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How to win at Art Basel, Miami's most excessive celebration of wealth

This weekend, Art Basel Miami Beach is officially open to the ticketed public. But the opening of the art fair is a mere formality: the party started on Monday and will run for a solid week. I’ve already been to Miami and back for a sixth consecutive visit, because the secret of winning at Art Basel is to get there early, if you’re actually interested in seeing the art. Still, after five days in southern Florida, I feel like I barely skimmed the surface.

Art Basel, in theory, is a blue-chip art fair that was founded in Basel, Switzerland, where art was bought and sold for several decades without much fanfare outside of the art world insiders focused on building coveted art collections. In 2002, Switzerland planted its satellite fair in Miami, and the concept of selling art on the beach caught on. What European collector doesn’t want an excuse to visit Miami Beach in December?

But then the Miami event morphed into something all its own. The city — a gateway to Latin America — is lined with white sandy beaches and hotel pools, a tourism-friendly place that has a built-in scene for after-parties and fine dining. And even though it has become a popular luxury culture scene, it still manages to rub elbows with the real art world on occasion — a world that shows up to buy, sell, and see millions of dollars of paintings and sculptures. The timing couldn’t be better: art is having a moment as a booming record-breaking business. Last month, a figurative painting by Amedeo Modigliani sold for $170.4 million dollars at auction. And in Miami, new art stars are made by six-figure sales at the Miami Convention Center.

Sure, much of Miami Art Week is overrun by excess during Art Basel. Two years ago, the sheer volume of after-party invites began to remind me of the raveland Miami became during the Winter Music Conference, circa 2000. And last year, you’d be hard pressed to find a luxury watch / liquor / fashion / auto / jeweler / hotel brand without an activation. What marketer can resist 75,000 art partier-influencers with money? I suspect there’s a fair number of people who come to Art Basel and don’t see any art at all, which is a shame.

art basel

In fairness, missing the art is pretty easy to do. These days, it takes a bit of effort and self-discipline to sift through the exhibitions in the midst of the celebrity smorgasbord, poolside DJ gigs, and giant ball of glittery traffic-jammed confusion. Events are spread across Miami Beach, into the Design District in Miami proper. There are only two bridges that connect Miami Beach to Miami, and by 8AM on Tuesday morning they were jam-packed, causing major disruption. Uber makes a killing in Miami and got smart by offering the first boat rides across the bay this year. Even the rich and famous get stuck in traffic, too. (Art Basel is ripe for takeover by hoverboards and electric scooters.)

And yet for all the hassle, Miami Art Basel continues to grow each and every year because no one wants to miss out, but it’s so big that everyone misses out on something. There are only so many parties, dinners, openings, exhibitions, and pop ups a little island can take. Because art goes with everything: nice Roger DuBuis watch. A custom MONO supercar. A Retna-painted red Ferrari 430. Art and electro legend Giorgio Moroder. Art and Solange. Art and Pusha T. Art and Leonardo DiCaprio. Art and Soul Cycle.

Like any mass pop culture event, perhaps you’re better off watching from Instagram. But Instagram doesn’t come with a healthy dose of vitamin D and the sense of escape that is indelible to the Miami scene. Despite all the hoopla, there’s a positive ripple that the fair has created. Miami has helped introduce the art world to the art intimidated.

For starters, If you’re genuinely there for the art, there’s plenty to see — you can choose your Art Basel experience. Beyond the main fair, there are 22 satellite fairs that vary in medium and price point. You can find pop up exhibitions galore spread around town, like the native David Castillo Gallery in Wynwood and artist-run initiatives, including a panel about art and technology organized by FriendsWithYou, an art collective that created a virtual reality installation that debuted during Art Basel. The Herzog de Meuron-designed Perez Art Museum Miami is breathtaking. The alternative art space Locust Projects offers smart programming that caters to artist-driven initiatives, and the spray-paint surfaces at the Wynwood Walls are byproducts of the art fairs that are open year around. There’s a new art and science museum under construction. Some Miami collectors even have their own mini-museums, like the Rubell Family Collection, which showed work exclusively by women this year. And there are moments — like Rashaad Newsome’s King of Arms procession sashaying through the Design District in front of Lenny Kravitz’s pop up exhibition — that you have to see with your own eyes.

But, yes, for all the culture, there’s also the ever-present scene. At one chichi opening I attended at the historic art-deco-era Moore Building, Swizz Beatz and Mr. Chow buzzed around the room and a electrified bossa nova band played live on the rooftop. In the elevator going down, a young woman in a emerald green dress told me it was her first visit to Art Basel. She asked what the best party was. Another man in the elevator quickly replied, "Whatever party you’re at."