Miami is known for its glamour, beachside condos, neon nightlife, Art Deco buildings and Cuban influences, but its arts and culture scene is what’s really booming
Words: Catherine McCabe
When Joan Didion released her book Miami back in 1987, a social and political take on the city, she described a world of new-found glamour, hotness and shady dealings under palm trees. This was, she said, ‘a rich, wicked pastel boomtown’. The TV show Miami Vice had shone images of South Beach into every American living room, and the sunny colours of its Art Deco buildings were becoming the fashion in every sense. Before I visited, the Miami I pictured was a mood board of neon signs, martinis, bikinis and Will Smith riding on jet skis.
Miami’s reputation as a party city runs deep into its history, right back to 1920s prohibition, when the illegal alcohol would arrive from Cuba to the port of Miami Beach, allowing the locals first-pick before it sailed off to satisfy the thirsty citizens of Chicago and New York. The idea of flash and trash surrounds Miami, and on the Ocean Drive strip, there’s plenty of it; a blinding milieu of UV lights, fishbowl cocktails and crowded bars blaring throwback tracks. As I strolled down on a Thursday night, a group of topless Miami boys invited me to dance as the sound of Scat Man pumped through outdoor speakers of the Clevelander Bar. But South Beach is just one Miami; you might get sand in your shoes, but it’s no cultural desert.
Since Castro came into power in 1959, thousands of Cubans have made the city their home, but also Argentines, Haitians, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and more weave into the Miami tapestry, creating a city ebullient in its own diversity. Spoken Spanish is heard at every turn. These pockets of communities built from years of immigration and integration help the city shine. Every third Friday, the neighbourhood known as Little Haiti comes to life with a free outdoor concert of kreyòl music, art and Haitian food for Big Night in Little Haiti (212 NE 59th Terrace).
And over on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, there’s a micro-Cuban universe operating outside history. Men and women argue politics in rapid Spanish at the window hatch of El Pub restaurant, carefully sipping sweet Café Cubano from thimble-sized paper cups. Inside, the gut-busting glory of the meaty Cuban sandwich can be enjoyed for a just few dollars. And at Maximo Gomez Park, the clatter of dog-eat-dog dominos games fills the air. You have to be over-55 to play, but this is a spectator sport, just know when to duck as the brandishing of sticks is not uncommon when things get heated.
To explore the richness of and colour of Latin American life, look to its art; small artists’ studios and shops like that of painter Agustin Gainza can be found dotted around Little Havana. Looking out onto Biscayne Bay, the city’s contemporary art gallery Pérez Art Museum Miami is an artwork all of its own with its beautiful vertical gardens, designed by French botanist Patrick Blanc. And across from it, the $300 million Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science lies under construction, complete with a Death Star orb, which the museum’s exhibition developer Dr Jorge Perez-Gallego tells me will eventually become a ‘cutting-edge’ outdoor planetarium.
Over on 1300 Biscayne Blvd, there’s the Adrienne Arsht Center, with its bulging programme of ballet concerts and classical music. I was lucky enough to catch Buena Vista Social Club on their Adios Tour here. Even the hotels in Miami want in on the art world; The Betsy, a Southern Belle of a hotel on Ocean Drive, hosts Escribe Aqui!, a celebration of Ibero-American authors.
In the first week of December, Art Basel takes over Miami Beach; as with Frieze London, galleries across the city respond with a series of fringe art events. But in the area of Wynwood, art permanently lives and breathes on the architecture in the form of ever-changing murals. The neighbourhood was the home of a dwindling textile industry, until property developer Tony Goldman bought a block and turned it over to gallerists, artists and restaurateurs.
The author P Scott Cunningham, founder of the O, Miami poetry festival, recently wrote that Miami’s story is ‘a bildungsroman of eternal optimism’, evaluating itself on what it will be, rather than what is. But when it comes to the arts, this is Miami’s moment.
Virgin Airlines fly direct from London Heathrow to Miami International Airport, returns from £549. At The Betsy hotel, a classic king costs from $401 per night (£269) per night based on two sharing, thebetsyhotel.com. See miamiandbeaches.com