Keys ‘art stewards’ Mimi and Bud Floback keep art pipeline running to Perez Art Museum Miami

Mimi and Bud Floback bought a second home next to their house in the Keys — partly for guests, but also to help display art they’ve collected from around the world.

Enter either house and it’s like stepping into a contemporary art museum. Original works by 80 artists are professionally mounted on the walls, hang from the high ceilings and cascade from the top story to the ground floor. In the yard, even items that look like tents are major pieces.

During a recent tour, resident art critic Max, an African Grey parrot, blurted his opinion of David Batchelor’s series of colorful moving dollies: “It’s a pretty picture sculpture.”

“Yes, it’s a pretty picture sculpture,” Mimi Floback responded.

While the parrot has destroyed most of the baseboards, a couple of chairs and part of the staircase of their main house, “Max never touches the art,” Floback said.

That’s a good thing, because over the past 15 years, the Flobacks have donated about 20 major works to the Miami Art Museum to become part of its permanent collection. This month, the Flobacks gifted 10 more major works — most to be delivered in time for the December grand opening of the renamed Perez Art Museum Miami — in its new digs on Biscayne Bay.

Retired executive Bud Floback, an avid sportsman who used to fly his own planes, said he has become accustomed to watching the art come and go. “Bud always says, ‘What are we giving away now?’ ” Mimi said.

This time, the works that will disappear from their walls and living space include Josephine Meckseper’s commercial display Thank a Vet (2008), Elliott Hundley’s collage Monument (2004), Susan Rothenberg’s painting Dominos-Hot (2001-2002), a Rineke Dijkstra photograph from a 1994 series of Portuguese bullfighters, Sarah Morris’ Le Meridien [Rio] (2012), and a 1990 sculpture using fluorescent lights by Dan Flavin.

“It all ends up in the same place in Miami,” Bud said.

Wish list

For the past few years, Mimi has focused much of her art purchases on meeting the wish list of the museum she has supported since 1997, not long after it changed its name from the Center for the Fine Arts and became a collecting institution.

“Mimi has been fighting for Miami to have a first-class institution,” said Tobias Ostrander, chief curator for the museum. “She understands it is important to have a strong collection as part of a new museum.”

On that wish list was Meckseper’s Thank a Vet, described by a Miami Art Museum press release as a “striking, politically charged work that includes found, mass-produced objects that reference the body — situated atop of a rectangular mirrored base taken from commercial displays.”

The piece incorporates a walker, mannequin legs, socks, a toilet mat, steel wool, a box of underwear, toilet brush, mannequin chest, motor oil container and a T-shirt that says: “If you love your freedom, Thank a Vet.”

“It was something we needed and wanted for the opening exhibition,” Ostrander said. “It fits in with some other things, like a piece by Marcel Duchamp, an important early modernist, who talks about ready made and commodity culture — the things we buy and exhibit as art work.”

Ostrander asked Floback to look at the Meckseper piece in December while it was being shown during Art Basel Miami Beach.

“Quirky or contemporary art often requires a lot of thought,” Floback said. “Sometimes you go home and think about it, and I did.”

She concluded Thank a Vet was conveying the same message her father, who worked as an engineer in the defense industry, tried to instill in her 50 years ago: “Believe in the free distribution of information,” and “don’t believe everything the government says.”

Floback bought the piece at a significant discount with the contingency it would be gifted to the new museum.

But for now, the large work of art, about the size of a pool table, is at her main house. It arrived two weeks ago. Professional art installers from Fort Lauderdale took about 3½ hours just to put together the mirrored display on which the eclectic items sit. The Flobacks will have about five months to enjoy it before the work is delivered to the museum.

Floback would not say how much she paid for the work. “Max’s laughing: ‘The silly girl asked the price. We don’t do that within the art world and certainly not for a newspaper story.’ ”

But she did reveal how much she paid for her first piece of art: $120. It was a “wonderful lithograph” of a still life scene of flowers in a vase painted by the great French artist Henri Matisse.

It was about 1969, and she was working for a design company in Boca Raton. A dealer in Paris had brought that lithograph and several edition pieces for the company to place in homes of the wealthy.

“I was so poor; I had a rattan thing I got from the Salvation Army,” said Floback, who grew up in Maryland in a family with five kids who all wore hand-me-downs. “The lithograph was $120, but it might as well have been $120,000. I asked my bosses: ‘If we don’t use it this season, can I buy it on layaway?’ ”

The bosses said yes.

Floback, who graduated from the now-defunct International Design School in Washington, honed her art knowledge while working for a Coral Gables-based design company that dealt with commercial properties. In 1975, Jon Ashton, who would become her second husband, introduced her to the business of plant rentals. She started a Plant Systems franchise in Miami, offering art rental as well. “It took off like a rocket,” she said.

At the same time, she began purchasing works “in her price range” from dealers and at auctions for her own collection. She said she did her homework, evidenced by the stacks of art books in her home, and kept to her budget.

“Mimi is a real expert on getting deals on amazing expensive artists,” Ostrander said.

The Flavin pursuit

Floback has worked with art dealers in Miami, New York, London and Austria. For years, she was trying to get a Flavin sculpture, on the museum’s wish list as a cornerstone piece.

The work of the late American artist was out of her price range until last fall. At a London auction, she acquired a 6-foot high Flavin piece with yellow, green, blue and red fluorescent lights, which Max loves when it is brightly lit.

It arrived from London with two of its bulbs broken. “Good thing we have Island Electric in the Keys,” she said. “The electrician is German and knows about art. But the silly bulbs cost like $40.”

Floback loves the painting by Morris hanging in a guest room next to a funky bed, but it also will soon be gone. It’s based on the architecture of Rio de Janeiro but reminds Floback of the design of downtown Miami in the ’70s, with glass and metal facades.

“Its colorful, geometric painting speaks to me,” she said.

She also has purchased “eye candy,” such as the larger-than-life fiberglass sculpture of a funky woman in pumps by Chinese artist Wang Du.

“I haven’t had the guts to ask Tobias if he wants her,” Floback said. “The acquisition committee would have to vote on it. But I don’t care if you like it, she’s so Miami.”

The Flobacks’ art gifts have added up to more than $1 million over the years, Ostrander said.

Other patrons have given much more: Jorge Perez, who donated $35 million in cash and art in 2012 and will have the new museum named after him; Debra and Dennis Scholl, who gifted nearly 300 works in February; and just last week, an anonymous donor who gave $12 million in cash and more than $3 million in art.

But Floback said the reason she and Bud agreed to publicly talk about their gifts is to show that “others can step up to the plate. You don’t have to be Mr. & Mrs. Got Rocks. Every $12 admission or $200 gift makes a difference to help create a museum for all of Miami.”

She hates being called a collector, preferring to be known as an “art steward.” To Floback, art should be shared — especially with children, even if it means parting with favorites like the 1991 large red painting Abstraktes Bild by renowned German artist Gerhard Richter.

“It was a cornerstone work that we knew MAM must have,” Floback said.

She said the only two things she can’t part with are “Bud and Max.”

And while many art collectors pass down their works to the next generation, the Flobacks’ six children will not be inheriting art. Mimi, 68, and Bud, 84, say they hope it all finds a home at the new museum on Biscayne Bay.

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