; call ahead so you won't be disappointed.
The focal point of December's enormously popular Art Basel is Collins Park Cultural Center (www.collinspark.us), which comprises a trio of arts buildings on Collins Park and Park Avenue (off Collins Ave.), bounded by 21st to 23rd streets -- the expanded Bass Museum of Art , the new Arquitectonica-designed home of the Miami City Ballet, and the Miami Beach Regional Library, an ultramodern building designed by architect Robert A. M. Stern, with a special focus on the arts. Collins Park, the former site of the Miami Beach Library, returned to its original incarnation as an open space extending to the Atlantic, but it is also now the site of large sculpture installations and cultural activities planned jointly by the organizations that share the space. In 2009, the park was completely ripped out for renovations that are said to continue into early 2011. Other cultural institutions that are part of the emerging Collins Park neighborhood are: local arts organization SoBe Arts at the Carl Fisher complex, the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, and The Holocaust Memorial. For updates on construction progress and a brochure of all Collins Park venues, check out the neighborhood's comprehensive website.
The Last Holdout -- As all the galleries move to the Design District and Wynwood, one original South Beach holdout exists and it may seem very familiar to you. Britto Central, 818 Lincoln Rd., South Beach (tel. 305/531-8821; www.britto.com), featuring the works of Brazilian artist Romero Britto, is the only one that can afford the rent considering he is constantly commissioned by the city for various public works of art. Some people liken Britto to Andy Warhol because of his colorful, whimsical paintings of young children and animals, among other things. Serious art lovers, however, consider Britto's cartoonish works more along the lines of a second-rate Walt Disney. You decide.
The following examples of public art and prized architecture are great photo opportunities and worth visiting if you're in the area.
- Casa Casaurina, also known as Versace Mansion (Amsterdam Palace): Morbid curiosity has led hordes of people -- tourists and locals -- to this, once the only private home (now a country club) on Ocean Drive. If you can get past the fact that the late designer was murdered on the steps of this palatial estate, you should definitely observe the intricate Italian architecture that makes this house stand out from its streamlined Deco neighbors. Built in the 1930s as a replica of Christopher Columbus's son's palace in Santo Domingo, the house was originally called Casa Casaurina (House of the Pine), but was rechristened the Amsterdam Palace in 1935 when George Amsterdam purchased it. After several stints as a private country club and hotel, it's now a hotel, Villas by Barton G., open to the public and run by restaurateur and events planner Barton G. Weiss. Located at the northwest corner of Ocean Drive and 11th Street, South Beach.
- Mermaid Sculpture: A pop-art masterpiece designed by Roy Lichtenstein, this sculpture captures the buoyant spirit of Miami Beach and its environs. It's in front of the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, at 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.
- Morris Lapidus on Lincoln Road: Famed designer/architect, the late Morris Lapidus -- the "high priest of high kitsch" -- who is best known for the Fontainebleau Hotel, created a series of sculptures that are angular, whimsical, and quirky, competing with the equally amusing mix of pedestrians who flock to Lincoln Road. In addition to the sculptures on Lincoln Road (at Washington Ave.), which you can't miss, Lapidus also created the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd., which was built by Paramount in 1943; the 1928 Sterling Building, 927 Lincoln Rd., whose glass blocks and blue neon are required evening viewing; and the Lincoln Theater, 555 Lincoln Rd., which features a remarkable tropical bas-relief.