11/30/2011 12:09 am ET | Updated Jan 29, 2012

More Than Art Basel: Wynwood, A Gritty, Year-Round Epicenter for Art

Once gritty streets now gussied up, concrete boxes turned galleries, cafes in what were once crack dens, and twenty-somethings trying to carve out their niche, or at the very least find it, battle for attention with neon lights, pastel-colored buildings, near-naked flesh, and skin turned orange from too much sun. Miami is a fascinating place to be.  Miami during Art Basel is like Oz on amphetamines.

During the first week of December, for the last decade, the contemporary art world descends upon Miami for what can only be described as a 24/7 feeding frenzy.  Everyone is either trying to collect, create, or be the next big thing.  The air is full of creativity and competitiveness, the energy is electrifying and palpable and Miami is dressed in its finest dinner jacket to be the conduit that makes it happen.  Not bad for a city where shorts and flip-flops are a way of life.  

Though this week and all that is going in Miami's arts community is referred to by most as Art Basel, that's a bit misleading; Art Basel is the largest contemporary art fair in the world that is hosted annually in Switzerland.  Ten years ago, Art Basel Miami was launched and it has become the largest contemporary art fair in the U.S.  The majority of events takes place on South Beach namely in the Miami Beach Convention Center.  It brings a myriad of art galleries from around the globe who in turn bring along works by a mix of master artists (names you'd know even if you weren't an art lover) and new artists (names that even art lovers don't know... yet).

Everything you see is for sale.  This is the event that started it all and its success has spawned others to create their own fairs, which are held simultaneously. Almost all of these events (Scope, ArtAsia, RedDot, etc) take place in nearby Wynwood-Miami's arts district.  Every fair is open to the public but each charges admission.  Aside from the fairs, local art galleries plan all year for their shows during this week, all the museums plan special exhibitions, mundane spaces turn into pop up galleries and every available surface in Wynwood turns into exhibit space for artists of varying caliber; it's an art cornucopia.  

But for those of us who grew up here, it's hard to imagine that Wynwood -- a neighborhood 10 minutes from South Beach and which only use to serve up eight balls of cocaine and riots -- now shows off its Ai Weiweis and Rauschenbergs to the world each December.   Even as a proud business owner in the area -- I'm the co-director of O Cinema, located directly across the street from the Rubell Family Collection -- it's surreal to see buildings that were once abandoned textile factories as showplaces for works of art.   While Art Basel week may be when the neighborhood looks it best, Wynwood's change is no horse and pony show. There is a conscientious effort to turn the area into what developer (and major force behind the neighborhoods evolution) Tony Goldman calls "the great pedestrian neighborhood of the future" and its well on its way.  While art is at its center, this is hardly a "alive during Art Basel only" kind of town -- restaurants like Joey's and Wynwood Kitchen do bustling business year round while newer ventures like Panther Coffee and Lester's have become not just a place to get caffeinated but a perfect spot to conduct business and locations like Wood Tavern, a new, no-frills neighborhood saloon and our indie art house theater O Cinema, are creating more and more reasons to come to the neighborhood in the evening.  Art here isn't a tourist attraction; it's a way of life.

Both Art Basel -- and to a lesser degree, Wynwood -- often seem to get vilified as elitist and inaccessible, but the reality is that anyone can truly experience the amazing art and vibrancy Miami has to offer for next to nothing all year long.  The worst-kept secret in this city is that the most amazing and varied collections of art don't live inside the Miami Art Museum or the Museum of Contemporary Art, but are privately owned by a handful of serious collectors; a few of which have shared their collections in museum-like settings.  For most of the winter and spring, you can view the impressive works amassed by Martin Margulies, Dennis and Debra Scholl, Don and Meara Rubell, and a short jaunt away in the Design District, the Latin American focused collection of Carlos and Rosa De la Cruz.   These four separate spaces combined comprise over 125,000 square feet of art and these collection are so vast that you can go regularly to any of them and see a completely different exhibit.   Head over to the Wynwood Walls, and you will see large-scale murals by the likes of Shepard Fairey, Kenny Scharf, and twenty other artists.  Take a ride through the side streets and discover whole building facades covered by the works of locals like Francesco LoCastro, TM Sisters, GG, and others.  Look everywhere and you will encounter something unexpected and different.  The city that was once known as the "cultural wasteland" has become the  creative capital of the South East.  As a local boy who went to school in Liberty City, was raised in Carol City and was intent in getting the fuck out of dodge, this new Miami is the definition of excitement.  Everything and anything can happen.

For the next few days stretch cars will usher stretched faces between fairs, galleries, and parties; area restaurants will be clamoring with conversations centered on who bought what and for how much; and everyone in town will be obsessively trying to get an invite to one of the ultraexclusive parties. Yet, when the dust settles and the 40,000 guests that have descended upon us pack it up and head home, Wynwood will remain much the same -- a neighborhood whose change has already left it nearly unrecognizable and whose future looks incredibly bright. For what it's worth though, I'm sure you can still score an eight ball nearby.  I mean, it is Miami after all.