Susana Baker and her half-dozen guests walk slowly through an exhibit of intricately carved and painted wood, depicting Florida fauna and wildlife.
Next, Zadok Gallery director Mark Smith guides them through exhibits on Jacquard woven tapestries, the photography of Tatiana Parcero and the charcoal-monofilament medium of South Korean artist Seon Ghi Bahk, whose renditions of a table and vase are suspended in the air. Before leaving, the group circles the hypnotic prism-like structures of Gabriel Dawe, made with 52 miles of multi-colored thread.
As the group leaves this gallery in the Wynwood art district of Miami, heading to an exhibit of Clyde Butcher's photographic work on Cuba at the Center for Visual Communication, Baker asks: "Did you guys know this was here in your own back yard? Isn't this incredible?"
The group was aware of the growing international attention bestowed on this thriving art and urban scene of Miami that includes the Wynwood, Midtown and Design Districts.
Baker founded The Art Experience in 2009 to provide intimate exposure to an area that explodes with life and thousands of pedestrians during the popular Wynwood Second Saturday Art Walks. Her tour participants are taken through all three districts, given private curated tours through five or six galleries and a private collection and then treated to a three-course dinner at their choice of one of several fine-dining restaurants located in the districts.
"Second Saturdays, you can't do this. It's too crazy," Baker says in traffic in the Midtown district, waiting behind a taxi that stops for two women wearing bikinis, shawls, wedge heels and chic straw hats.
Her tours on Second Saturdays involve gallery- and bar-hopping, but not the individualized attention of this type of tour, which she dubs "Dine, Design, and Explore the Arts." As she drives, her half-dozen passengers gaze at Midtown's sleek high-rise condos and lofts across from blocks of sidewalk cafes, restaurants and red-brick shops and boutiques.
They have just left a personalized tour through the private and world-renowned De La Cruz art collection in the adjacent Design District. On foot or in the van, Baker provides a running history and commentary on the rise, fall and reinvention of the three districts, which recently have gone from blighted regions to swaths of public murals, thriving galleries, prestigious art collections and home to designers like Hermes, Prada and Louis Vuitton.
"It's very high-end global designers," she says about the Design District now. "It's a candy store for interior designers and architects."
Beyond the store fronts, she drives through the residential neighborhoods of the Design District, showing off historic architecture from Spanish Mediterranean Revival to art deco bungalows. Back in Wynwood, the group walks through several more galleries of contemporary art and past street art of painted warehouse exteriors as well as the Wynwood Walls enclosed murals.
"Who would like a little Cuban coffee?" Baker asks the group. "After seeing all that art, you have to have a moment."
Baker pulls the van into a lot bordering on Midtown behind an unassuming storefront the passengers might have blown right by on their own. They step into Las Tias – "the best consignment store in the country," Baker calls it, whose owners, once in real estate, sell items obtained from Miami's well-heeled and celebrity residents. Inside are chandeliers, plush sofas, armoires and doors converted to coffee tables. As Baker greets the owner, Esther Percal, the staff serves up sweet, thick Cuban coffee in dainty demitasse cups.
Some on the tour mill about. David Roelant, 54, has a seat near the entrance. The only one in the group from Miami, he has attended the Second Saturday art walks numerous times, he says. Though fun, the experience of passing through a few dozen galleries makes his head spin. "By the time I get home, I think, 'What did I just see?'"
But this personal guided tour with Baker added perspective and context. "I can see the bigger picture."
With him is his girlfriend, Lisa Lewandowski, who teaches illustration and graphic design at the College of Creative Studies near Detroit. Roelant invited her on this tour, hoping to entice her to move to Miami once she saw its promising art world.
Also along for the tour are Iris Leekey and her friend, Isabelle Leger. For several years the two women longed to make the drive to the art district from their homes in Pembroke Pines, but were too intimidated. Until they found Baker's tour offer online.
"I've been wanting to explore this area, but it's almost overwhelming," Leekey said.
Accessibility was Baker's passport – literally. A resident of the pre-fad Design District since the early 1990s, Baker's view of her own neighborhood changed in 2009 when she attended a gallery opening in Wynwood.
"I'm seeing DJ's and music and stilt walkers down the street, and I'm thinking, 'What is this?'" She went home and worked at the computer until well after midnight. The former marketer for time-share corporations began to design an art passport using the same secrets about packaged deals that had made her successful at her old job before the recession. The Art Experience passport provided maps and information on galleries.
She built partnerships that brought in ads for the passports as well as 2-for-1 specials at local bars and restaurants and admission to VIP parties and events, she explains before dropping the tour guests at their designated restaurants. She then enjoys her own meal at the Design District's Shokudo – which serves delicious curry potato dumplings, chicken pad Thai and Thai red curry.
"You don't have to think about anything," she says.
If you go…