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Written by Anne Tschida - BT Arts Editor   
May 2012

The uproar over renaming Miami’s art museum is just the latest in a history of turmoil

The new Herzog & de Meuron building that will house the Miami Art Museum (MAM) is set to open in September 2013. It will, without doubt, be a spectacular building, a structure that will make Miami proud.cover_leadpic

The highly regarded Swiss architectural firm is familiar with museums, having built the most visited contemporary art museum in the world, the Tate Modern in London, and the new expansion to one of this country’s important museums, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, to name a few.

Standing on the top floor of what is still a construction site, the view of Miami, of Biscayne Bay, of Miami Beach, is unparalleled. The three-story building sits in the northeast corner of what will be known as Museum Park, sharing space with the new science museum, also under construction. It will have huge glass windows and walls, and be surrounded by raised plazas and verandas, covered by a huge canopy roof with hanging, floor-to-ceiling plants, Babylon style.

On this particular April day, the breeze from the bay is refreshing, and the genius of the design is apparent -- although so transparent and open, no part of the interior will be exposed to direct sunlight, and the outdoor space will be perpetually shaded and exposed to cooling winds from the water.

Certainly the building itself will be a success. What will go inside it, and what it will be called, is not so certain. At press time -- the end of April -- the new museum is expected to be named the Pérez Art Museum Miami, or PAMM, when it opens a little more than a year from now. The new name is a result of a $35 million donation in both cash and art from long-time MAM supporter and major Miami developer Jorge Pérez, CEO of the Related Group.

CoverStory_1The renaming hasn’t been a popular move in all quarters, and seems to be yet another bump in a bumpy road for Miami-Dade County’s flagship museum. As a result of the announcement of the renaming, which happened during Art Basel Miami Beach this past December, several board members resigned, and grumblings could be heard across the art world.

Collectors and artists have expressed concern about what the renaming of Miami’s principal museum will mean. Will potential donors and funders back away? Was the value of Pérez’s donation enough to replace a city’s name?

But then, MAM has been no stranger to controversy, or to resignations. That kind of thing is what you might expect when a public institution tries to serve the interests of such a diverse and sometimes fractious community. In the broader perspective, this is an opportune time to look at where MAM has been and where it is going, as a predominantly taxpayer-supported entity that should, when it has fully matured, represent Miami.


MAM is a relatively young organization, not unlike the city in which it operates. It began as a kunsthalle, or an exhibition-only space called the Center for the Fine Arts, meaning it did not have its own art collection.

In 1996, now called the Miami Art Museum, it became a collecting institution, with an emphasis on post-World War II art from the Western hemisphere. But such youthful museums usually don’t have much money to purchase art, as was the case with MAM, which relied mostly on gifts.

Back then, according to former senior curator Peter Boswell, the museum had about 75 works, with some pieces by important artists such as Frank Stella and Helen Frankenthaler. It had also started to collect local work, from painters Lynne Golob Gelfman and José Bedia, for example.

Still, it was a small collection. By comparison, the Walker Art Center has more than 11,000 works in its permanent collection. Then, in 2005, MAM founded its Collector’s Council. For an annual $5000 fee, council members would contribute to the acquisition of new works, and under the direction of MAM curators, vote on what they would be.

Around 40 people joined it. That started the wheel rolling, recalls Boswell. Once MAM looked like it was serious about collecting, bigger gifts followed, for instance the donation of 101 photographs from the Charles Cowles Collection in 2006. After that, says Boswell, major pieces by the likes of Alfredo Jarr, Sol Lewitt, Carlos Alfonso, and Fernand Leger (now on the outside wall of the museum) flowed in from collectors such as Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, developer Craig Robins, and Jorge Pérez.

CoverStory_2While the museum could be excused for its youth, some people did have problems with its priorities. Almost from the day it became MAM, the museum wanted a new building. The Philip Johnson-designed museum on Flagler Street in downtown Miami was deemed insufficient, too small, and unattractive by MAM’s leaders. They wanted a better space, so focus and fundraising were aimed at achieving that goal. Some thought the focus should have been on the collection first, a new building second.

In 2004, Miami-Dade County voters approved a $100 million bond issue to help build MAM a new home, with the idea that the museum would raise about $100 million to match.

Former curator Boswell says it’s a chicken-and-egg scenario: Who would want to donate significant and expensive art to a museum that was virtually incapable of displaying it? On the other hand, critics have said, what’s the point of a beautiful new building if what’s inside isn’t high quality?

Another problem with an emphasis on fundraising and gathering support for a new home -- both privately and publicly -- is that traveling exhibitions can be slighted in the process. Running a museum, and bringing in quality shows, does not come cheap.

Yet the focus remained on a bigger, better building. To that end MAM, brought in a big name from New York, the chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), Terence Riley. In 2006 he replaced Suzanne Delehanty, MAM’s original director, who resigned not long after the successful campaign to win voter approval of the $100 million bond measure. Riley was expected to shepherd the design and construction of a new building, bringing in Herzog & de Meuron, and then to oversee the museum.

CoverStory_4_Terence_Riley

The institutional enthusiasm and momentum, however, could not be sustained.

In 2008 the recession hit hard, and Miami’s massive building craze came to a grinding halt. Fundraising for a new museum suddenly become exceedingly difficult, as even deep-pocketed potential donors were suffering.

Complicating matters at every turn, especially during a period of financial stress, was the fact that the museum, a quasi-public institution, had to keep one eye on Miami-Dade County’s notoriously confrontational and Balkanized politics. Reflecting the community’s varied interests, MAM currently has a whopping (and cumbersome) 36 trustees. Compare that with the other publicly funded contemporary art museum, MOCA, in North Miami, which has 18.

In 2009, Riley unexpectedly resigned after four years. “I can’t say I’ve ever worked so hard or accomplished so much in such a time frame,” recalls Riley, from selection of the architect, securing the land, and navigating the complex county and city legal issues and permits. By October 2009, he says, “I realized that I had done almost all I could do and that the next big challenge was to grow the collection. I never had any doubt that an art historian would be the better person for that task.” Although Riley would stay on as a consultant, it was another unexpected bump on MAM’s road to maturity.

At that point, about $30 million of the $100 million private funds needed had been raised. Riley was followed out the museum door by trustee Ella Fontanals Cisneros, who had planned to merge some of her large art collection with MAM’s, but took it all away when she left.

She was reported to have been increasingly upset with the emphasis on the new building at the expense, in her opinion, of developing a collection, specifically a strong Latin American collection.

Watching from the sidelines, another staunch opponent of the new museum, local art collector Martin “Marty” Margulies, predicted the new MAM in Bicentennial Park would never be built.


As he points out the huge, hurricane-proof windows that had to be shipped from Germany, MAM’s latest director, Thomas “Thom” Collins, who came from New York’s Neuberger Museum, sees the museum back on track. But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Collins either, in his short tenure here.

CoverStory_6From a number of accounts, back in September it was pretty clear that the new building, getting so near to completion, would need some immediate cash to keep construction going. It arrived as a gift from Jorge Pérez, who would give $20 million in cash over a period of ten years, and $15 million worth of art from his collection.

It was a generous offer, even considering the fact that it came with a stipulation: His name would have to be attached -- at the front -- of the museum’s name. The gift was not a problem, but renaming the city’s premier art museum was, and it immediately set off a storm of controversy.

“We were blind-sided” by the negativity surrounding the name change, says Collins on this crisp spring day out at the construction site, where he goes almost daily to give tours. “In the end, we will have raised more private funds than public” for the new building, he says. As of today, the museum says it has raised $67 million in private funds and expects to raise $53 million more, for a total of $120 million, topping the $100 million in public funds from the 2004 bond measure.

CoverStory_3However, at the moment, almost all of that money is earmarked for the building and for operational costs, not for an endowment to collect. That’s a concern to many. Also of concern is the perception that there has been a lack of leadership in structuring and guiding the long-term effort to collect artworks. Says art collector Rosa de la Cruz, who has donated to MAM in the past: “MAM is a collecting museum with no endowment and a weak and unfocused collection.” Echoing a persistent critique, she says priorities have been somewhat skewed: “MAM should not have started the construction of this very expensive building designed by Herzog & de Meuron without first having a major collection and the private funds.”

She and husband Carlos were openly critical of the renaming of the museum, having penned a letter to the Miami Herald saying as much. But as Rosa de la Cruz adds, “It’s not about Pérez. That is a good donation. But this is not like the performing arts center or the science museum, which do not have to ask donors for art or funds to buy art.” She is referring to the history of naming institutions here in Miami.

We have had, for instance, multiple names associated with a certain football stadium. The Carnival Center for the Performing Arts was changed to the Adrienne Arsht Center, and the new Miami Science Museum will be named the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science when it opens (the Frosts also have their name on FIU’s art museum), for about $30 to $35 million for each for those naming rights.

However, those institutions do not need gifts and donations from people who may object to their names subsumed under the Pérez title, especially if they have spent considerable money and decades collecting specific works. In fact, while we’re familiar with the Guggenheims and the Whitneys -- museums named for individuals and sometimes for their founders -- most city museums have the location front and center in the title, from Denver to Dallas, Los Angeles to Chicago. They may have wings, pavilions, and galleries with donor names attached, but not entire museums.

CoverStory_8For trustee and former MAM president Mary Frank, it was too much. Frank, an art historian, and her husband Howard, chief operating officer of Carnival Corporation, resigned along with two others when the renaming was announced this past December. “I have no issue with the incredible act of generosity” of Pérez, she says.

Mary Frank had been involved with the museum and its precursor for 18 years. “It was the way it was done,” she adds. “A fait accompli, no discussion. The name was a done deal by the time it got to the board. Frank recounts that members of the board had discussed such alternatives as naming a main wing after Pérez, or even calling it something like MAM at the Pérez Building.

Frank explains that “Miami Art Museum” was an intentional, deliberately chosen name back in 1996, one that would forever link it to the community that formed it -- and mostly paid for it. She says she is heartbroken about what has happened.

Thom Collins is having none of it. In today’s world, institutions everywhere have taken on donors’ names -- public-private partnerships are the way of the future, he says, and to think otherwise is unrealistic. He claims that, aside from the several resignations, there have been few other repercussions, monetary or otherwise.

He suggests that people who are so upset by the renaming could have given more money, and then they could have named it what they wanted. Some supporters have also hinted at an anti-Latin bias, although the objections of the de la Cruzes and another board member who resigned, Ruben Rodriguez, would seem to negate that notion.


In truth, the proposed name change to PAMM may have run into a combination of issues. After the economic collapse of 2008, huge, publicly funded edifices such as the performing arts center, the baseball stadium, and indeed MAM came under new scrutiny. How much would taxpayers really have to shell out for each of these? Were the true costs hidden from the public?

And if the new museum was to be a genuine public-private partnership, what should be the monetary threshold for naming rights? Here is where MAM hit another snag: Pérez would not be giving $35 million in cash. A significant part of the gift’s value -- $15 million -- would come in the form of donations from his art collection, a collection that has some questions surrounding it.

CoverStory_5__04272012_boswellBiscayne Times was not able to interview Pérez or view his collection, and so the artworks included in it largely remain a matter of speculation. Some people rather dismissively have said it is filled with mediocre pieces, heavy on the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, whose chubby characters are not taken seriously by most collectors and art critics.

Others have claimed that, while not as big as some of the huge collections in town, it is respectable and will augment the museum’s collection.

A major Latin art dealer, Gary Nader, who has a massive gallery and auction house in Wynwood, objects strenuously to criticisms of Pérez’s collection. “The media is making this an issue,” he says. “Listen, no collection is complete, but Pérez has some very important pieces -- Matta, Rivera, Lam. It’s a fantastic collection.” Any museum, he says, would welcome works from the Pérez collection.

Although Miami’s main art museum is about to be renamed for Pérez, neither MAM nor Pérez would say which artworks are headed for to the museum, or describe the process by which individual pieces were valued, or whether Pérez declared any works off-limits. All we know is that the museum has chosen them and that the selections will be announced later this month.

The renaming was revealed in the middle of Art Basel, which gave it more national and even international attention. After the board resignations and numerous newspaper accounts, curator Peter Boswell also left MAM -- another departure that underscored the institution’s stability issues. Boswell says he cannot comment on the circumstances of his departure, except to acknowledge that a lawyer is involved.

MAM has rather quickly filled some gaps with new staff and campaigns, a necessity given that a very large new museum will open next year and that expectations for quality artwork are high. On opening day, there will be 200,000 square feet of space, both indoors and out.

Collins is clearly proud, even giddy, as he shows off these spaces currently under construction on the edge of the bay. It will be one of the greenest museums in the world, he notes, and has involved top-notch architectural and environmental consultants.

And what will be on display that festive opening day?

CoverStory_7_TobiasThe inaugural exhibitions will rely heavily on the new chief curator Tobias Ostrander, who previously served as the director of El Museo Experimental del ECO in Mexico City. He will be working on filling all the new spaces with traveling exhibitions, site-specific installations, pieces from the permanent collection, local works, and more.

Ostrander knows what a monumental task lies ahead of him, but is excited by it all. “It’s a young city, culturally coming to maturity,” he says. “We want to build on what is here, developing strong Latin American, Caribbean, and North American collections, but also a global one.”

Eventually, in order to live up to the new building’s status, Ostrander knows the museum will have to generate its own shows that will travel the globe and raise Miami’s profile -- something that has not happened in the past.

Everyone, from critics of the new naming to artists with works in the museum, wants the new MAM to be a success. How it will achieve that, however, remains a hotly debated subject, which is appropriate and expected for a public institution.

One lingering question remains: Is PAMM a done deal?

In an interesting and perhaps cautionary tale, another major city’s museum toyed with adding the name of a major benefactor to its title. The Tel Aviv Museum of Art, founded even before the State of Israel existed, decided to change its name in 2005, after a $20 million donation from shipping magnet Sammy Ofer. Tami Katz-Freiman, a Miami Beach resident who will curate a show opening in Israel next month, and then the big fall show at the Bass Museum of Art, remembers the uproar that followed.

Although the mayor of Tel Aviv initially supported the name change, donors threatened not only to refuse future contributions but to take back what they had already given. The public was incensed that their museum would be named for one person. “It was a debate that hasn’t really gone on here in Miami,” Katz-Freiman says. “Nothing is black and white, but these things need to be openly discussed. What do we want to be? How to make a great museum?”

In the end, the Tel Aviv Museum kept its original name, and Ofer withdrew his $20 million donation. The new wing that was to be built with that money was eventually paid for by a Los Angeles couple, Herta and Paul Amir. Their name is on the new wing, not the museum.

 

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