by JILL SPALDING
In contrast, the Detroit Museum is struggling to raise the millions needed to rescue its collection from the quagmire of city bankruptcy, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is licking its wounds from the boisterous board resignation of bold-name artists that replaced one East Coast director with another, and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is in the throes of an expansion that will obliterate an esteemed small museum, and is turning uglier as I write. The story of Miami’s new museum unfolds somewhere in between, a triumph of pride over politics in a bipolar city.
The very first thing to understand about the miracle of the Pérez Art Museum of Miami is Miami. Sometime in the 1980s, the fragile ecosystem of grasses, rivers, bays and sand that had proved resilient to the pastiche of art deco stucco dreamed up to court winter tourism, was kicked up a notch as developers crossed the bay to impose a steel, glass and air-conditioned makeover aimed at attracting year-round business. Such, at least, had been their vision. The reality has proved other. No longer a backwater, as its soaring skyline attests, Miami, nonetheless, still lives in, on and off water. People don’t come here to do business, they come for the beach, the cruises, the stone crabs and the throb. With the exception of real estate, hospitality and money laundering, Miami’s driving culture has remained one of speedboats, bikinis and poolside martinis. Even stadium sports struggle; the Dolphins rarely fill their fancy new stadium because football takes place in daytime, and basketball, sited on the water but turned inwards, draws only when the Heat plays.
The arts are a hybrid. Music, bounced off its walls, its convertibles and its bars, is in Miami’s capillaries, but the much-hailed Knight Concert Hall has ceded the greater part of its classical repertoire to pop, in order to bolster attendance; there is support for two orchestras, but even the modest 756 seats of the widely acclaimed New World Symphony hall sell out only when its artistic director, Michael Tilson Thomas, revs his classical repertoire into spectacles heightened by video. Miami’s ballet company had a moment, having gained international stature under Edward Villella, but recently forced his retirement in favour of an untested young director.
Most problematic have been the visual arts, trendy and trending, but not as yet part of the fabric. Triggered in 2001 by the typhoon of the art fair that blew in from Basel, every December thereafter, for 10 frantic days, art has lathered Miami’s beaches and bays with standout installations, then gone into deep hibernation until the following year. Graffiti, some of a very high order, continues to animate every raw space, but galleries cut their hours, and even the eponymous collections, though they remain staffed and open for viewing, apart from educational programmes, are generally empty: culture, in the formal sense, is still very much in formation.
Most problematic have been Miami’s public art museums. Discounting the splendid Wolfsonian, stocked by founder Mitchell Wolfson Jr’s decades of collecting and now run by Florida International University, and the Bass Museum, a boutique space, short on a permanent collection if long on the attention-grabbing exhibitions staged by its talented director Silvia Cubiñá essentially for Art Basel, the city has supported two – downtown’s Miami Art Museum (MAM) and North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). However, apart from the gifts of the ever-generous Rosa de la Cruz, neither attracted deep pockets. The mega-collectors gravitated, rather, toward eponymous galleries that remain private but charge entry fees: let the museums starve. MOCA, despite scattered donations attracted by the talented Bonnie Clearwater, recently lost its bid for expansion and its director to the better-funded Fort Lauderdale Museum, and remains essentially a kunsthalle. Even the signature MAM had remained frozen since 1983 in architect Philip Johnson’s forbidding, cramped homage to the Spanish mission style he thought iconic, attracting little of note beyond a handful of good paintings and a nice drawing collection. So the visual arts languished – until a flush of new money and the cultural imprimatur of the art fair from Basel, with its implications for real estate, brought stirrings, awakening the city to the need for a marking museum. Committees were formed, a $100m (£60m) bond issued, plans for a new building broached and, after a political rollercoaster that doesn’t bear going into, 20 acres of parkland, the city’s last waterfront site (roughly 90% of shoreline is privately owned) was made available. A new director, Terence Riley, formerly the architecture curator of MoMA, was hired to guarantee a building that would distinguish. Having championed the Swiss team of Herzog & de Meuron for MoMA’s redo, he knew they could deliver.
Now, site and architects were in place, but where was the name art and remaining $120m needed to launch? Hands were held out for both for so many years that, already frustrated with the politics, Riley moved on, but even his energetic new replacement, Thomas Collins (also from MoMA), could not squeeze blood out of a stone. Enter MAM trustee “condo king” Jorge M Pérez, chairman of the wildly successful Related Group, who offered $40m – half cash, half art – in exchange for a name change. The brouhaha that ensued could have deafened the ocean. The objection by the old guard, still newly polished itself, to the minor acronym adjustment to PAMM, carried with it the entire history of a divided Miami. Developer! New money! Hispanic! This in a town thriving on development, and heavily Hispanic. Allegations flew; Pérez had an interest in the land – he didn’t; the promised work was second-rate – it isn’t; no money will materialise – it has. Forgetting that Pérez was a trustee, and that his considerable collection included Diego Rivera and Beatriz González, there was no silencing the uproar – until PAMM opened its doors last December. “Stunning” is the word heard most often now, with an underlay of “miracle” and the caption of “destination museum”. Hoi polloi and highbrow, all got it right away.
What exactly have Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron pulled off? For architecture, nothing less than a new paradigm (not a word I use casually) that ends for ever the notion of Caribbean as New World Mediterranean: for Miami, whose climate embraces the outdoors year-round, the notion that art must be respectfully fortressed. Although the national push to a suburbanisation of public spaces (think Manhattan’s High Line) doesn’t specifically hold in Miami, already a collection of suburbs, various notable architects had addressed it – with varying success. On a site that remains blighted, Cesar Pelli imposed whole-cloth the disastrous rigidity of the centre for Performing Arts and, though the brutalist east facade of Frank Gehry’s splendid New World Symphony hall has been softened with a garden, the resolve to share its sheltered programming with the public is achieved with a wall cast.
Herzog and de Meuron turned the concept of shelter inside out, reaching out to the public with a glass wall transparency that opens the art to passersby, a vertical garden that cools those outside and in, and a take on the Spanish Steps that invites social interaction. Seasoned in designing functional spaces for art, given a glorious site, and responsive to the client, the architects delivered a ravishing building. Though the park had belonged to the city, the museum is less an embrace of public space than the creation of one, and less a stage for imposing events than a platform for inviting them in. Where MoMA had to wrap itself in Doug Aitken’s videos to dialogue with the street, PAMM opens on to a looping, living video of causeway, wildlife and docks. From its restaurant, you can watch the traffic arc along the MacArthur causeway. As you round the corner, a 4,000-passenger cruise ship navigating the turn basin plows toward you like an avatar of the Burtynsky tanker exhibited one floor above. Head to the veranda and a pelican sails into view; double back to the gift shop and dolphins surface to play.
The scheme was not Herzog and de Meuron’s first, nor did it come from a drawing board. Their initial sketches for MAM (as it was then known) were sculptural – boxes stacked to seven storeys, in the belief that the trustees wanted an icon. Riley was looking to them rather for a 21st-century vernacular that would speak to the water, open air and lush greenery that he saw as Miami’s DNA. Build the right building and it would become an icon. The architects were taken on an off-tourist tour of the nature-scape and got it right away. Marble and gilt – the escutcheons of empire; the sealed-in walls that replace breezes with air-conditioning – the mantra of developers, were given no consideration. Intrigued by the banyon trees’ leafy canopies that form new trunks from their shoots, by the orchids hanging from bark, by the fossilized houses raised against flooding on stilts, by the horizontals of horizon and shoreline, and by the elegant wood construction that preceded the kitschy 30s’ stucco, they worked Miami’s native elements into a three-storey structure that filters the sun by means of a slatted, canopied roof; elevates the entrance floor on slim concrete support columns and, in partnership with the pioneer of the green wall, Patrick Blanc, suspends a verdant garden from the roof. When fully grown out, the verdant stalactites, their moist plantings, closely studied for compatibility with salt air and high heat, will cool the building while giving the illusion of forest from both outside and in.
Moving on from its aesthetics, the museum functions on every level intended. The much coveted education area has been lifted out of the usual netherworld to front row and centre – a cleverly conceived space that converts and reverts to auditorium, gathering hall and stairway-to-art through non-invasive mechanisms of lighting and curtains. The galleries vary in square footage and height (one reaching 18 metres/60 feet) to enable fluid installation. Thought has been given to a museum’s ever-urgent need to rest and refresh, with small seating areas carved into the windows at intervals – niches waiting for the sculpture of you – to contemplate the myriad outdoor activities before resuming your own. The only element that grates, if only for me, is the lighting – alternating fluorescent tubing and tracks (think a brightly lit Walter de Maria Broken Kilometre on the ceiling) that are a well-established Herzog and de Meuron signature, and at the same time, I am told, very much the new thing; (the Fredric Snitzer Gallery is among those thinking of installing the same system).
Finally, what of the art? Whereas everyone raves about the building, asking about the content is akin to inquiring after a terminal patient’s health. The decision to launch with Ai Weiwei’s travelling show, though not obvious to locals (as the Miami artist who recently smashed Ai’s pot demonstrated), must have seemed a no-brainer, given that the artist had consulted on Herzog and de Meuron’s “Bird’s Nest” in Beijing, but what else, and what after that? Some deem the collection on view weak; others worry, with an endowment not yet in place, about major acquisitions down the line; and, coming off Martin Margulies’s recent bequests of $5m each to New York’s Whitney and Metropolitan museums and Norman Braman's stated to eventually consign their coveted collection to an auction house, none think it likely that the city’s super-collectors will change their decision to hoard, sell or deed their art elsewhere.
The problem here, it seems to me, is with magical thinking. The idea that a museum opens fully formed, as from the head of Zeus, is specious: think back to the inception of said Metropolitan Museum: older than Italy, it took decades to replace its plastercast models with masterpieces. There is no downside to new money: that of the Gilded Age funders was the shiniest in the nation. Funding does not have to be in place for years down the line: DIA, launched by one family, has flirted with extinction for years, but survived on the largesse of multiple donors. A museum doesn’t have to open with a world-class collection; LA’s MOCA had to gather funds over many years before acquiring, outright, from Baron Giuseppe Panza, the collection that ultimately distinguished it.
Then scratch the surface of PAMM and you will find many of these beacons already in place. Among Miami’s big collectors, Charles Cowles has deeded more than 100 photographs, Debra and Dennis Scholl have given more than 300 artworks, board member Craig Robins has pledged 102 pieces from his collection and funding as well, and the donor wall lists several million-dollar donations, among them that of Dolphins’ owner, Stephen Ross. As for the name, donor vanity has storied precedent – Guggenheim, Carnegie, Sackler – as does a name change; in 2008, in Miami, for $30m, “Adrienne Arsht” replaced “Carnival” on the centre for Performing Arts. The not so fine point that it was not a building but an institution that had been rebranded was not going to make the museum happen.
These are early days, of course, and no amount of magical thinking will produce a collection of the quality assembled by Albert Barnes; nor is it likely that Miami will ever see the reach of an Abby Rockefeller, whose name wealth and connections jumpstarted MoMA. But don’t count out the Pérez factor. Putting one’s name on a building carries a self-inflicted responsibility. The art that Pérez has already given is not inconsiderable – the Wifredo Lam and the Matta are world class; the endowment promised by a billionaire who has signed on to the Warren- Buffett pledge is not likely to evaporate; and his passion for art is contagious. Risen to prominence on a fortune made in the very air-conditioned condos the museum contradicts, Pérez has committed to giving back, with both art and money beyond his initial $40m contribution, and to that end is steeping himself in Herzog and de Meuron’s new vocabulary. He accompanies Collins and chief curator Tobias Ostrander to art fairs around the world, learning, looking and inevitably buying work that they quietly suggest would push the museum collection forward. “They’ll say look at these four pieces. One would be great, but two would be better, and I’ll say: ‘Go ahead, buy them both.’” Even the must-have art that Pérez falls in love with will be eventually joined to the museum through his foundation. His connections and enthusiasm continue to pull in generous donations of money, and he says there are more than 5,000 works in local collections that would be of serious interest to any acquisition committee. He is realistic, however, about PAMM’s current reach; knowing that, for the moment, it remains a must-see for the building – a great place to hang art. “Great”, however, is the operative word. As Pérez sees it, every big city must have a standout museum, and now Miami has PAMM.
The Latin American factor, too, is proving a plus. The only museum to open in the US in the past year, that PAMM is also the first in a country with a burgeoning immigrant population to carry an Hispanic name has awakened a community whose biggest players are Cuban to the possibility that they, too, can learn, appreciate and contribute to a field that has heretofore seemed remote. Noting that Miami’s entrepreneurial Latin community is “hugely impactful – in import-export, hotels and construction”, Pérez believes the collection should reflect that and, mindful of his legacy, would like to see PAMM’s holdings of Latin American art become the best in the nation. But he insists that the museum’s direction is entirely up to the collectors committee – “there are 50 of us and I have only one vote!” Pérez admits, though, to new interests. He has jump-started an African American collection, has just bought two American artists – Spencer Finch and Polly Apfelbaum and, touring recently with his curators, acquired several European artists, among them two from Portugal, Fernanda Fragateiro and Carlos Bunga. He continues, nonetheless, to add artworks from Latin America – two from his recent trip to Mexico. He finds the art of Uruguay, Columbia, Argentina and Brazil “incredibly strong”, and is headed to Peru for his next reconnaissance trip.
With PAMM’s vision set, attention turns to its programming. The scope is ambitious and rigorous; judging by two powerful works now on view, a video by Yael Bartana and an installation by Monika Sosnowska composed of 1,100lb (nearly 500kg) of bent steel, the material of interest to the curators won’t be candy-coated, and that they didn’t flag the launch with the important Gerard Richter donated by Rosa de la Cruz speaks to a no-pandering commitment to edgy work and unbroken narrative. More problematic is reliable funding; although there are already more than 1,800 pieces in the permanent collection to draw from and the near-term agenda is set, support for future projects is not yet assured. Collins says everything is in place for the coming two years, then it’s up to the gods – namely, his skills as a fundraiser, the continuing active support of Jorge Pérez and contributions from additional donors. Attendance, it seems, will not be a factor. Should repeat business falter, the museum can fall back on the unexpected windfall of transients – the waves of travellers disembarking daily from cruise ships who stay over for a day and stop in. Those who find the creative programming of local and emerging art that Collins and Ostrander intend somewhat challenging to an expectation of art formed by Van Gogh, Picasso and Warhol, will encounter deep wall captions, interactive videos, everything but lunch with the artists themselves.
I see no reason, however, to worry about local loyalty; programmes tailored to the 20,000 schoolchildren in the area – many the children of immigrants – will attract a new generation, and Miamians happily gravitate to wherever they can experience a full day of activities – witness South Beach. When Museum Park supplements PAMM with the $275m Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science scheduled to open next year, the time-honoured tradition of art and science that goes back to the Prado and the Beaux Arts ideal will once again be on offer, with the added attraction of boats, birds, parkland and hanging out under hanging gardens on the loveliest steps in the tropics.