Miami is built upon cycles of boom and bust. Riding east on Highway 395, connecting Miami International Airport to Miami Beach, it’s not hard to see the signs of the current boom. Cranes, tarps, and scaffolding dot the horizons in the latest wave of construction—mainly focused on luxury condos, hotels, and yes, even museums. Though the city’s burgeoning creative scene has become the seasonal darling of the international art world set, for years it lacked support from a formal network of local, high-caliber museums. That’s all changed in the past several years. Miami has gone from possessing a thin institutional culture to a lively scene with several fledgling museums vying for regional and national prominence.
It started with Tony Goldman, of Goldman properties, who pioneered the Wynwood Arts District by converting a forgotten junkyard into an outdoor gallery space displaying some of the top muralists in the world, Wynwood Walls. From Goldman’s original idea, the district grew thanks to local galleries and artists’ studios who flocked to the neighborhood in search of cheap rents.
As Wynwood was gradually festooned with graffiti, murals, and various other forms of public art, one of the largest private collections lay at its outskirts. Since 1993 the Rubell Family Collection (RFC) was the closest thing Miami had to a contemporary art museum. Appropriately housed in a 45,000-square-foot former DEA confiscated goods warehouse, the space is open to the public and curates yearly exhibits culled from its collection. Apart from championing emerging artists, the RFC’s permanent trove features work from major art world names like Yayoi Kusama, Cindy Sherman, and Kara Walker.
In 2009, Wynwood saw the addition of another private institution. The de la Cruz Collection finished construction on a massive facility to house their curatorial and educational efforts. Apart from serving as the public extension of Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz’s impressive collection of contemporary art, the space, in conjunction with Miami-Dade Public Schools, sponsors summer programs for high school students to study art in New York and abroad. Along with the RFC, the de la Cruz served as a forerunner to the current wave of museums.
In 2013, the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) made its Art Basel debut with a spectacular home designed by Herzog and de Meuron, ideally situated at the mouth of Biscayne Bay. The architecture was a modern take on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, featuring large dangling trellises of tropical flora throughout the building’s spacious, wrap-around veranda.
Opened to the public in 1984 as the Center for the Fine Arts (CFA), then later the Miami Art Museum (MAM), the institution took its newest name after one of the town’s top real estate developers, Jorge Pérez, of the Related Group, who donated substantial moneys and artwork from his private collection to support the institution at a seminal period in its history. In addition to the $100 million used in taxpayer funds, the billionaire offered $20 million in cash and another $20 million in art to prop up the new museum. For the past three years PAMM has entertained seasonal art world denizens with special exhibits and events. In December of 2015 they hosted R&B singer Devonté Hynes (aka Blood Orange) for a commissioned piece with performance artist Ryan McNamara, titled Dimensions. The event grabbed headlines for the museum’s forward-thinking collaboration between entertainment and art, bringing the two industries closer together in the process.
PAMM took a major shift in fall 2015, with the appointment of Franklin Sirmans as its new director. The former department head and curator for contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Sirmans is known for mounting programs that mold complex artistic, political and philosophical ideas into compelling and easily digestible exhibits. To that end, Sirmans vowed that PAMM would commit itself to serve the local community by highlighting work by artists from Latin America and the Caribbean, demographics typically overlooked by the art establishment. And he delivered. This year has seen solo shows by artists like Carlos Motta, Firelei Báez, and Julio Le Parc, among many others.
Apart from the new curatorial focus, Sirmans made sure to guide the young museum through its next phase of growth: collection building. In June 2016 the museum announced the donation of over a hundred works from Design District developer Craig Robins, the largest in its short history. Pieces by Jedediah Caesar, Patty Chang, Aïda Ruilova, and others formed a part of a growing collection (roughly 1,800 works) of modern and contemporary art. While PAMM is entrenched in a battle for the national art world spotlight, another local institution is already nipping at its heels.
Back in 2014 the Museum of Contemporary Art Miami (MOCA) suffered an enormous blow to its operations. Due to a dispute between board members and the museum’s curatorial team, the institution split in two. In response, frustrated board members took the lion’s share of the museum’s permanent collection and left. The result was a new museum—the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), temporarily housed in the Design District’s Moore Building under the guidance of deputy director and chief curator, Alex Gartenfeld. Though PAMM has largely centered its curatorial beat on Latin America and the Caribbean, the ICA has focused its work on mid- and late-career European artists that have yet to enjoy massive success in the States. For Miami Art Week 2015 (the web of special museum exhibits, gallery shows, and satellite fairs that run concurrent to Art Basel Miami Beach) Gartenfeld mounted Alex Bag’s “The Van (Redux*),” the first major US presentation of her work since 2009. Working primarily in video, Bag created a show that harks back to her 2001 exhibit “The Van.” This year they’re planning a retrospective of German conceptual artist Thomas Bayrle, that will also mark the artist’s first US solo museum show. The exhibition will survey five decades of work through more than 75 pieces.
Like PAMM, the ICA named a new director late last year, Ellen Salpeter, former deputy director of the Jewish Museum in New York. Her curatorial, as well as, budgeting expertise came in handy when the museum broke ground on a more permanent structure around the corner from its current home. Designed by Spanish architectural firm Aranguren and Gallegos, construction on the new, 37,500 square foot building and expansive sculpture garden is now scheduled to be completed in fall 2017.The ICA’s new home comes courtesy of Irma and Norman Braman, billionaire civic activists who are single-handedly funding construction of the massive structure.
As two new, and fairly large, museums compete for relevance, a smaller local veteran gets a much-needed facelift. The Bass Museum has been a fixture on the regional art scene for half a century. Serving as the only contemporary art museum on Miami Beach, it hosts one of the largest exhibits of public art in the country, in conjunction with the city, during Miami Art Week. In 2014, they also mounted “One Way: Peter Marino,” an exhibition that elucidated the eponymous architect’s relationship to art. Marino, known for working at the intersections of art, fashion, design and architecture, also donated pieces from his personal collection including work from artists like Keith Haring, Richard Serra, Robert Mapplethorpe, and many others.
For the past year and a half, the Bass has shuttered its doors to undergo a major renovation that plans to almost double the programmable space without altering the building’s footprint. As recently as this summer, curators were planning a grand reopening with exhibits by Ugo Rondinone, Mika Rottenberg, and Pascale Marthine in time for Miami Art Week 2016. Plans have since been postponed for late spring 2017, as organizers cited construction delays due to preservation concerns related to the historical structure.
The Bass is housed in the former Miami Beach Public Library and Art Center, originally built in 1930 by Russell Pancoast in a grand art deco style. The building was converted into an art museum in 1964 with a massive donation of works by local connoisseurs John and Johanna Bass. In 1978, the building was placed on the National Register as an exemplar of art deco style.
Though the delays will leave Miami Beach without a major museum during Miami Art Week, it does free up room for local competitors to carve up more of the spotlight for themselves. While the ICA awaits construction of its new home, it’s up to PAMM to prove its mettle this season. With several years under its wings and a new director, the fledgling institution has yet to bridge the programming gap between the refined art world gentry—that descends upon the city for the first couple of weeks in December—and a local audience just starting dip their feet in an active regional museum scene.
Beyond the international attention Miami receives due to the tumult of Art Basel and its satellite fairs, the current real estate boom has trickled into a cultural renaissance. Despite the impending threat of bust surely to follow the current wave of growth, the mood amongst the town’s cultural and artistic elite remains upbeat. For now, Miami can feel confident in claiming its rightful place as a national center for art buttressed by several world class museums.
Pérez Art Museum Miami, east façade
August 2014, Herzog & de Meuron
Photo: Daniel Azoulay Photography