Art Basel Isn’t Even Open Yet, But Artists and Dealers Are Already Partying Hard

On Monday, two days before the VIP opening of Art Basel Miami Beach, the parties were already raging.

One of the night’s biggest events was held by the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, whose property was bought in 1908 and subsequently developed by James Deering, heir to the agricultural equipment business Deering Harvest Company (no relation to their competitor John Deere). Deering, himself a noted socialite and art collector, had a close tie to the openly gay designer Paul Chalfin. Together, with the help of architect and the landscape designer Diego Suarez, the Vizcaya Villa, as it was once known, became one of Miami’s crown jewels.

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A landscape painting by Thomas Hart Benton

Sprawling tropical gardens are dotted with sculptures of the jester, atlas, and maiden types, and meticulously designed grottos feature man-made stalactites of concrete. There are pagodas, pavilions, moorings, murals, fountains, pools, wrought iron gates, and mangrove forests. All come together in a sprawling estate in a setting that fuses Italian Renaissance architectural styles and Florida’s unique, lush ecology—hence the “Beware Wildlife” signs with the alligator silhouette swishing its tail that line the algae-filmed ponds on the property.

But on Monday, the guests gathered at the Vizcaya Museum were not the upper-crust types one might expect, but rather the NFT and crypto crowd. Digital artists like OONA and Lovid mingled with well-known NFT collectors like Benjamin “Benny Redbeard” Gross. In the mix were some Miami baddies of yore congregated at a bar where they could be seen mingling with Miami’s new tech elite. 

The party was hosted by Trame, a Paris based digital art gallery and design firm founded in 2020 by cousins Ismail and Adnane Tazi, and ARTXCODE, a generative art agency and studio. On display on the main courtyard under a tent were the works of Jeff Davis and Martin Grasser, whose generative artworks were translated into stained glass. 

“Monday set the stage for an exciting week of witnessing the intersection of physical and digital art,” said Cam Thompson, community manager and editor at Tonic.xyz, an NFT auction platform. “[This event] reiterated the importance of physical expressions in the digital sphere. Vizcaya was such a stunning setting for the event.”

Perhaps it was all a little too stunning. The pieces were mounted on white platforms and fitted with lights that splashed their colors onto the ground. The stained-glass pieces fit well into Vizcaya’s maximalist space, but as nice as the works were, the hidden fountains and caves of the nearby gardens were a lot more enticing.

Some headed straight from the Vizcaya Museum to the Historic Hamptons House Motel. A Green Book hotel that provided lodgings to Black travelers during the Jim Crow era, the Hampton House has hosted icons such as Malcolm X and Ella Fitzgerald. Its legendary status was cemented when Muhammed Ali went there to celebrate his first heavyweight title in his 1964 fight against Sonny Liston. Due to segregation laws, Ali was forbidden to stay in Miami Beach for the festivities, so he took the party across Biscayne Bay.

A group of party guests beneath a columned structure bedecked with holiday lights.

A party held at the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens on Monday night.

Courtesy Trame

Artists and the like flocked there on Monday to see the Hampton House’s first-ever exhibition, “Gimme Shelter,” which was curated by collector Beth Rudin DeWoody, who ranks on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list, as well as with Zoe Lukov, Maynard Monrow and Laura Dvorkin. The show is meant as a celebration of refuges of all kinds, and it features works by 25 artists, including Derrick Adams, Nick Cave, Charles Gaines, Howardena Pindell, Paul Pfeiffer, Lorna Simpson, and Carrie Mae Weems.

In the old ballroom, a bassist sporting a fedora slung low over his bass while a jazz singer in a flapper costume sang a rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Guests threaded their way through preserved hotel rooms done up in the era’s mint green and salmon pink. The upper rooms had been converted into an exhibition-ready space that overlooks the courtyard, which served as a much-needed and much-used dance floor.

“The inaugural exhibition celebrates the ethos of this legendary hotel, not only as a sacred space of shelter and hospitality within an historically segregated city, but its ongoing role as a catalyst of communion and creativity,” said Historic Hampton House’s chief strategy officer, Curb Gardner II, who also served as creative director of the exhibition.

In attendance to ring in the House’s inaugural exhibition were notables like former Art Basel head Marc Spiegler, dealer Jeffrey Deitch, artist Bony Ramirez, Kickstarter head of arts Danny Baez and many more.

The last stop of the night was to gallerist Nina Johnson’s house—which I found myself less thrilled about, since my Uber driver killed some of my excitement as he pulled up to the Hampton House. When he noticed my friend and I speaking Spanish, he cut in, asking what the event was. I explained that it was a party for an art exhibition.

“Well, these art people are crazy!” he said. “This is Miami’s worst drug neighborhood. You can get anything here, marijuana, rock.” He proceeded to rattle off names of drugs that I had never heard of. I felt conflicted as he slowly drove through the pockmarked roads of Brownsville.

The scene at Johnson’s house, in the ritzy Shorecrest neighborhood, could not have been more different. The path to her garden was lined with paper lanterns, opening up onto a classic low-slung ranch house, with a shimmering gourd-shaped pool, beside which the played the jazz-soul trio Fat Produce. Guests were invited to thread through Johnson’s meticulously styled house, full to the brim with work from artists like Cindy Sherman, Emmett Moore, Katie Stout, Patrick Dean Hubbell, and countless others. 

“Everyone’s trying to be chill Monday night, but then you have Nina’s, and the bourbon is flowing and what do you expect me to do?” said Adam Mrlik, a flak for the PR firm Cultural Counsel, which represents Nina Johnson Gallery. “I touch down in Miami, and what do I do? Party!”

Not everyone does, though. Gallerists who were due at NADA early the next morning sipped on cans of Liquid Death and declined invitations for nightcaps. It turns out that some people pace themselves, even during Art Basel Miami Beach.

Correction, 12/6/23, 9 a.m.: A previous version of this article said that former porn star Mia Khalifa attended the Vizcaya Museum event. A Trame spokesperson said she did not.

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