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Written by Anne Tschida - BT Arts Editor, Photos by Silvia Ros   
December 2011

In just two years, Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz have redefined the public role of private art collectors

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When the de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space opened two years ago, just in time for Art Basel Miami Beach 2009, art aficionados traipsed up and down three floors of the open, beautifully planned space to take in the latest addition to Miami’s growing art infrastructure.

A design feat of John Marquette, the building with one wall made entirely of windows was the new home of the collection of Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz, who have a highly regarded selection of contemporary art and are considered to be among the nation’s most prominent collectors.

On the top floor, one room of the 30,000-square-foot building was dedicated to the haunting photography and video of iconic, Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta. Much of the center space was devoted to work from another famous contemporary Cuban artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres: one piece consisted of two stacks of paper, on one which was written “Nowhere better than this place,” and on the other pile, “Somewhere better than this place.” (Both died untimely, early deaths.)

Among the impressive array of international art, there was also work from current Miami residents Cesar Trasobares, Naomi Fisher, and Cristina Lei Rodriguez.

Visitors got the feeling that this new private collectors’ space was closely tied to the artistic ground around it. Their intuition turned out to be right.

In the past two years, the de la Cruz space has played host to a number of locally generated exhibits, many of which have pressed the edge of mainstream and made for some exciting art. It instituted a travel and scholarship program that has enabled both college and high school students to pay visits to art hubs from New York to Berlin. It has given over evenings to improvised music (including a night of musicians who normally play at the down-and-dirty Churchill’s Pub), and started a residency program. At the same time, the space has also brought in internationally known artists and curators to exhibit and lecture.

Cover_2And one of the best things: It’s free and open five days a week. That is a departure not just from local private collections but from most art institutions nationally.

In other words, on its second birthday, the de la Cruz Collection space in the Design District has proven to be an active player in the development of the cultural community. That’s not to say there have been no detractors in the almost Byzantine world of art politics.

While many people believe that the vast private collections in Miami are superior to the museums here, some also think that has hindered the growth or our public institutions, particularly those still in their formative years.

But this is where the de la Cruz space has surprised initial skeptics. On any given day, busloads of students can be seen roaming the galleries, attending workshops, or sitting in the library. In fact unlike most art centers in Miami, there is a constant stream of visitors. It doesn’t get much more public than that.

Someone coming on a tour or just stopping in last year at this time would have encountered a video from local artist Christy Gast, who also shows at Gallery Diet in Wynwood. Titled

Under an expansive Florida sky, Gast taps around limestone pilings, egrets, and steel grates, creating a musical soundtrack. There are a couple of dualities here: Gast is dressed in what would traditionally be formal men’s wear; and the 30-foot-high barrier surrounding the huge inland sea is both loved and hated. Some say the Hoover dike is a great impediment to the natural flow of the Everglades, and ugly too.

Others, who reference the massive floods that killed thousands in the 1920s, say it is a life-saver. It was an alternative -- and literal -- take on barriers and what they mean.

CoverStory_3The video was shown in the Project Room, which is set aside to highlight local art, and site-specific pieces at that. Herbert Hoover Dyke was commissioned by the de la Cruzes after a proposal that Gast sent in. It’s clear, says the artist, that “there is a lot of community involvement, and artists feel at home there.”

Gast was later invited to give a workshop on so-called inflatables -- sculptures that are inflatable, temporary, and pretty much fun. “The collection has a super interesting educational program, where artists give workshops on topics that interest them, rather than a set curriculum,” she says of the workshop.

The artist guided students from New World School of the Arts, the Design and Architecture High School, and University of Miami “through the process of conceptualizing and fabricating a large-scale, collaborative, site-responsive inflatable sculpture,” says Gast. The de al Cruzes “decided to exhibit the piece in the space for a few months, which was a thrill for the folks who made the project. It looked really great in the space, since it was inspired by the architecture and the art.”

Kids also played with the clever but informative installation by Miami artist Karen Rifas in the Project Room, which included huge clear containers filled with leaves from her backyard, millions of oak leaves and pine needles collected over the years. Rifas asked visitors, big and little, to pick out two matching leaves, which she hung on a wall.

Cover_4Of course, there are no real matching leaves. Like snowflakes, each shape is unique. The room smelled like autumn. When you rummaged through the leaf piles, other little pieces of nature turned up, such as sticks and seeds. Rifas toyed with the concept of a leaf “laboratory” with the exhibit, bringing up questions about how and what we classify in our world.

An intimate view of the world was revealed with multimedia artist Kevin Arrow’s installation Amor Infinitus. Using old-fashioned snapshots, he created an old-fashioned slide show of a couple’s travels, in which they wave and smile at each other through the filter of the camera, in front of far-flung locations such as the Kremlin in Russia and the Forbidden City in China. It was about nostalgia, where both the dated medium and the old photographs evoked memories of our own.

The de la Cruzes have been showing off their art collection for some 25 years, first at their home on Key Biscayne (during previous Art Basels, getting into the house party there was probably the biggest ticket in town), and now also at their space. As she readies for yet another Art Basel exhibition, Rosa de la Cruz maintains that the Design District building is an extension of, not a replacement for, their home collection. Together the two locations are exhibiting works from 62 artists.

CoverStory_5“Both spaces hold part of our collection, and our home can be visited by appointment,” says the Cuban-born art enthusiast. Aside from collecting the work of Cuban artists, the couple has specialized in cutting-edge German art, especially from the former East Germany, including from what is now known as the Leipzig School. “The books in our libraries also are available to the public in both places. Through a computer program, visitors can see what books are in our collection.”

In both spaces, then, a visitor can see work or read about such major contemporary German artists as Neo Rauch, Martin Kippenberger, Thomas Schutte, Albert Oehlen, John Bock, and Jonathan Meese.

Meese is a bit of an art-world prankster, along with being one of its stars. His installations, featuring collages crammed with pop-culture references, and his performances have been seen at the Tate Modern and Saatchi Gallery in London, as well as the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris.

He also has an increasingly close connection to Miami, thanks initially to the de la Cruzes. In 2005 the couple let Meese run wild in their home, stapling images to the walls and then painting all over them. Last year, during Art Basel Miami Beach, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in North Miami gave him his first American solo exhibit.

Cover_8As it turns out, Meese played a role in another of the de la Cruz initiatives to develop the local art community. For the second year this summer, the de la Cruz Collection sponsored a New World student trip, this time to both Berlin and Venice. “In Berlin we organized visits to museums, monuments, and artists’ studios -- Jonathan Meese welcomed them to his studio,” says Rosa de la Cruz about the trip, which was made possible through a matching grant from the Knight Foundation. “I think the travel program is essential for the students’ education. In order to enrich their culture and knowledge of art, they need to have exposure to the national and international art scene. These trips allow the students exclusive access to world-class museums, galleries, and private collections.”

On a separate trip, the de la Cruzes also traveled with a group of Miami artists and art students to Princeton University to see a major retrospective of Kurt Schwitters. He was an influential early 20th-century avant-garde artist -- yes, also German -- who pioneered collage, gluing together train tickets and candy wrappers, and eventually also delved into architecture, which led to his famous Merzbau, a radical reworking of his family’s home in Hanover. It was destroyed during a World War II bombing raid.

Cover_7Although the structure itself disappeared, it continued to have an impact on 20th-century movements, which not just art students but the Miami public were able to grasp when local gallerist Fred Snitzer put on a show this year called “Merzbau -- Now.” Snitzer presented works by current artists who were influenced by Schwitters, including several who are in the de la Cruz Collection.

All of this is evidence of the growing interaction between Miami and a broader arts world, both national and international, that the de la Cruzes have helped to foster.

In another example: This past summer Ibett Yanez, director of the De La Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space, co-curated a show at the well-known Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, which included artists from Miami and New York. Yanez has been working with Rosa de la Cruz since 2004, when Rosa, along with developer and collector Craig Robins, ran the Moore Space on the second floor of the Design District’s Moore Building, which Robins owns.

“We’ve built a great relationship with the Fabric Workshop and Marion ‘Kippy’ Stroud, the founder,” says Yanez. “She invited us to do an exhibition at her space after seeing the video exhibition Fighting, Kissing, Dancing at our space, curated by local artist Carlos Rigau.” The result of Stroud’s enthusiasm was a show called “Liquid Matter,” which Yanez says “helped local artists branch out of Miami and gain exposure to other art scenes.”

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Yanez points to another distinctive aspect of the de la Cruz operation. “Even though we’re not a museum or foundation, we act as a public institution,” she says. “We’re helping to build the structure that our city needs.” And, she stresses, it’s at no cost to that public.

Says Rosa de la Cruz: “Art spaces should be admission-free. I believe that this is important for all communities.”

Of course, many art spaces would go broke without admission fees, which underscores another way in which Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz are the exceptions to the rules that seem to govern the art world.

Thanks to Carlos’s success as a businessman (among other business interests, he is CEO of Eagle Brands, exclusive distributor of Anheuser-Busch products in Miami-Dade County and the Keys, as well as chairman of the Coca-Cola bottler in Puerto Rico), he and his wife can fund their Contemporary Art Space at a very high level.

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Director Yanez was a judge in this year’s annual Optic Nerve experimental film festival at MOCA. For the first time ever, the festival was opened up to participants from across the country. And for the first time the festival traveled to the de la Cruz Collection to show for a month, giving the festival that much more exposure. “We think it’s important to collaborate between public and private institutions,” explains de la Cruz. “Bonnie Clearwater [director of MOCA] had collaborated before with us at the Moore Space, and she liked the idea of extending the days of the exhibition Optic Nerve by showing it in our space for one month.”

Another Optic Nerve judge this year was Justin Long. Circling back to the Project Room dedicated to local art, he will work with Robert Lorie (they are known as the collaborative Funner Projects) for “Maintain Right,” the Project Room show for this year’s Art Basel. “Artists are invited to propose ideas or site-specific installations, and then we have three projects per year,” says de la Cruz. “It’s an integral part of our mission to showcase art from artists living in Miami.”

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In keeping with the Project Space’s developing custom, Long will be pushing some boundaries with “Maintain.” In the past, Funner Projects has used knives, machetes, and meat in their work. Long describes what we will encounter this way: “Every hour on the hour, the garage door opens. Two men emerge, wheeling a large crossbow into position. They take some measurements, and wind back the bow. The arrow is in place. All clear. Fire in the hole! Bang!!”

Long says Rosa de la Cruz read about a version of this installation on a blog. “Then we discussed what parts of the show would work best in the Collection for Basel.”

As anyone who has visited the space and seen Rosa de la Cruz actively working in the library or on an installation, it’s clear she has a hands-on, daily interaction with the art, and what is exhibited and how it is displayed.

Cover_14As for the main exhibit opening this month for Art Basel, de la Cruz says it too will be somewhat unconventional, at least in delivery. “Rather than doing a traditional thematic exhibition or creating a dialogue between the individual artists,” she says, “this year’s overall pattern could be interpreted as a large puzzle.” Some of the walls in the space will be installed salon-style, crowded with work. “At first glance, the viewer will be overwhelmed by color and pattern; on closer observation, the pattern dissolves and the individual works reveal themselves.”

Artist George Sanchez-Calderon was given the previous Project Room exhibit this fall, which he called Family of Man, a name taken from one of the biggest photography exhibits of all time, the “every-man” photographs collected by Edward Steichen for a show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1955.

For his reimagined version, Sanchez-Calderon bought an old train-station sign, which once announced times and destinations in South Boston. In this case, however, not just destinations but also names of corporations pop up, actually flip over. It’s both a nod to an era past (most train and airport signs are now digital), and to the current one we inhabit.

Cover_6Sanchez-Calderon often comments of the state of man, on our relationship to the urban landscape, and in this instance on the impact of the Great Recession. “The de la Cruz Collection space is playing an important role here in Miami,” says the artist. “By showing work that they don’t necessarily own or buy, they are giving exposure to local art” in a major venue.

This, he believes, is an opportunity that is often lacking. “Look around,” he says. “How many institutions are showing local art during Art Basel? Not many. You’d think they would make an effort.”

Traditionally Miami has been weak on institutional support, he says, but the de la Cruz Collection is helping to change that: “By really supporting local work, they are establishing a community, and in a quality way.”

 

The de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space, 23 NE 41st St.; 305-576-6112; delacruzcollection.org. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Free admission. Call for information about special operating hours and programs during Art Basel Miami Beach.

 

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