On a December afternoon in Miami Beach, the neo-'50s swank of the Nautilus Hotel’s Morris Lapidus porte-cochère was abuzz with bellhops in French sailor-stripes and publicists with iPads sorting out who was in and who was not for the various events that night.

The hotel’s proprietor, Jason Pomeranc, was tired — he’d been out late the night before, and had spent the day recovering at the beach — and, as always, studiously unfussy. That slight air of arch bemusement is a necessary skill for surviving in the Instagram era of high-end lodging. His antenna for whatever his guests need – or think they need – is perfectly attuned to the present moment. And he knows that the days when gussied up old Deco hotels staffed with lackadaisical aspiring models was enough to print money in Miami are long gone.

“In the old days we’d hang at the Raleigh and if you had a bed people were banging down your door,” he said. But now you have to bring your “A” game to attract the “A” crowd.

Oh, and now the A stands for “art.” Strolling past a series of artworks that stretched the length of the lobby – starting with a zeitgeisty painting of a hashtag by Gabriele de Santis, and a sculpture called “Chippendale Cubes” by Olivier Laric – Pomeranc paused before a sculpture of a man’s head by Marc Horowitz that looked like an artifact dug up from an ancient civilization that worshipped Mad magazine.

“He’s married to Petra Cortright,” Pomeranc explained. “They’re very hotsy totsy in the L.A. art scene right now.”

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The works are mostly what you might call neo-pop: they invite a kind of quirky contemplation, perhaps with a drink in hand (the bar is nearby.)

Since Art Basel Miami Beach arrived in town in 2002, this formerly seedy weekend retreat for Northeasterners looking for a bit of silliness under the sun has become another waystation for the globetrotting hyperwealthy, which means that Pomeranc, like the rest of Miami, has had to up his game. And then keep upping it.

Marco Palmieri-2.jpeg
“Ciao,” a wall vinyl by Marco Palmieri, and “Marble Hashtag work” by Gabriele de Santis at the lobby of the Nautilus Hotel in Miami Beach.

Photo by Zach Hilty/BFA

When he re-opened the Nautilus a year ago after an extensive renovation, he made sure it was as much a resort as it was a mini-pantheon to up-to-the-minute art, contemporary art being the lingua franca of the self-consciously discerning new class he counts as his guests, the ones who matter most to keeping his hotel hotsy totsy right now in a relentlessly discerning luxury experience market.

Of course, the mutual appreciation alliance of luxury goods and art is long-established; there are malls with private museums from Brazil to Beirut. It’s also an emerging amenity that might spruce up an otherwise ordinary stack of glassy condos into something like living at a museum (which of course you often can these days.) This has been prevalent in Miami for some time: local developer Craig Robbins rotates pieces from his collection – including works by John Baldessari, Marlene Dumas, Paul McCarthy, and Mike Kelley – through his properties. And lately it has become almost a marketing requirement: Oceana Bal Harbour, not far from Miami Beach, features a couple of Jeff Koons sculptures on its grounds: “Pluto and Proserpina” and “Ballerina.”

Now hotels have to do it, too. And so from the Eden Roc – which this year rebranded a subsection of its sprawling resort complex as the Nobu Hotel, its walls spangled with A-list works chosen by collector Peter Brant (Richard Prince, Rob Pruitt, Julian Schnabel, Jonathan Horowitz, et al) – to the Faena Hotel, with its golden Damien Hirst mammoth skeleton kenneled by the pool and adjacent kunsthalle, the Faena Forum, there’s a kind of art arms race, and to the losers go the discounted rates on Hoteltonight.com.

“We just did a mural at the bottom of the pool,” Pomeranc told me. “Last year we had Katherine Bernhardt do it. This year we had a Japanese artist do it. The idea is to now use the pool as a platform for an artist every year. We just finished it last week.”

Of course, art is not decor, at least not always. Last year, the hotel exhibited Takeshi Murata’s video piece “I, Popeye,” where Popeye kills Olive Oyl and commits suicide.

“It was really interesting to watch but we didn’t take into account that kids would freak out, they would start crying. I had to apologize to a couple of mommies,” Pomeranc said.

Pomeranc, 45, is the son of New York developer Jack Pomeranc, and has the stubble-faced ease of someone who grew up around money, power and celebrities during their downtime. His family went to Miami when it was pre-fabulous, when The Edition, which Ian Schrager gussied up two years ago was the dowdy Seville. And “when the Faena was the Saxony,” Pomeranc recalled. “It was a kosher hotel, and we used to go there in the ‘70s for Passover. Where the bar downstairs was like a coffee shop or something.”

As it has been redone–by the fedora-wearing Argentinian man in white Alan Faena—it is opulent but “not necessarily reflective of what Miami ever was. It’s kind of it's own thing,” Pomeranc continued. “There’s something surrealist about it. You sort of feel like there might be characters coming out of the air conditioning vents.”

Lately, that’s Miami in a nutshell, especially when we met at the height of Art Basel. “It’s the busiest week of the year–certainly price-point wise. And in terms of the wealth demographic,” Pomeranc said. The official fair and its satellites and all the other parties in its orbit captures the cultural interests of the so-called “rootless cosmopolitan elites,” who were much vilified, and arguably rebuked, during the presidential election. But it’s also become the city’s high-end business model.

Pomeranc first ventured down to the beach as a businessman in 2002. “I had a hotel, the Sagamore when I started in Miami,” he said. He and his brothers kicked off their chain of boutique hotels with the 60 Thompson hotel at what was then the discrete fringe of SoHo in 2001, which, coincidentally, was supposed to be the first year of Art Basel Miami Beach.Instead, that year was delayed by 9/11, and the next year, when the resort side-piece to the august Swiss fair opened, they weren’t expecting much.

“Nobody thought anyone would show up,” Pomeranc remembered. “We were prepared for like a cute collectors brunch on Sunday. We thought it would be a few museum directors and some collectors from Bal Harbour walking up and down the aisles of the convention center, looking at things. It was a pleasant surprise, from first year. And then it became this massive thing.”

And the Great Recession didn’t slow it down. The Obama years, as it turns out, were very good ones for the art world, with prices climbing along with attendance at an expanding global itinerary of fairs, biennials and contemporary art museums–many of them private, sometimes even incorporated into shopping centers, resorts and mixed use real estate developments. The art world – art and artists – became a well-publicized public spectacle, both a conveyor of surprising and often subversive ideas and novel visual sensations, but also, at the same time, in many ways indistinguishable from the marketing of a luxurious jet-set lifestyle.

“I had a funny dinner party in the spring at a collector’s house in New York,” Pomeranc told me. “They asked me if I was going to Basel and I said I wasn’t going because I had a conflict during the summer. And a young woman at the table said, ‘What are you talking about? Basel is in December as if Basel Switzerland didn’t exist.”

And for someone like her, it doesn’t: Basel, in Basel, is a 45-year-old fair, very serious, and bikini-free. “It’s nothing like this,” said Pomeranc looking around. “There are no nice hotels, no fun parties to go to.” But had Basel stayed just in Basel and not at the beach, there’s no telling what the art world would look like now.

“All this mayhem is what has precipitated the ability for young emerging artists to get exposure and be bought,” Pomeranc said. “People come down here for the party and eventually they will go to a fair.” And from Pulse to NADA to Scope to Untitled, the number of fairs, each catering to a particular price point and level of discernment, have proliferated throughout the week.

“That army of new collectors has driven the market for the last nine years,” Pomeranc said. And it’s disrupted the art market. “The highbrow art collectors – that has made them uncomfortable in that it sort of interferes with their insular way to move the market.”

In the process, too, it has transformed Miami Beach. “Art Basel has certainly changed the client base and what the city is about. It’s established it as a global capital,” Pomeranc said. “There was more esprit de corps in those days. We all went to each other’s venues. We all collaborated. And the beach was the beach. It was a very seasonal place. There was no Wynwood or Design District. Downtown Miami was where you’d go see a lawyer or a banker. Now, Miami is a much bigger place.”

This year, at the fairs anyway, things were a bit quieter than in the past. The question, as with anything very chic, is whether it’s gotten too popular for its own good and lost its cachet.

“It’s gone from where people, whether they were an artist or a collector, said, ‘I have to be sure to come down,’” Pomeranc continued, on a roll. “To, ‘Oh, I’m just coming for a day because it’s become too commercial. It’s this reverse snobbery. It’s such bulls--t. You have to be like, ‘I’m participating but I’m not going to like it.’”

He looked around at the crowd once more.

“Which is not true,” he said. “They’re here having a blast and enjoying themselves. So that is symptomatic of its success.”

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