The 'new' Miami: Shaking off a shady reputation

Trashy yet entrancing, Miami's streets offer a diverse mix of creativity.

An American friend recently defined Miami for me in the following way: "I feel like it's this gorgeous swimming pool and you want to dive in," he said. "But then you do, and you come up covered in other people's sunscreen."

The metaphor was spot-on. Miami manages to seem both beautiful and dirty, alluring and trashily repulsive. There's mileage left in Joan Didion's description of the city as a place where construction cranes "hovered on the famous new skyline, which, floating as it did between a mangrove swamp and a barrier reef, had a kind of perilous attraction, like a mirage".

Spend a little time in Miami and you understand why Gianni Versace oversaw his gaudy empire from here, his mansion a temple to taste so outrageous it became a place of worship for shameless fashionistas.

Still, the city has been undergoing something of a makeover lately. Perhaps attempting to shake its shady reputation, it has staked an unlikely claim on the landscape of American arts and culture.

There's no better example of this than the National YoungArts Foundation, a respected charity that invests in the artistic development of actors, musicians and dancers by exposing them to mentors such as Robert Redford, Martin Scorsese and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

"The whole mission of the organisation is to identify the next generation of artists," explains Paul Leher, executive director of YoungArts, when I stop by to take a look at the new headquarters.

Or, in other words, when I stop by the former Bacardi campus, which includes a building depicting sugar cane distillation in floor-to-ceiling hammered glass mosaics. From cheap rum to masterclasses with Josh Groban, Miami is trying to sober up.

Much talk about this "new" Miami inevitably focuses on the Perez Art Museum Miami - formerly the Miami Art Museum - which opened its $US131 million doors last December.

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The Perez Art Museum is an impressive stop on any itinerary through the area, but the most interesting developments are actually found a few miles away, in the industrial neighbourhood of Wynwood.

Wynwood has enjoyed an association with artists since 1993, when the wealthy Rubell family walked into a warehouse district still scarred from race riots, and purchased the massive Drug Enforcement Agency confiscated goods facility. This had once housed the contraband cocaine and Kalashnikovs often associated with Tony Montana in Scarface.

The Rubells transformed it into a museum for their collection of Warhols and Basquiats.

This gamble paid off in 2002, when Samuel Keller brought Art Basel to Miami and Wynwood began to transform into a vibrant sideshow for the annual trade fair.

Each November, leading gallerists descend on the city to swap pieces and talk business.

Wynwood has bent over backwards to make artists and dealers welcome, turning blighted buildings into dazzling baubles - one is painted in black-and-white stripes; another is deep blue and speckled gold, like an alien giraffe.

Wandering Wynwood is a remarkable experience. Aside from the murals and Dali-esque additions, much of the neighbourhood retains its aura of industrial decrepitude.

The place can feel deserted, menacing after nightfall. Concrete bakes beneath the harsh Florida sun throughout the day. This makes stumbling over galleries or retail stores a surreal thrill. Next to the oil-stained factory of King Automotive Inc is Del Toro Shoes, where 20-something Matthew Chevallard designs men's slippers in cashmere and stingray skin.

The best way to navigate this small crosshatch of backstreets is to download a map or the convenient iPhone guide, managed by the Wynwood Arts District Association, which also runs a monthly Second Saturday Art Walk. Following the guide's advice, I collect espresso at Panther Coffee before hitting art studios and intimate galleries.

Eventually I end up at Wynwood Walls, tramping across the AstroTurf to The Peter Tunney Experience, which appears to be an art show, though the "experience" part might refer to that feeling that comes over you when you look at canvasses you can never afford, but ask for the price list anyway.

Thankfully, Wynwood Walls is free. Often cited as the heart of the neighbourhood's revival, it's the brainchild of the late developer Tony Goldman.

The buildings of this sprawling complex have no windows, which makes them perfect canvasses for graffiti art.

"By presenting it in a way that has not been done before, I was able to expose the public to something they had only seen peripherally," Goldman said, when opening the project in 2010.

The murals are diverse, from a baby Hulk by Ron English to a political Allegory of Florida by Stelios Faitakis. They are breathtaking and repulsive, subtle and lurid - faithful, in other words, to the spirit of Miami, even as they turn expectations upside down.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

The fastest way to get to Miami from Sydney is with Qantas, which flies direct to Dallas-Fort Worth. From there, transfer to a domestic carrier such as American Airlines, which offers multiple daily flights to Miami. See qantas.com.

STAYING THERE

Wynwood isn't a neighbourhood for sleeping. Surround yourself with creative types at Soho Beach House, a private club that can be accessed by staying in its hotel. Rooms start at $470. See sohobeachhouse.com.

DON'T MISS

Wynwood with an arts guide, available in print and iPhone app at wynwoodmiami.com.

Rubell Family Collection offers terrific rotating exhibitions, and is open by guided tour every Wednesday and Friday at 3pm. Admission is $10.80. See rfc.museum.

MORE INFORMATION

miamiandbeaches.com

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