Derek Blasberg is a writer, editor, and New York Times best-selling author. In addition to being the Executive Editor of Gagosian Quarterly, he is Vanity Fair’s “Our Man on the Street” and the host of the television show “CNN Style.” He has been with Gagosian since 2014.
Craig Robins has been called many things: real estate entrepreneur, art collector, philanthropist, cultural director, Miami guru. But the way he’d prefer to be labeled is, “I see my work as producing creativity.” Robins, who grew up in Miami’s South Beach, is largely responsible for revitalizing the city’s Design District. Beginning in the late 1980s, Robins became one of the key contributors to the revitalization of Miami Beach’s Art Deco District. Later, in the mid-1990s, when the neighborhood was in disrepair, he began collecting buildings in the area with the plan to reestablish it as a hub of contemporary art, design, and fashion. Derek Blasberg sits down with Robins to discover how he revamped his hometown.
DEREK BLASBERGLet’s start at the very beginning. The first question I often ask in this series is, What was your first or foremost art- or design-world memory?
CRAIG ROBINSWhen I was a child, we had a family friend who was an artist and who lived with us for a time. He taught me to draw and sort of planted this seed of affection for the creative arts. It went dormant until I went to school in Spain, where I became really fascinated with art, especially Goya. I landed in Barcelona and that’s where I decided I wanted to do something with art and artists.
DBWhat was the first piece of art that you collected?
CRA little sketch by Salvador Dalí. I was living in Barcelona and was fascinated by him. I didn’t have many resources, but I got this tiny little sketch and I loved it.
DBWhat role did your personal connection to Miami play in your development? Do you think you’d be doing what you’re doing if you’d been born somewhere else?
CRMy parents always liked art, so I think that inspiration was more in the home environment than in the city. When I graduated law school and started to work in South Beach, in the Art Deco district, it was a place that was very much about style and creativity. It wasn’t just a normal business neighborhood. I think my childhood experience of being around an artist, then living in Spain and getting exposed to some great art, and then working in a neighborhood that had these beautiful historical buildings where the challenge was to figure out how to do something contemporary with them—that basically got me going.
DBSo let’s talk about the Design District: How did that opportunity present itself?
CR: When I started working in South Beach, I was primarily motivated to own an art studio so that I could bring artists to come and make art. While I was looking for a studio, I met this guy who became a mentor and a partner, Tony Goldman. He had the perfect studio but he told me that if I wanted it I had to become his partner. It was sort of on a lark, but I said ok, as long as I can have the studio I’ll make the investment. Then it began this career where I was making both cultural spaces and also had stores to rent.
DBWho was your first tenant?
CRKeith Haring. It was 1987. He’d done the Pop Shop in New York and I wanted to have one of those in Miami. Then there wasn’t much happening in South Beach. In the mid-’90s, once it started to become a highly regarded destination, especially by the creative world, I thought I needed to go over the bridge, away from Miami Beach and into the city of Miami. I started to buy some properties in the Design District.
Between Art Basel Miami and the Design District, what we invented was the idea of a global cultural happening. Before Miami, if you went to Art Basel in Switzerland, it’s the best art fair in the world but it didn’t have the fun and excitement and sexiness of this place.Craig Robins
DBWas there something special about the Design District or was it just a great venue and a great value?
CROnce you get to Lincoln Road, which is the end of the commercial part of South Beach, the next neighborhood is the Design District, even though it’s over the bridge and a little north. So one was location, yes. But it was also a historic neighborhood that was originally built around design, and I found that intriguing. It was in total disrepair and a lot of people were skeptical.
DBWas it cheap?
CRThe property values were so low, but I knew there was something there that only needed to be enhanced. The buildings were primarily unoccupied and I started doing what I had done in South Beach: looking for interesting spaces and for interesting people to take them. I gave studios to a bunch of artists. As the area started becoming financially successful, it felt like it was missing something else, so when Sam Keller wanted to bring Art Basel to Miami I thought it was a great idea and I said let’s do nonprofit exhibitions and events to make it into a cultural happening. The Design District started to become a place where just amazing things would happen. We were doing things with the Guggenheim and Jeffrey Deitch, restaurants started to open. . . . We did Design Miami, which at the time was in the Design District—that was the first real contribution Miami made to the global dialogue about furniture design. It was really the first furniture show that had contemporary collectible design as well as modern design and was featured during a major art fair.
DBGive it to me in a timeline.
CRIn the mid-’90s I started acquiring spaces, but quietly. By 2000 it was a very successful place for furniture, and then in 2002 is when Art Basel came to Miami. In 2005 I founded Design Miami, which is now back in South Beach.
DBHow would you describe the culture and vibe of the district to someone who has never been?
CRFirst of all, it’s just an amazing place to walk around. You can see public works by John Baldessari, Zaha Hadid, and Marc Newson in addition to many other examples of public art and design. There’s really interesting architecture: it has Sou Fujimoto’s first building in the United States, Jun Aoki did an amazing building for Louis Vuitton. . . . The brands themselves have done a lot of really wonderful things and it’s got a great offering of art, design, fashion, and food. It’s building and expanding very quickly—the Institute of Contemporary Art is under construction, there’s the de la Cruz Collection, so there’s a lot that you can see in art, obviously in fashion, and the furniture showrooms are still there as well, so it’s a creative laboratory.
DBWhat do you think its contribution has been to the art world at large?
CRBetween Art Basel Miami and the Design District, what we invented was the idea of a global cultural happening. Before Miami, if you went to Art Basel in Switzerland, it’s the best art fair in the world but it didn’t have the fun and excitement and sexiness of this place. Other fairs have popped up around the world since Miami that have tried to capitalize on the idea of the place to be.
DBThe idea of a buzz, you mean.
CRIt’s an exciting place, a time when a city takes a moment to celebrate culture in different ways. There are other fairs, like Salone del Mobile in Milan, but that’s much more of an industry show. This was the first place to show off a city, an art world, a design world, and everything else that has come to be associated with the Design District.
DBTell me what you look for in a Design District tenant.
CRWe continue to work with amazing fashion brands and luxury brands, but I think it’s also important to have young, hip, less-expensive brands. We are constantly approached by big brands and we’ll sometimes reach out to a younger, less-established brand if we think they have something important to say. The key is to have a mix and to not make it just about buying and purchasing. We want it to be a destination where you can see art, experience the luxury world, but still walk away with something.
Also: wonderful restaurants.
DBAs a collector, do you look for art in Miami? Do you make an effort to go local?
CRI try to find the highest level of talent where I can get really good work, and where the pricing seems reasonable relative to the talent and the contribution. The first person who comes to mind is Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who’s young but great. I look for young artists but also I try to buy works that will help anchor the collection. A few years ago I acquired Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages—he’s the foundation of conceptual art. Other artists I like at the moment are John Currin, John Baldessari, and Richard Tuttle.
DBOne of my favorite things to do in Miami is take those Art Deco walking tours. They made me so nostalgic for the golden days of Miami.
CRIn its day, in the 1950s and ’60s, the Art Deco District was really the platform for a new Miami. By the late ’70s, ’80s, it had become more of a retirement place and didn’t have much energy. By the end of the century the energy changed dramatically, and people started coming back and falling in love with Miami again. It was the beginning of a city that is in part trading on culture and creativity. In a modest way, it’s what Florence did in the Renaissance. Miami has this interesting combination of being a tropical paradise but also emerging as a global city of cultural substance.