The Man Who Brought Art Basel to Miami Beach
Norman Braman speaking at Art Basel in Miami Beach. Courtesy of Art Basel.
Over the last two decades, Norman Braman has become a towering figure in Miami’s art scene. In the late 1990s, when there were fewer than 10 galleries in the entire county, the billionaire collector helped convince a conservative Swiss art fair to open a second edition in Art Deco, neon-streaked South Beach. Seventeen editions later, that fair, Art Basel in Miami Beach, has raised the profile of contemporary art in popular culture more than almost any single other entity.
But before he started buying Picassos and Calders, Norman Braman sold cars. Lots of cars. On a single block of Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard, there’s a veritable campus of car dealerships known as Braman Miami, with showrooms for the kinds of whips name-dropped in rap songs: BMW, Rolls-Royce, Cadillac, Bentley, Bugatti. Braman’s office is perched above, on the second floor, where he bounded through a conference room door this Tuesday—the day before the VIP preview of the latest edition of Art Basel in Miami Beach—looking sprightly, much younger than his 86 years. He had on a blue shirt and tie, no jacket; he plopped down in a swivel chair and began to talk excitedly about Art Basel week—the week that, in a big way, he brought to this city. Top of mind this year: the completion of a three-year, $620 million renovation of the Miami Beach Convention Center, which will welcome visitors to Art Basel this week.
“It was so needed for so long, and that’s going to make a major difference,” Braman said, sitting in front of a quite impressive wall that featured not art, but handwritten letters by John Adams, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln, and a tattered, seemingly bullet-wounded Revolutionary War–era flag sporting the 13 stars of the original colonies. On a nearby table, there were pictures with Braman and luminaries, including a framed picture of him and Marco Rubio, the Florida senator whom Braman supported when he ran for president, unsuccessfully, in 2016.
The path that led a car dealership tycoon to become the driving force in bringing the world’s biggest art fair to America began when Braman and his wife, Irma, who is a full partner in their collecting, purchased a home in the south of France in 1975. The property was near the city of Saint-Paul de Vence, where, at the Maeght Foundation, the Bramans got acquainted with the sculptural work of Alexander Calder and Joan Miró.
“Like any place you move to, you have a lot of visitors the first year, and we kept bringing visitors back to the the museums, especially the foundation,” Braman said, smiling as he thought back fondly of those days. “We really saw art—we had seen art before, but it just opened up a new world to us.”
The revelation spurred the couple to collect more, moving from the Impressionists to post-war giants such as Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Anselm Kiefer, and Jasper Johns. In 1985, the same year Braman purchased a majority stake in the Philadelphia Eagles, he and Irma bought Johns’s Diver (1962–63) for $4.2 million—setting a record for a living artist. In 1994, Braman sold the Eagles and began to install works in a home he and Irma had purchased in 1991 in the exclusive Miami Beach enclave of Indian Creek Island Road, named the most expensive road in the country in 2015 by Zillow.
A lot of Braman’s art-buying was happening at Art Basel’s original fair in Switzerland—then, and now, the world’s premier contemporary art expo—and Braman got to know its director, Lorenzo Rudolf. Eventually they got to talking about how Art Basel could expand.
“I began talking to Lorenzo around 1995, just saying, ‘Why not the United States, why not Miami?’” Braman said. “The Swiss are very conservative, they don’t move very quickly, but Lorenzo has a real entrepreneurial streak to him.”
Rudolf agreed to visit the Magic City, despite the fact that Miami’s image at the time was that of a crime-ridden beach town with a hangover from the Miami Vice ’80s—a little off-brand for a high-end art fair from a quaint Swiss city on the Rhine river, associated in the popular imagination with melted cheese and cuckoo clocks.
“In the 1990s, Miami had a horrible reputation,” Braman said. “We had some major unfortunate incidents involving tourists, robberies, a couple murders here and there, and it was blown up, especially in the European press. I remember Lorenzo saying, ‘Gee, not Miami.’”
Miami was also not known as a cultural center in the 1990s—in fact, there was little cultural infrastructure whatsoever.
“Contrary to what people think—that we were a bountiful art city, that we had everything here…that’s nonsense,” Braman said. “There was no ICA, there was no Perez Art Museum, there was no de la Cruz. We were a wasteland here.”
But, over time, Rudolf became taken with having a fair at a convention center right on the beach, Braman said, and he convinced the board of MCH Group, the expo conglomerate that is Art Basel’s parent company, to make the leap. It was mostly uphill from there for the next few years. Finding that his ideal dates in January, during prime vacation season, were already occupied by Art Miami, Rudolf claimed the sleepy week after Thanksgiving when the convention center was empty, even though some clients might not have wanted to travel in the middle of the holidays. What was supposed to be the fair’s inaugural edition in 2001 was canceled after the events of September 11. And by the time the first edition actually opened in 2002, Rudolf himself had left to direct the Frankfurt Book Fair; he was replaced by Sam Keller, Art Basel’s communications director. With compounding uncertainty, a number of the biggest galleries of the day didn’t sign up.
“I was really worried about the fair, that we were not getting the quality galleries here,” Braman said. “Those of us who had relationships with the galleries really started squeezing them. And I asked Sam, I said, ‘Sam, you’ve got a huge waiting list at Basel in Switzerland, use some of that leverage.’”
But the first year proved successful for those that did attend, and, by year two, big holdouts like Gagosian joined in. By the third edition, Art Basel in Miami Beach had already cemented a reputation not only as an art event, but also as one of the biggest party weeks of the year, with the New York Times’s report from that year reading: “The Miami Beach art fair has differentiated itself from the 34-year-old Art Basel in Switzerland by putting on a tropical December event that was as much beach bash as art show.” This mix, pioneered by Keller, proved especially effective at getting a newly wealthy class of Americans seeking social status and a luxury lifestyle to buy art.
That’s not to say it was an immediately profitable endeavor, and Braman gives credit to the Swiss group’s long-term view. “We Americans like a return on our money immediately,” he said. “And so I was horrified—I was privileged to see the financial statements of the fairs the first couple of years, and I saw the money they had lost those first few years. But that’s their philosophy. They build a foundation for the future.”
Braman has continued to chair the fair’s host committee each subsequent year, and helped former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine convince taxpayers to fund a three-year renovation of the convention center, which is now nearly complete. He also helped bankroll one of the city’s key institutions when he gave at least $75 million in funds and land to build a home for the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, a new museum that rose from the ashes from MOCA Miami and now occupies a space in the city’s design district.
Unlike fellow Miami collector Jorge Pérez, Braman didn’t want to put his name on the museum. And even while telling his remarkable story of how he helped create an art fair that brings an estimated half-billion dollars of economic activity to the South Florida region each December, Braman is unshakably modest. He said that, while he played a major role, the credit for bringing Art Basel to Miami Beach and revitalizing the city’s cultural scene also equally goes to the de la Cruzes, the Rubells, and Scholls, and Martin Margulies. Credit also goes, he said, to Alberto Ibargüen, the president and CEO of the art organization Knight Foundation, which has given $165 million to local arts organizations in the last 13 years. (Ibargüen was the publisher of the Miami Herald during the fair’s first edition, and Braman beamed while recounting how Ibargüen assigned six writers to cover all the happenings, slapped a picture on the front page, and produced a special arts supplement for the paper.)
“Timing is everything, relationships are everything,” Braman said. “It’s a group of people in this community who appreciate the arts. It’s not Norman Braman. It’s not me, it really isn’t.”
But he does acknowledge Art Basel’s monumental impact in making Miami culturally relevant and an art-world powerhouse. “Where we are today is so far from where we were,” Braman said. “Art Basel has cultivated a whole new group of collectors here, young people who collect. The fact that there can be 24 auxiliary fairs….”
He trailed off for a second, the letters from American presidents and statesmen hanging on the wall behind him.
“During this first week of December, we’re the art capital of the world,” he said. “None of us ever, ever, ever dreamt it would happen.”