When Helen Kohen retired as the Miami Herald’s art critic in 1995 after 17 years on the beat, she left a clear hint of life beyond the newsroom. Kohen was not about to leave the visual arts scene that she was so much a part of grooming in South Florida since moving to Miami Beach in the 1950s.
“When I started writing for the Herald, Philip Johnson was at work designing the Center for the Fine Arts, and Roy Lichtenstein had just finished his mermaid sculpture for the grounds of what was then the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts. Clearly, those were the signs of a community preening for a future in art.
“And there I was, a case of perfect timing, primed to watch, report and get involved if I had to,” she wrote in her final column in May 1995.
Since that date, Kohen, who died Tuesday night in Miami Beach at 83, has been one of the Miami arts scene’s most active and engaged experts.
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“Helen was the pioneer. She pulled out the rocks and tilled the soil. She made fertile ground so the art world could plant Miami Art Basel, the Wynwood Walls, and become a legendary destination for the aspiring and the acquisitive,” said Michele Oka Doner, the Miami Beach artist who did the half-mile A Walk on the Beach installation at the Miami International Airport, in a conversation with Modern magazine editor Beth Dunlop.
In 2001, Kohen, alongside art librarians Margarita Cano and Barbara Young, created the Vasari Project, an archive at the Miami-Dade Public Library named for Giorgio Vasari, a 16th century Italian writer considered the first art historian. The project catalogs and preserves more than 6,000 items that tell the story of visual art in Miami.
“I stopped my position when I had my second heart attack and was told it was foolish for a woman my age to climb a ladder and carry 30 pounds,” Kohen, an English literature graduate from Smith College, said in a 2012 Miami Herald feature upon her retirement from the Vasari Project.
“The knowledge she brought putting that collection together is unique. No one else could have done what she did with this amazing collection of reference material,” said Barbara Young. Vasari “will be useful to people for generations of archivists, artists and collectors. It was an act of love for her, and she brought that to everything she did: passion.”
Kohen, Cano and Young, honored as The Three Graces at a 2012 fundraiser for the Vasari Project, independently curated the exhibits Touched by AIDS, to honor artists lost to the virus and Cultivated Under the Sun, a celebration of the permanent art collection of the Miami-Dade Public Library System. From 2010 to 2013, Kohen was ombudsperson for ArtBasel/Miami Beach and served on the programming panel for Art Tuesdays.
“I think it is safe to say that without Helen's keen eye and consistent vigilant criticism and advocacy, Miami might still be the backwater that is, say, Tampa (with a local arts scene but not a national one), and it would not have been the stage for Art Basel or for much of what was to follow,” said Dunlop, the Herald’s former architecture critic.
“She educated not just The Herald's wide readership, but also museum directors, gallerists, patrons, collectors, museum- and gallery-goers — and most notably, politicians … and civic leaders from Miami Beach who then went to Switzerland to woo in Art Basel,” Dunlop said.
Before joining the Herald in 1978, Kohen had worked as book editor for the Miami Beach Sun and spent two years alongside activist Robert Sims on Metro-Dade’s Community Relations Board.
Kohen, who earned her master’s in art history at the University of Miami, also sifted through some six decades’ worth of locally produced television shows at the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archives to unearth Miami’s hidden art history. She revealed her findings and led the 2008 Wolfson Archives’ Rewind/Fast-Forward Film Festival.
“Miami has always had some of the finest artists of any place, but they’ve never gotten coverage on TV. The audience there never got the whole picture — we have to fill it in,” she said at the time.
“Filling in” art history was a lifelong pursuit for the woman born in New York on June 4, 1931, to Bertha Brantman Lichtman, one of the first women to pass the New York State Bar and a suffragette, and engineer Irving Lichtman, who oversaw the rebuilding of the Empire State Building after a small plane hit the top during World War II.
“She was a marvelous lady who not only wrote about art, but she was a rare person who knew about art,” said real-estate developer and art collector Martin Z. Margulies.
Kohen is survived by her daughters Amy Kohen Cohn and Elizabeth Kohen Martinez, whom she raised with her late husband, Roland, a prominent South Florida physician, and seven grandchildren. Kohen was predeceased by her daughter Jane Kohen Winter.
A memorial service is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Friday at Temple Beth Sholom, 4144 Chase Ave., Miami Beach.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.