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Brazilians Are Taking Over Miami. Can They Take Over Art Basel, Too?

Neno Ramos

This week, amidst the whir of art-world mega-fair Art Basel Miami Beach, local developer Nadim Achi unveiled a new plan for the Surf Club residential and resort complex on northern Collins Avenue. To design it, he and his collaborators tapped Pritzker Prize–winner Richard Meier, an architect with the kind of name recognition that Achi said would help the project appeal to a key, growing demographic in Miami: design-savvy, art-loving Brazilians. Achi’s fellow backers include several Brazilian partners, and they expect their Brazilian-Miamian tenants will be stuffing their apartments with paintings and sculpture. “My clients down there are asking me to make sure I’ve got special filtering in the windows to protect their art,” says Achi.

In just the last five years or so—since the economic downturn in the U.S. coincided with rising real estate prices in Brazil—the Brazilian presence in Miami has undergone a dramatic boom. The Office of Tourism and Conventions has put the number of annual Brazilian visitors to Miami at nearly 700,000, making them the city’s single largest tourist group. And a remarkable number appear to be sticking around. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but local lifestyle glossy Ocean Drive estimates that Brazilians "now account for 20 percent of all real estate sales in Miami" and "have mopped up 85 percent of Miami’s excess inventory." In their wake has come a raft of steakhouses, clothiers, and more.

Along with Miami’s relatively affordable real estate, proximity to the artistic carnival that is Art Basel has been a major allure for recent Brazilian émigrés in Miami, since so many of them tend to be affluent, cultured, and acquisitive. “The cultural and artistic atmosphere is part of what attracts Brazilians to Miami,” says Ambassador Hélio Ramos, the Consul General of Brazil in Miami, “and we’ve noticed an increase in such interest tantamount to the growth in size and importance of Miami Art Basel.” The diplomat’s view is certainly backed by anecdotal evidence: When gallerist Luisa Strina first joined the board that brought the Switzerland-based fair to Miami ten years ago, she was the only Brazilian exhibitor involved, and saw few of her co-nationalists around on the convention center floor. Today, she says, Brazilian collectors come by her booth fairly regularly, either to bring art back with them or to leave it in their new homes in Miami. “We bring to the fair the best we have,” Strina says, “so why not buy here?”

Basel helped put Miami on the artistic map, and that in turn brought the Brazilians. But what effect are the Brazilians having on Basel, and on the Miami art scene as a whole? Certainly they’ve made themselves visible. This year, it seemed as though the brasileiro presence was everywhere in and around the fair: The Fairchild Botanical Gardens in Coral Gables are featuring a special outdoor installation of work by Brazilian sculptor Hugo Brança. The Brazil Foundation, a Rio-based non-profit that hosts an annual gala in Miami every March, is staging a special art auction during the fair, enlisting wealthy art-minded expats to help fund social justice initiatives back in the old country. On the deck at the Soho Beach House and poolside at The Standard Hotel, snatches of Portuguese are audible above the roar of the late-night after-party crowd.

“The Brazilians that have established themselves here in the last few years were already well-connected in Brazil,” says São Paolo–based Michel Serebrinsky, founding director of Brazil Art Fair, which is making its debut this year during Basel. The show includes fifteen exhibitors showing work from every quarter of the Brazilian art and design scene. And as Serebrinsky’s sees it, Miami during Basel is the perfect place for a fair like his, since it furnishes a mixed audience of recent immigrants familiar with what Brazil has to offer as well as international collectors who could help broaden the collector base for Brazilian galleries. “To me, Basel Miami is the Disneyland of art,” says Serebrinsky. “There are very few places in the world you can see as much of it as you can here.”

There are signs, too, that the Brazilian community is beginning to make inroads into the institutional structures of Miamian cultural life. Thom Collins is the director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the city’s new treasure house of contemporary art that opened to much fanfare in the middle of the Basel action this week. As he describes it, the museum’s acquisitions strategy has always been aimed at reflecting the cultural composition of the city, and has consequently been heavily weighted toward Spanish-speaking artists. But new buys in the last five years—including work by the likes of Brazilian artists Iran do Espírito Santo, Rivane Neuenschwander, and Ernesto Neto—show how cognizant the institution and its supporters are of the rising Brazilian presence. “Brazil has been such a powerhouse in terms of artistic production in the post-war [era],” notes Collins, who says he’s looking forward to building up the museum’s donor and membership base in the Brazilian community.

And yet, in a city where other, more entrenched cultural groups—not least the wealthy Cuban-American community—have long held say, Brazilians in Miami are still finding their place. Collins contrasted the latest Brazilian arrivals with the still relatively new Venezuelan contingent: The latter, he says have already become integral to the fabric of the museum and the city. “I haven’t, recognized that that’s the case yet, at least with the recent arrivals from Brazil,” said Collins. “The question is, how engaged will they become?”

Despite Brazilian-Miamians' obvious wealth and energy, the splash they have made on the real-estate front has yet to be matched by a similar breakthrough in the art world here—certainly nothing on the order of Cuban-Americans philanthropist’s Jorge Pérez’s $35-million gift to the museum that now bears his name. Their junior status seemed evident on the opening night of the Brazil Art Fair, where installation was still underway even as guests and buyers began to arrive. Attendance was reasonable but hardly through the roof, even with the Consul General in attendance. Only a ten-minute walk away, the crowds were packing it in for a Marina Abramavoic event hosted by the non-profit Youngarts Foundation—in a building, notably, that the institution occupies thanks to the efforts of another Cuban-American benefactor, the Bacardi family

Still, with continued economic instability in Brazil and an ever-expanding cultural marketplace in Miami, Serebrinsky and company still seem well positioned for future Basels. Brazil, after all, has always been famed as the country of the future, and the fair director was characteristically optimistic about his countrymen’s (and his own) potential to become major players in Miami, both in and out of the festival season. “If you go to live somewhere, you want to be a part of it,” said Serebrinsky, “to help it grow and develop.”