Like the city’s skyline, Miami’s cultural landscape 50 years ago would be almost unrecognizable today.
In 1964, virtually none of the art institutions we are now familiar with existed, until the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach opened that year, becoming the first city exhibition space in the county. (The Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami was the first art museum in South Florida, opened in the 1950s, but it is not a municipal institution.)
Now in its golden jubilee year, the Bass has come a long way since its birth — and like the metropolis itself, sometimes with fits and starts.
During the 1960s and ’70s, the museum showed mainly the 500-piece collection donated to the city of Miami Beach by John and Johanna Bass, which focused on Renaissance and Baroque works, in the old library building off Collins Avenue.
Fast forward to 2014, when the Bass opened its year with a symphony in a newly refurbished park that now holds significant outdoor public sculptures, outside a building remodeled by Arata Isozaki. Inside, the work of internationally acclaimed Polish multimedia artist Piotr Uklanski took over the second floor; on the first floor a Romanian performance troupe had recently reenacted some pieces from museum’s initial Renaissance painting collection, giving the centuries-old masterpieces a contemporary twist. Clearly, the Bass had come of age and stature.
There have been growing pains, with the museum sometimes closing and renovations taking longer than expected, but today it is one of Miami’s major cultural landmarks.
And the changes may continue in unexpected directions.
The talk of the art town has been the potential merger of the Bass and North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which would bring MOCA’s more-mature contemporary art collection to the Beach, making the Bass a heftier institution.
But the merger has become mired in technical and legal difficulties since MOCA announced its intentions and has faced stiff resistance from North Miami, which has housed the public, nonprofit museum since its inception. For now, the merger is on hold.
When John Bass ran the nascent museum from 1964 to 1978, it was a small, regional space, attracting a local crowd who came to see the mainly Renaissance and Baroque painting and tapestry. After Bass died in 1978, the authenticity of some of the works was called into question, and the city closed the museum. When a slightly refurbished building reopened, the Friends of the Bass membership group was incorporated, and a professional director, art historian Diane Camber, was hired in 1980.
During Camber’s tenure, the museum started to focus on traveling exhibits and expanded its artistic repertoire.
“From the beginning, I was determined to professionalize the institution,” the Miami Beach native recalls, by getting the museum accredited and developing the collection to include design and architectural aspects. Her first big splash came from the “Precious Legacy” exhibit of European Judaica collected by the Nazis from a museum in Prague. “It illustrated that we could be an important cultural destination, and highlighted the need for an expanded facility,” she says.
The collection grew to about 3,000 pieces, the Isozaki-redesigned building opened in 2001, and the museum was now capable of mounting large shows. But structural problems plagued the facility, and it had to close several times. The struggle for funding was unending. “There are battle scars, but it was all worth it,” says Camber, who retired in 2007 and was named director emerita.
When Silvia Karman Cubiña took the reins in 2008, the Bass was ready for its next big leap. The recession was well under way, but Cubiña expanded the museum’s scope, bringing in important contemporary exhibits, furthering the emphasis on design and fashion to reflect the nature of Miami Beach itself, and literally “busting it outdoors,” she says.
For years the park that extends from the museum’s front door to Collins Avenue had sat derelict, while visitors entered at the rear. Art Public opened up four years ago during Art Basel, with sculptures from international artists populating the newly renovated park during the December extravaganza. The popular sculptural exhibit now runs for four months each year.
From an anemic number of members on its board of directors, the Bass now has 23 under president George Lindemann, who has been instrumental in expanding the educational programming. Support from the Knight Foundation has brought funding for the museum to the next level; and last year the city approved a $7.5 million grant for further expansion, which will begin in 2015. Out will go the huge ramp that leads from the first floor to the second and has been considered a waste of space, and in will come more room for art and additional educational programs.
The museum will have to close again while the work is done, but Cubiña says it will be worth it because the museum will gain almost half again as much programmable space as it now has. “That’s the biggest 50th anniversary present of all,” she says.
Surrounded by the phenomenal works of Ghana-born artist El Anatsui, whose metal bottle-cap tapestries make up the current exhibit at the Bass, Cubiña says part of her mission is to push the Bass to be “part of the international dialogue” on the art stage. “I want to make sure we have a finger on the pulse of what is going on globally.”
To that end, she has brought in some groundbreaking exhibits, including two stunning video installations: Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves, and another video thriller, Eve Sussman’s Rape of the Sabine Women, both presented during Art Basel Miami.
Other exhibits with acclaimed contemporary international artists have tied the Bass to its history by playing off the Masters’ works in the collection, such as the six projects interpreting classical themes, combined in The Endless Renaissance. Or the solo outing by an early member of the Young British Art movement, Matt Collishaw, whose still-lifes looked like tweaked Baroque reincarnations, and who incorporated a classic altar from the Bass collection into his show.
In 2010, the museum created a room to permanently show the works of Egyptian art that had been in the Bass collection but not prominently displayed before. Featuring a sarcophagus and ancient mummy, 13 objects of antiquity are now on view daily in the dimly lit downstairs enclave.
The museum also instituted the temporary contemporary program, which in conjunction with Miami Beach exhibits temporary outdoor installations, many by local artists. Outside the museum right now are the whimsical and hefty sculpture Self Portrait as the Barefoot Mailman by local artist Christy Gast, whose mailman’s head is buried in the ground; and the pinewood “decks” by Emmett Moore that visitors to the Bass park are encouraged to lounge on.
And Cubiña is surrounded by more art professionals than during her early days with the Bass. One is the new curator of exhibitions, Jose Carlos Diaz, who has put together the official 50th anniversary exhibit, set to open Aug. 8, titled Gold, appropriately. This will not only include artists who work with gold but those who work with the ages-old associations of the metal, power and wealth, in contemporary forms such as video, installation and photography as well as painting and sculpture.
The Bass will continue to explore the relationship between visual arts and fashion, such as last year’s extensive From Picasso to Koons, which included 135 artists’ sculptural jewelry; and this year’s Vanitas, avant-garde, ready-to-wear and couture curated by the director of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
In other words, says Cubiña, in the museum’s 50th year she wants to continue to “open up the Bass” to a variety of art forms, locations (indoors and outdoors), international trends and curatorial visions, to be “a conduit to what’s happening in the world.”