Art meets tech: 20 years after the first Art Basel, Miami Art Week is making digital moves

Dan Gelber had to do a double take.

It was his first time attending Art Basel Miami Beach as the city’s newly elected mayor in late 2017. He was walking around inside the Miami Beach Convention Center when an exhibit stopped him in his tracks. Five original Picasso pieces were casually hanging on the wall.

“ ’Are those real?’ ” Gelber recalled thinking to himself, laughing. “Maybe they were prints, I was sort of wondering. I didn’t want to ask.”

This week, as Art Basel Miami Beach celebrates its 20th anniversary, thousands of art lovers, collectors, patrons and tourists will bask in old art by the masters and contemporary art that is essentially not “real.”

Miami Art Week, which spans from the last days of November to the first weekend of December, has grown in scale and scope. Alongside the usual satellite art fairs, the week’s schedule is teeming with tech-related events exploring the future of crypto, non-fungible tokens, interactive artworks and virtual reality. That reflects Miami’s greater goal of becoming the country’s emerging tech hub since the pandemic.

If last year’s NFT craze was a hint, this year is the confirmation. The tech world’s grip on Miami Art Week is not a trend — it’s the norm.

“The technology component of Art Basel has made it more vibrant and more interesting, and it also kind of spilled it on the street,” said Diliana Alexander, a film producer and executive director of FilmGate, a nonprofit that hosts its own technologically advanced storytelling festival during Art Week. “It’s more democratic, and it’s attracting a younger audience.”

Diliana Alexander, the founder of FilmGate, a Miami-based nonprofit that is hosting a high-tech festival during Miami Art Week.
Diliana Alexander, the founder of FilmGate, a Miami-based nonprofit that is hosting a high-tech festival during Miami Art Week.

These days, Miami Art Week encompasses far more than traditional art. Art Basel Miami Beach has spawned a phenomenon similar to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. What started as a normal music festival eventually turned into a mixed bag of media, tech, art and music events. In Miami, an art fair on the Beach exploded into a series of unaffiliated festivals, exhibitions and tech conferences that span the entire county.

But two decades ago, before the original Picassos, duct-taped bananas, luxury brand collaborations, NFT conferences and exclusive parties, there was a far-fetched dream: Bringing Art Basel to the beach.

The billionaire, the lost Basel and the new vibe

Miami Beach had an image problem.

The area didn’t have a lot going for it in the 1990s in terms of arts and culture — or at least not anywhere near today’s high standards. There was no Pérez Art Museum Miami downtown, New World Center on the Beach or Institute of Contemporary Art in the Design District.

At the time, the city hadn’t successfully shaken off its crime-ridden “murder capital” reputation from the ‘80s, especially among wealthy European tourists. That didn’t stop Norman Braman, a billionaire car dealership mogul and arts patron, from pitching a fun idea to Art Basel director Lorenzo Rudolf.

Art Basel, considered to be the world’s premier international art fair brand, was founded in the ’70s by gallerists in Basel, Switzerland. For decades, it held its only annual event in the scenic European city overlooking the Rhine River.

In a 2018 article with art marketplace website Artsy, Braman acknowledged it was a hard sell. “I began talking to Lorenzo around 1995, just saying, ‘Why not the United States, why not Miami?’ ” Braman told Artsy. “The Swiss are very conservative, they don’t move very quickly, but Lorenzo has a real entrepreneurial streak to him.”

Still, it took some convincing. Braman added, “I remember Lorenzo saying, ‘Gee, not Miami.’ ”

But the unconventional pitch proved to make sense. Come to find out, hosting an art fair in December in a beachfront city that rarely drops below 70 degrees is extremely attractive to European and New York City art collectors.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist walks through Art Basel with Norman Braman on the opening day of the fair at the Miami Beach Convention Center in December 2007.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist walks through Art Basel with Norman Braman on the opening day of the fair at the Miami Beach Convention Center in December 2007.

Over the next few years, local officials and the Art Basel team planned to debut the first edition of the fair outside of Switzerland in December 2001. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, Art Basel Miami Beach was postponed a year.

Still, about 100 art collectors had already purchased their plane tickets to visit Miami. Dennis Scholl, the CEO of nonprofit Oolite Arts, remembers his phone blowing up with calls from collectors who figured they should come down anyway, Basel or no Basel.

Scholl, acting as an impromptu Miami ambassador, invited them over to his house. Next thing he knew, three dozen of the best art collectors in the world were hanging out in his living room, excited to see what Miami had to offer. They were able to visit private collections and see Miami’s art scene for themselves, Scholl said.

Though it wasn’t obvious to most people at the time, Scholl said he knew he was witnessing something special. Everything was about to change.

“I looked around said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t even wait until next year because if this is who comes when there is no art fair, imagine how the world is going to beat a path to our community when there is an art fair,’ ” Scholl said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

Dennis Scholl, the president and CEO of Oolite Arts
Dennis Scholl, the president and CEO of Oolite Arts

Marc Spiegler remembers the early years well. Before he served as the Art Basel global director for 15 years, he was a journalist visiting South Florida for the first time in 2002. And he was very skeptical.

“It didn’t seem like a layup,” he said. “Let’s put it that way.”

Many people questioned why Art Basel would choose Miami over New York, the center of the art market. What the skeptics did not realize, Spiegler said, was the untapped power of the Latin American market and Miami’s invaluable status as the “de facto capital of the Latin American socio-economic upper class.” An Art Basel outpost in New York would have to compete with all of the longstanding art fairs, galleries, major museums and shows. Besides, he said, the weather down here was great.

Right off the bat, Art Basel Miami Beach was “a completely different vibe” compared to other art fairs, he said.

His first night in Miami, he went to an opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami and then a party at art collectors Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz’s house in Key Biscayne. The parties local private collectors would throw — packed with hundreds of people — were “unprecedented in the art world,” Spiegler said. Miami’s collectors took it upon themselves to welcome the rest of the art world into their homes and offices.

“I was traveling the entire world. You never saw this before,” Spiegler said. “Now, it’s very common, but Miami was the groundbreaker.”

Spiegler, who later joined Art Basel in 2007, didn’t realize it at first, but the Miami Beach outpost quickly became “the most important fair and the most important market in the world.”

The fair then also brought international attention, acclaim and support to the region’s museums and arts nonprofits, said Nicole Martinez, associate director at Fountainhead Arts.

“Art Basel has been the hors d’oeuvres that has gotten people into thinking of themselves as someone who can participate in the arts,” she said. “That in and of itself has trickled out to them finding us and wanting to get involved.”

Had it not been for Basel, Miami-Dade County and local city governments may not have seen the benefit in investing money into the arts community, added Fountainhead founder Kathryn Mikesell. This November, Miami Beach voters approved to raise their own taxes to invest $159 million into local arts and cultural institutions.

Miami Beach also proved that Art Basel can thrive outside of Switzerland. Under Spiegler’s leadership, Art Basel launched fairs in Hong Kong and Paris. In October, MCH Group, the company that runs Art Basel, announced that Spiegler will step down from his role to pursue new ventures.

Spiegler said he is leaving Art Basel on a high note. It’s a time when Miami’s arts community is embarking on the next frontier: the tech industry.

Miami to the moon

Art Basel Miami Beach’s debut 20 years ago is credited with sparking a renaissance of Miami’s arts institutions and museums. The Miami Art Museum became PAMM. The Bass Museum was reopened and revitalized. And ICA Miami, a contemporary art museum unafraid of the blockchain, was born.

“Only in Miami could you build a strong, prominent institution that is important on the international scene within the course of five years,” said Alex Gartenfeld, the ICA artistic director, about Art Basel. “That speaks to the transformative power of Miami and the art fair.”

In the weeks leading up to Art Week, ICA announced that it had acquired an NFT, or non-fungible token, from Yuga Labs, a Miami-based company famous for the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT collection. The museum is capping Art Basel weekend by installing and unveiling the NFT, which is an image of a blonde girl wearing virtual reality goggles, on Dec. 3.

ICA’s commitment to embracing NFTs and digital art is part of the museum’s ethos, Gartenfeld said. That same ethos is shared by the city of Miami itself.

The symbiotic relationship between arts and technology in Miami comes naturally, said Raul Moas, a senior director at the Knight Foundation who focuses on investments into local startups.

“It’s a young city, it’s a malleable city. I think it’s still very much in its adolescence,” Moas said. “That means that somebody can arrive here, step off the plane, step off the car and basically start building.”

Art Basel Miami Beach 2021 featured a presentation of NFTs by the Tezos platform.
Art Basel Miami Beach 2021 featured a presentation of NFTs by the Tezos platform.

Arts leaders, local officials and tech entrepreneurs agree. Similar to how Art Basel accelerated Miami’s reputation as an arts and cultural center, the pandemic poured gasoline on the city’s tech boom.

“COVID was really that catalyst that just shot us to the moon,” said Saxon Baum, the vice president of investor relations at Florida Funders, a venture capital firm that invests in early stage technology startups.

Around mid-2020, as states like California and New York implemented strict public health restrictions, Florida became more attractive to tech entrepreneurs, Baum said. Those who enjoyed working remotely realized they could move to sunny South Florida without an income tax.

Then came City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s infamous tweet luring tech leaders away from Silicon Valley. Suarez has been especially friendly toward cryptocurrency companies and vocal about his goals to turn Miami into “the capital of capital.” (Lest we forget the robotic version of The Charging Bull unveiled at the Bitcoin 2022 conference this year.)

So where does Art Basel fit in all this? It’s the South by Southwest effect, Baum said. If you want to be in the mix, you go to Miami this time of year.

“Whenever you have the convergence of all this money in one place at one time, you have entrepreneurs that flock there because they know that venture capitalists are going to be there,” Baum said. “They know that in a week of being at Art Basel, you’re going to do more business and run into more of the right people than you [would] in a year.”

Florida Funders is one of hundreds of companies sponsoring and organizing tech and art-related events over the next week. The group partnered with eMerge Americas, a Miami-based business networking company, to host La Casa, an invite-only event focused on entrepreneurship and innovation in tech.

This year’s events and installations dedicated to the idea of Web3 — the new iteration of the internet that uses decentralized blockchain technologies — run the gamut.

ELEMENTAL is a multi-day “multisensory experience” that features crypto artists in Wynwood. DoodlePutt is a mini golf course inspired by the cutesy Doodles NFT collection. The Miami Museum of Contemporary Art of the African Diaspora commissioned a mural by artist Reginald O’Neal with a QR code that unlocks the history of the predominately Black International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1416 in Historic Overtown. An Argentinian team called Sublimart will introduce “5D scanning technology” that scans a physical piece of artwork, destroys it with lasers and mints it as an NFT. Metaverse Miami Conference is setting up at the Eden Roc in Miami Beach on Monday and Tuesday, branding itself a Web3 native, tokenized Metaverse, NFT and art innovation conference.

But one of the week’s most ambitious events is turning two downtown city blocks into a “web3 metropolis.” The Gateway is a free, five-day festival hosted by Mana Common and nft now, an NFT media publication.

Albert Berdellans, the Mana vice president of marketing and communications, said the event is meant to “onboard” everyday people into Web3 by educating the public on how emerging technology can work for them and their interests. The festival features interactive installations and panels exploring NFTs, art, gaming, finance, music and film.

“We have all these different, real, useful cases for what Web3 technologies can do for a normal person,” Berdellans said. He added that the festival goes beyond the typical understanding of NFTs, which is “a cartoonish picture worth thousands of dollars just because I said so.”

Events like The Gateway also point toward another trend — the growth of downtown Miami.

Berdallans said the festival is part of Mana’s plans for “the rise of the Flagler District” as Miami’s premier tech neighborhood. Though he credited Art Basel with solidifying Miami as an arts destination, he criticized the fair as slow to embrace digital art and NFTs. As more art and tech events spread beyond the Beach, it’s time for downtown to shine, he said.

For years, Berdallans said, the city of Miami watched as millions of people fly into Miami International Airport, immediately take a cab to Miami Beach and stay there until they leave.

“The only time they look at downtown or the city of Miami at all is on the cab ride to and from the beach. They look at the skyline, they go, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ ” he said. “This is the year that changes.”

The ‘not-so-distant future’

It’s hard to imagine where art, technology and Miami go from here when few could have predicted where we are now. Matt Medved seems to have an idea.

Medved, a co-founder of nft now, envisions a creative, virtual utopia. He stressed the importance of educating people on how NFTs work, especially through events like The Gateway.

He views NFTs as tools that can empower artists of all disciplines, both financially and creatively. As today’s children grow up going to virtual concerts in the Metaverse, Medved noted that the next generation will be Web3 natives, not skeptics.

Matt Medved is the co-founder and CEO of nft now, a Web3 media company. The brand is hosting a five-day NFT and Web3-related conference called The Gateway in downtown Miami.
Matt Medved is the co-founder and CEO of nft now, a Web3 media company. The brand is hosting a five-day NFT and Web3-related conference called The Gateway in downtown Miami.

“We actually see The Gateway as a glimpse into that not-so-distant future where digital art and NFTs coexist with traditional art in creative harmony,” Medved said. “That’s where we really feel things are going.”

Artists’ careers can benefit from the potential of NFT technology, he said. Digital artists can build a collector base similar to traditional artists. Musicians can collect royalties on the blockchain. Creators can directly connect with their supporters without the middle man of social media or streaming services. The plight of the “starving artist” could be over, he posited.

But the promises of the not-so-distant future have to contend with today’s realities. The crypto market has been hit hard in recent months, and the bankruptcy of FTX, the cryptocurrency exchange company that the Miami Heat arena was named after, shocked the industry.

Though the FTX collapse damaged the crypto’s credibility, Medved said that the ordeal may be healthy for the space in the long run. He said he is in favor of sensible regulations in the U.S. to deter irresponsible “bad actors” from crypto.

“Digital ownership isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “The importance of digital assets will only increase.”

FilmGate, a Miami-based nonprofit, is hosting its own festival during Miami Art Week that features high-tech storytelling, like virtual reality.
FilmGate, a Miami-based nonprofit, is hosting its own festival during Miami Art Week that features high-tech storytelling, like virtual reality.

Just down the street from The Gateway, another multi-day festival hopes to push the boundaries of film, art and technology. FilmGate, which runs from Dec. 2 to 5 in downtown Miami, promotes innovative artworks and performances from around the world that use emerging technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, said Alexander, the FilmGate founder.

The event is organizing several activations across Miami that use technology that wasn’t possible just a few years ago, she said. One of the artworks is “Cosmogony,” a live performance at the Frost Museum of Science Dec. 3. A group of dancers in a studio in Europe will be motion-captured and broadcast in real-time as avatars in Miami.

“Cosmogony” is a live performance featuring three dancers who are motion-captured live at Gilles Jobin Company’s studio in Geneva and screened in real time, outdoors, for a worldwide audience. The performance can be seen at the Frost Museum of Science Dec 3 at 7 p.m.
“Cosmogony” is a live performance featuring three dancers who are motion-captured live at Gilles Jobin Company’s studio in Geneva and screened in real time, outdoors, for a worldwide audience. The performance can be seen at the Frost Museum of Science Dec 3 at 7 p.m.

“We are approaching it from a creative point of view,” Alexander said of the festival. “We reflect how technology is changing artistic expression and also storytelling.”

For some Miami-based artists participating in Web3 events and art fairs, this year’s Art Week marks a pivotal time in their careers. Previous Art Basels helped introduce artists like J.N. Silva and Cory Van Lew to Miami before they decided to move to the area full time.

Van Lew, a painter and digital artist originally from the Seattle area, said visiting Art Basel Miami Beach in years past helped him level up as an artist.

“It was like a portal I would go through and come back. I would just feel so much better about my art and have new visions,” he said. “I just gravitated toward Miami.”

While living in upstate New York during the pandemic, an artist friend introduced Van Lew to NFTs, a concept he thought was cool but didn’t understand at all. Van Lew had been selling some of his artwork online through a website, but the idea of a collector buying an NFT instead of the original, physical artwork didn’t make much sense, he said.

One person, who made his riches by “selling land in the Metaverse,” told Van Lew that if he minted his work on SuperRare, an NFT marketplace, he would buy the first one. Van Lew gave it a go, and sold his first five NFTs quickly.

Since then, he said the NFT space has changed his life and career for the better. He’s more financially stable and able to focus on his art and networking with others. As he dove into the NFT rabbit hole, he learned that Miami was a crypto-friendly city and moved here just over a year ago.

Compared to other cities, Miami’s approach to art and technology is especially inspiring, he said.

“Miami being such a hub of culture, it’s a place where the American Dream has happened time and time and time again,” he said.

Silva, a Venezuelan-born photographer and digital artist, made a similar leap of faith when he moved to Miami from New Jersey in April 2021. Miami just seemed “like the future,” he said.

A lifelong “computer nerd,” Silva got into blockchain technology in 2017. In 2020, after losing photography jobs, he was able to work from home and sell his art on the blockchain.

“Self Similarity” by J.N. Silva, a Miami-based photographer who is passionate about the NFT space.
“Self Similarity” by J.N. Silva, a Miami-based photographer who is passionate about the NFT space.

But after a depressing experience during the pandemic up north, he needed a change of pace. Miami was the perfect fit, he said. He’s felt at home ever since.

“It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” he said.

Silva, who has a stacked schedule this Art Week speaking on several panels, is passionate about educating fellow artists on NFTs and the crypto world as the technology develops. Soon, he said, Web3 technology will become easier for the average person to use, like sending an email.

J.N. Silva, a photographer with a passion for NFTs, recently moved to Miami because of the city’s art and tech communities.
J.N. Silva, a photographer with a passion for NFTs, recently moved to Miami because of the city’s art and tech communities.

The excitement among digital artists is palpable, Silva said, even after a disastrous few months for the crypto market. Artists are just happy to display their work to a wider audience despite the sometimes bumpy ride.

“The way we express ourselves is through art,” he said. “When you’re up, you make art. When you’re down, you make even more art.”

For now, Miami Art/Tech Week is up.

This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.