THE ARTISTRY OF AMIR BEN-ZION: The business of collecting art
The neighborhood was rough, inhabited by shoe factories, car mechanic shops, empty dirt lots, warehouses and the occasional art gallery with bars on its doors. Prostitutes and drug addicts stumbled down the streets, their eyes empty, their clothes dirty and ragged. It was usually a neighborhood to avoid, even though it was going through a rolling gentrification. I was being driven through the sad streets on a bright, hot, sunny morning by Miami art collector, restaurateur and businessman, Amir Ben-Zion who was brimming with excitement about the mural he was about to show me: a building length painting by an artist named Jonah.
“I took my 15-year-old son out here last night and we just sat in the car with the lights on, looking at it,” Ben-Zion tells me. “I wanted him to appreciate how beautiful this is; to explain to him that great art can be found anywhere.” This is Ben-Zion’s mantra - one he lives by. Just an hour later, we’re roaming the halls of Art Basel’s Scope Art Fair. Ben-Zion surgically and strategically assesses dealer booths we pass: viewing, dissecting, and silently deciding if he’s interested in what they have to offer before moving on. Finally, we stop at a dealer who has R. Crumb pieces for sale. Ben-Zion, a Crumb fan, looks them over and expresses interest in about three original Crumb sketches priced at $30,000 each. He promises to come back to look at them in more detail.
Ben-Zion claims he doesn’t put price limits on himself when purchasing art, “I don’t understand budgets for art. For my restaurants I know that I need to be in a certain ballpark [money-wise] but I don’t live by budgets when it comes to art.” (However, he did confess to recently not purchasing a “killer” John Baldassari piece because it was $900,000.) Just going by Ben-Zion’s portfolio of holdings, one would think he could afford anything he wants. His real estate investments include South Beach’s Townhouse hotel and its trendy in-house restaurant, Bond Street; Miss Yip restaurant and its upstairs lounge, Buck 15 and the Design District restaurant, Domo Japonese (now Senora Martinez.)
Buck 15 is a spot that seems to not only get cooler every year, but has become known for its revolving exhibits of local artists. Ben-Zion’s infusion of art in a place you least expect it is a reflection of his unbounded joy in buying and exhibiting art. He’ll put it anywhere he can. Diners can also find some of his favorite artists hanging on the walls of his Design District restaurant, Domo Japonese. They’re all spill outs from the art that fills his home as well as a storage space which houses about 75 pieces. “I’m a junkie,” he states.
Like fellow Miami art junkies and collectors, Craig Robins, Mera Rubell, Rosa de la Cruz and Marty Marguilies, Ben-Zion finds that he can’t stop. Although his collection reflects his loyalty to local artists – Eurydice, Evo Love, Jose Parla, etc - he has now begun to significantly expand his range, forging connections with art dealers and art consultants in New York and Europe. They advise him on artists in the U.S. and around the world who’s work will complement his collection. “I manifest the art I want and the pieces I need to have,” insists Ben-Zion. “I never have to chase artwork.”
Ben-Zion has also turned to formally sponsoring artists, underwriting the expenses of three Berlin artists in the past year who wanted to travel to Miami to study and paint. He says it’s a great way to connect fellow artists to each other, introduce them to new sponsors and get them in front of other collectors. His love is not only of art itself, but the artists as well. He’s been known to lend a helping hand whenever he can, feeding, funding and supporting artists in whatever way they need.
Low-key, laid-back, funny, flirty and curious, Ben-Zion, while small and compact, is all man; his self-confidence and cockiness are the most expressive examples of his success. He was friendly and direct to the dealers and gallery staff we met, sure of his taste and what he wanted and didn’t want, and he seemed to know everyone. They greeted him with hugs and handshakes as we moved from booth to booth and fair to fair, covering about three fairs in one afternoon. This is about the average for him during Basel. In his early 40s, Ben-Zion’s energy and stamina stem from years of training as a tennis player after his family moved here from Jerusalem when he was 16 years old. Although they lived in New York City - the Bronx to be exact - Ben-Zion sought out courts that would allow him to practice whenever he wanted.
That determination has always propelled Ben-Zion and is the best example of why he was destined to be an entrepreneur. Ben-Zion, who has four children with his wife, Dr. Etti Ben-Zion (known as Miami’s Detox Doctor) moved to Miami in 1998. Since then he’s built an empire that not only includes the restaurants and hotels, but also Paradise Properties which has developed several residential and commercial projects including Cynergi Lofts, Park lane Tower, The Chelsea, Brickell Flatiron and Mid Town Lofts. His first major company was First Corporate Sedans (FCS), a fleet of corporate town cars used to transport New York City’s movers and shakers. Started in 1985, FCS is now one of the city’s largest transportation companies, with nearly 500 Town cars servicing a number of Fortune 500 corporations. In addition to Townhouse, Bond Street, Miss Yip and Buck 15, Ben-Zion, along with his partners, Jenny Yip and Jonathan Morr, also own APT, the celeb-heavy lounge in New York’s Meatpacking District. He’ll also soon open Bardot, a lounge that joins his restaurant, Senora Martinez, in the Design District.
Passion rules Ben-Zion’s life, in business and as an art collector. And one gets the feeling he’s only just begun to have what he wants.