Miami’s art museums are becoming rudderless ships
Source:The Art Newspaper Author:Cristina Ruiz Date: 2015-03-07 Size:
Nearly half the city’s institutions are without leaders as powerful patrons, unruly trustees, funding issues and rivalries between ethnic groups make the waters nearly impossible to navigate

  Artist Hew Locke’s 2011 installation For Those in Peril on the Sea at the Pérez Art Museum Miami

Four museums in Miami are currently searching for new directors. In a city that has transformed itself into one of the top destinations for contemporary art in the US over the past decade and boasts perhaps ten significant art institutions, nearly half are now leaderless.

The circumstances of each may differ but the challenges faced by their directors are similar: increased competition for funding amid paltry local support, unruly trustees and, in the case of galleries run by private collectors, overbearing patrons whose decision to run their own spaces instead of supporting municipal museums has given Miami a series of identikit collections with rarely changing displays.

Perhaps most damaging of all, power struggles between different ethnic groups with different visions of what art galleries should do and which constituents they should serve have riven the local art world. In short, museums in Miami are in a mess and face what can only be described as an institutional crisis. Or as Oscar Wilde might put it: to lose one director may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose four looks like carelessness.

The most notable characteristic of the museum landscape in Miami over the past ten years has been the rapid pace of change. The arrival of Art Basel in 2002 galvanised local collectors and museum trustees alike. New private galleries, such as the De la Cruz Collection in the Design District, opened in beautiful new buildings, and the Miami Art Museum (MAM) embarked on an ambitious project to build a $200m waterfront home designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron, which opened in 2013.

It was the controversy over the renaming of MAM as the Pérez Art Museum Miami (Pamm) following property developer Jorge Pérez’s pledge to donate $35m in cash and art, that exposed to public scrutiny the behind-the-scenes squabbles of board deliberations. Four trustees resigned in the wake of the controversy. Numerous commentators observed that those unhappy with the renaming should offer the institution more than Pérez had and see their own name on the museum’s doors in perpetuity. In other words, pay up or shut up. Nobody did.

There is plenty of money in Miami but it’s not flowing to municipal art museums in any significant way. Consider, for example, the anonymous $90m pledge to the New World Symphony for the construction of a Frank Gehry-designed music hall in Miami Beach. There has been no gift to the city’s art museums that has come close to matching this one and so directors spend much, possibly most, of their time in an undoubtedly exhausting quest to secure the support of wealthy locals as well as government funding.

After five long years of this endless dance, Pamm director Thom Collins is leaving the institution this month to lead the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia. His predecessor, the architect Terence Riley, lasted just over three years. “It was more politically complex than any other project I’m aware of,” Riley told the Miami New Times following his departure. He would have to please the City of Miami, which owned the land; the county, which controlled the public cash; and dozens of prickly donors, explained the newspaper.

Loss of direction

This rapid turnover of museum leadership in Miami is new. The previous generation of directors stayed in their jobs for decades (Bonnie Clearwater was at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami for nearly 20 years before leaving in July 2013; Diane Camber led the Bass Museum for 27 years before stepping down in 2007, and Cathy Leff was at the helm of the Wolfsonian for 18 years until April last year—the institution has been without a director since her departure.

But burgeoning ambitions for the city’s museums in the wake of Pamm’s success has ramped up the pressure on directors to deliver increased funding and manage the growing expectations of trustees. Everyone wants to do more now: to expand buildings and programming and to stage ever more sexy (and expensive), headline-grabbing shows that will attract the crowds flocking to Art Basel in Miami Beach.

The most high-profile casualty of this surge of ambition has been MoCA North Miami, where trustees failed to gain voter approval for a $13.5m expansion through a city bond issue in 2012. They spent last year battling the City of North Miami, which owns the MoCA building. In their lawsuit against the city, the trustees argued that competition from Art Basel and Pamm had made it much more difficult to retain the reputation of MoCA and they accused the city of neglecting their building. The tussle ended with the city taking control of the museum and appointing its own director, Babacar M’Bow. He accused his predecessors of having snubbed local, mostly black and Hispanic audiences. Under their leadership, “MoCA was a playground for the rich and famous; that era is gone,” he said.

The former MoCA trustees, who are nearly all white, are now building their own gallery in the Design District with funding from local billionaires Irma and Norman Braman, and have renamed themselves the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Like Pamm, the ICA is also searching for a new leader following the departure of interim director Suzanne Weaver, who left earlier this year, just months after being appointed. The ICA insists that Weaver was never meant to stay longer but no interim director is hired to lead an institution for just three months.

Another private museum, the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO), set up by Ella Fontanals-Cisneros to show her collection of Latin American art, is also searching for a director following the departure of Jesús Fuenmayor, who has led the organisation for less than three years. Both CIFO and Fuenmayor declined to comment on the turn of events. Fontanals-Cisneros had previously been a supporter of the Miami Art Museum when Terence Riley was at the helm and had pledged $5m to the institution. But she resigned as a trustee following Riley’s departure and has never explained her change of heart.

Marty Margulies, a collector who shows his contemporary art collection in Wynwood, has publicly criticised MAM numerous times for reasons that are hard to discern. In 2010, Margulies publicly snubbed the museum again when he gave $5m to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Look to the future

Collectors with private galleries, such as Fontanals-Cisneros, Margulies, Don and Mera Rubell and Rosa and Carlos De la Cruz have contributed much to Miami, particularly in the days before Art Basel when opportunities to see new international art in the city were limited. They should be applauded for their contributions and their work with local schools. But things have changed now. Pamm has become the city’s flagship art institution and, hopefully, it is here to stay. The same cannot be said for the spaces run by these private collectors which, with the exception of the ICA, have no endowments, boards of trustees, or plans for the long-term future. They are here today and will most likely be gone tomorrow.

Furthermore many of their displays follow similar market trends. The current exhibition at the De la Cruz gallery contains 12 of the same artists now on show at the Rubells’ private museum nearby, including Sterling Ruby, Christopher Wool, Mark Bradford and Wade Guyton. Where private collectors call the shots, curatorial input is minimal. Perhaps it’s time for some of these powerful collectors to start thinking beyond the lifespan of their own galleries and throw their weight behind Pamm. Not only would this help secure the museum’s future, it would also secure the long-term legacy of the collectors who helped to make Miami.

[Editor] 万兰