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As Art Basel approached its fourth decade, it had become the world’s premier show for modern and contemporary works. The fair, which launched in 1970 and is held each June in its namesake Swiss town, was drawing about 50,000 visitors from around the world to view and purchase art displayed by some 300 galleries. The event was so successful that organizers decided to launch a second Art Basel—in winter, in a different part of the world.

In stepped a cadre of extremely wealthy and influential art collectors from Miami. They included Norman Braman, a car-dealership magnate and a former owner of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, and Craig Robins, the CEO of the real estate development company Dacra, which was largely responsible for revitalizing Miami’s South Beach District in the 1990s by restoring the neighborhood’s art deco landmarks. Why not stage an Art Basel in Miami? Braman, Robins, and others were tired of their city being labeled as God’s Waiting Room or the Catskills South and of its reputation as a flashy and unrefined destination where crime and pastels were rampant and culture was scarce. If these art collectors could bring Basel to the beach, it could change Miami’s image forever and signal its status as a hub of sophistication.

The logistics favored Miami. The city offered an abundance of hotel rooms, a convention center with 500,000 square feet of exhibit space, direct flights from virtually every major city, and warm winter weather and wide beaches that lured Americans and Europeans from thousands of miles away. 

The Swiss were sold on Miami, and so every December since 2002 (the initial show was scheduled for 2001 but was canceled because of 9/11), the city has hosted what has become the most breathlessly awaited art fair in the New World. The four-day event is circled on the calendar of every major curator, museum director, and collector. Like the original Art Basel, the Miami Beach version draws some 50,000 visitors

with a program of cutting-edge artwork and glitzy jet-set parties. “Art Basel generates a great deal of excitement,” says the Miami resident and renowned photographer Bob Adelman. “It’s the collision of glamour, intellect, and money. It’s a great place to bring your yacht.”

For Braman, who serves as the chairman of the fair’s host committee and owns an art collection that includes Picassos, Calders, and Warhols, Art Basel Miami Beach is a more enjoyable venture than the Eagles ever were. He calls the fair “the Super Bowl of art,” but that is where the favorable comparisons between art and football end for the 81-year-old Braman, who was once a water boy for the Eagles before he became a billionaire and, in 1985, bought the team. (He sold the Eagles in 1994, when he was already living in Miami.) “It is much easier to own an art collection than a professional football team,” he says with a laugh. “You don’t have the pressure. Pro football was 365 days a year, lots of sleepless nights. Collecting art is much more pleasant.”

For Robins, a 50-year-old Miami native, the launching of Art Basel Miami Beach has meant more than prestige or the gratitude of local art lovers. It has lent credibility to his company’s reclamation projects. Art and artists have been key components of the strategy he has employed in resuscitating the city’s derelict buildings and giving them new life as boutique hotels and retail shops. These include the buildings in the Miami Design District, a once-abandoned neighborhood that Robins has transformed into a gallery center for contemporary design and art. In December, the district hosts the annual Design Miami fair, which Robins cofounded. The development also includes hip restaurants and some 50 upscale retailers purveying everything from watches to bathroom fixtures.