November 9th, 2010
by Katy Donoghue
A good portion of the rehabilitation of South Beach and the Design District in Miami can be credited to Craig Robins. Starting in the late eighties with his real estate development company, Dacra, Robins renovated Art Deco hotels on Ocean Drive and helped transform Lincoln Road in South Beach. Along with Sam Keller, he convinced Art Basel to come to Miami, and in 2005 he founded Design Miami with Ambra Medda. Both events helped put Miami on the map as an art and design center, and the latter has been the catalyst in the overhaul of the Design District.
Robins has collected art since late college opting for a painting as the traditional graduation gift from his parents rather than a Rolex and has become an avid collector of design. His collection is spread between his home, office, and buildings throughout Miami. After letting us into his office to photograph his collection there, Robins spoke with us about his collection's evolution and how he managed to make Miami the vibrant cultural hub we all enjoy each December.
WHITEWALL: You were born in Miami and grew up there. What was that like?
CRAIG ROBINS: Well, growing up in Miami Beach was exotic in a certain way. It was a beautiful place. It was a city that was as I started to become more aware of what was going on somewhat on the decline. I think it peaked probably in the mid-sixties, and by the seventies, when I was a child, it was sort of in a downward spiral. By the time I was in high school, it was much more of a sleepy town that once was a happening place. Miami Beach was kind of a retirement village. My high school, Beach High, was a fun place. It was kind of the center, and there were still a lot of interesting people that lived here, so it was a fun place to grow up. It was certainly a tropical paradise.
WW: And were you interested in art yet? Or did that come later?
CR: As a child, I liked to draw. So I became interested in art by learning a little bit about making art. I was never very good at it, but I liked it.
WW: I read that your interest picked up when you studied at the University of Barcelona.
CR: First, my parents, while they weren't art world people in that sense, they always liked art and respected art, and even enjoyed buying things on occasion. I think that appreciation that they had for things that had been made by creative people was definitely instilled in me at a young age. I never really, though, had any knowledge about art or formal training until I went and studied at the University of Barcelona, and began to meet artists and visit studios and learn about, not only the current, but also the historical art scene that had been in and around Barcelona. It was a very inspired city. I also really enjoyed the architecture and the urban design in Barcelona.
WW: And when you graduated, your parents wanted to buy you a gold watch, but you had requested a painting instead.
CR: A true story.
WW: And which did they get you?
CR: My parents have always been incredibly supportive of my own ideas, so they were very kind and acquiesced.
WW: That's great. When did you first start collecting art seriously? What was your first purchase?
CR: Well, I bought a sketch by Dalν. It wasn't really significant and I didn't really know the difference, but it was nice to own something by him. And then, as I was graduating from college, I began to collect very modestly. I didn't have a tremendous understanding of what collecting was all about or what it entailed, didn't have a lot of knowledge as to what was happening all around the world. But I had become very knowledgeable about the art scene in Barcelona and started collecting art that was made there. As I came back to Miami, and I was in law school at the University of Miami, I started to become aware also of the art scene in Miami. And on occasion my resources at the time were of course modest on occasion I would actually be able to make some kind of acquisition.
WW: Do you still have a lot of the work that you purchased early on, like the Dalν sketch?
CR: Yes. I've never been much of a seller, so I've always kept most of what I've bought. On occasion, I have sold things or traded them, but generally I have most of the things that I purchased.
WW: And with Dacra, your development company, you've played a big part in revitalizing South Beach and the Design District. What was the potential you saw in these neighborhoods and why did you want to go about creating more of a cultural space, rather than just a couple of new buildings with modern architecture?
CR: Well, I started in law school. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to be an art dealer or go into real estate, and real estate seemed kind of boring and being an art dealer seemed incredibly impractical. While I was studying for the bar, I actually found the perfect compromise of the two ideas. I started to acquire properties in South Beach, and certainly the Art Deco buildings were as much sculptures as they were buildings, and so it was an unforeseen way for me to merge my interest in art and my interest in business. I also bought the first property for the purpose of having a studio that I could bring artists into to paint. So from the onset, my business interests and my interest in art were intertwined. My first commercial tenant was Keith Haring.
CR: It was with his publisher at his time, and they did a variation of the Pop Shop.
WW: Did that plant the seed then of possible success in developing a blend of art and design both in South Beach and the Design District?
CR: Well, in South Beach I had two business partners. The first one is a man named Tony Goldman, and they were both mentors to me. Tony taught me about working in neighborhoods, and also I learned a lot about the importance of historic preservation, and so that influence then combined with my second sort of teachermentor-partner, a guy named Chris Blackwell, who was in the record business. He had done a lot of films and had a big record company called Island Records, and so Chris really taught me about producing creativity. South Beach was the perfect place to be working that way, because it was a neighborhood that lent itself to creative projects and historic preservation. It was also an ideal place to work with these different kinds of creative industries. My first commercial tenants were fashion companies that we brought to Miami and convinced to produce their catalogs in Miami. It generated a little bit of commerce, but it also brought synergies between these incredible Art Deco buildings, the beach, the sun, and the beautiful people that were coming in and working. That helped to also create a bit of a social scene. Then we were successful in attracting other creative industries, so music companies started to do things, especially with Chris and Island Records, and films started to get made. So South Beach kind of emerged, as did I. I was kind of catapulted in the center of it, and I was really focused on this idea of building an interesting and dynamic community. I continued to collect art and also furniture design, and one of the things that I realized was that using that, art and design, architecture, working in historical neighborhoods, building a sense of community was interesting and it was a different kind of model than most developers were using. But the problem that I saw in Miami is that it was perceived, and in some ways justifiably perceived, as a superficial city. It wasn't really recognized as an international city of substance. I'd say that the turning point symbolically, and also physically, was when we got Art Basel to come to Miami, because it really gave the city a chance to showcase itself as an international cultural city of substance.
WW: How difficult was it to convince Art Basel to come to Miami?
CR: Well, it was really Sam Keller and his former bosses that originally had the vision, and I think that the community, we had the wisdom to realize where that incredible opportunity would be and to advocate it. My feeling was that we should do something that would be very different from Basel, more like the furniture fair, Salone, in Milan. What always fascinated me about Salone was that the whole city was celebrating design. The Design District, which I had been investing in for quite some time, became sort of a cultural center for that whole experience, and so a lot of cultural activities happened here during Art Basel, and that was of course anchored by the fact that the neighborhood had already emerged as probably the most interesting single neighborhood in the country for furniture design. I've since really focused on building in the design district not just as a neighborhood for furniture design, but also for art, fashion, and great food, and it continues to evolve as a very important venue in Miami with all these different creative components to it. It's really like Miami's laboratory for creativity.
WW: And when did you first start collecting design?
CR: I started in the late eighties. Collecting design meant, I think, something different than it does today. It wasn't that expensive at the time, and contemporary design was not perceived to be collectible because it was all being mass-produced. It was really just one part of the industrial design world. My visits to Salone got me aware of companies that I thought were on the edge of design like Kartell, Capellini, Edra, Vitro. These were companies that were finding more creative ways to engage. I first discovered the Campana brothers and began to collect a lot of their things, a lot of their work, which was being made by Edra, and that ultimately, along with Art Basel, led to a partnership that I formed with the owner of Art Basel to found Design Miami.
WW: What did you want Design Miami to be?
CR: Initially, Sam Keller, who's a very close friend, approached me and asked if I would consider doing it. Ambra Medda wanted to found the company with me, so I was also inspired by her and desired to get involved. The idea was that design especially contemporary design was not perceived as being collectible in the same way that art was, and we wanted to make an argument that it was actually equally collectible. So we combined the best contemporary dealers on limited-edition design with the great dealers of modern design, and showcased that, really for the first time ever, to the largest gathering in the United States. The success was immediate. The world gravitated toward design as a real opportunity to collect, and that catapulted my interest substantially in collecting design as well, because as an art collector, the realization that the requirements were I hang art, but also have great collectible design, was a major source of inspiration for me as a collector.
WW: When did that idea of marrying art and design in your home finally click for you?
CR: It really started when I founded Design Miami, and the first year of Design Miami was 2005. I had already been collecting design for years, but not in the same way and not with the same understanding or focus. Part of it is you start to meet the dealers in each of these worlds, and they become a key resource to learning and understanding and evolving as a collector.
WW: Did your new understanding of collecting design change the way that you placed it in your home?
CR: There was all of a sudden a greater role for design, because I started to look at it differently. I always had furniture, but furniture became collectible, especially the contemporary design. Contemporary design that's produced industrially without any limit on the quantities is equally as important as creative discipline, but it's not collectible. It may some day become collectible. I think that collecting both actually fueled my collecting in a very positive way, and it did impact the environments where I live and work, because the quality is the experience.
WW: With the artists and designers you collect, is it important for you to have a relationship with them?
CR: No. I really enjoy artists. I enjoy creative people in general, so it's a fun part of my life to meet creative people. But it really interferes with collecting as much as it helps, because if you like somebody, then that influences your decision about collecting, whereas if you're really just looking at what they're producing, then I think you're not influenced by the interpersonal side.
WW: You collect a number of artists in depth, like John Baldessari and Marlene Dumas. Why collect an artist in depth?
CR: Well, that's the process in which I engage. I like to find artists that I'm interested in, buy something by them, experience it, and then see if that makes me want to continue to collect them and to collect more, and the longer that lasts, the better. The [work I collect by] John Baldessari and Richard Tuttle goes back to the sixties [through] the present, and it's a wonderful experience to continue to fill in and watch them evolve and see how artists continue to produce incredible work. But it's not necessary to do it that way it's just a way I collect. Also, these artists sometimes get extremely hyped up and it becomes difficult to acquire their work, or the price has changed radically because there's a lot of speculation around them. I think that also interferes with being a real collector, so even if I like the artist, that could be a reason why I'll back off for a while and see how things develop before I try to accumulate.
WW: So you prefer to proceed with caution?
CR: I like to think of myself as being adventurous, so I don't think it's about caution. I just prefer to do what I can not to be influenced by the hype and really think about the art. And if I believe in the art, then that's what drives me.
WW: How do you oversee the rotation of your collection between your homes, your office, and your buildings?
CR: We're always thinking about changing things around and looking at things. I like to pull things up that I haven't seen in a long time. I also like to put new things out so that I can experience them and then see different works in combination together. The experience of just seeing certain work with other work is very interesting. It's kind of like a living, breathing environment of transition that replicates any life experience.
WW: Is there anything that you keep, in your office to see every day, or in your home?
CR: I would say that the art that I enjoy the most is the art that I end up having out the most. Or the artists that I collect the most in depth are usually better represented in what I'm showing, but it changes all the time.
WW: Tell us about your plans for a new space in Miami devoted to showing your collection to the public.
CR: I have mixed feelings about it. What I'd really like to do is do something like that in collaboration with another collector. There are already so many great private collection buildings that I'm not sure there's a need for another one. I also have 20,000 square feet of space that have been designed as galleries in my office, so I have a wonderful environment to show the work. I would, though, be interested at some point in ideally collaborating with another collector, a couple of other collectors, and having a space where we make our collections available together, individually, as a group of experiences. I'd also probably like my collection to eventually just end up in the public domain anyway.
WW: Why is that?
CR: I think it's a real opportunity that collectors have and a great opportunity to offer some legacy to a public institution. When you look at the really great institutions, they were [made] by people that had vision and extreme generosity, and [those institutions] became wonderful assets to the communities in which they exist. I think it'd be nice, at least for the material that I control, to end up in the public domain.
WW: And a final question anything you passed over that you wish you hadn't?
CR: I can't really say that I have any regrets, because anything I didn't buy, somebody else did, and that's kind of what makes it all fun. But as a collector, I'm really more engaged in the process and the experience of engaging in whatever art I have installed. There's plenty of art in the world, and there's also going to be a lot of time to evaluate it and figure out what it means. Whatever the popular perception is at the moment isn't necessarily indicative of how people are going to think over time.