Jorge Pérez — building a cultural legacy

Developer and art collector Jorge Pérez in the garden at his Coconut Grove home, with South African artist Ledelle Moe’s piece “Memorial Collapse V.” Photographed on Monday, April 4, 2016
Developer and art collector Jorge Pérez in the garden at his Coconut Grove home, with South African artist Ledelle Moe’s piece “Memorial Collapse V.” Photographed on Monday, April 4, 2016 cjuste@miamiherald.com

Jorge Pérez has transformed Miami’s skyline with a host of luxurious buildings from Edgewater to Brickell, Miami Beach to Sunny Isles.

But these days, the CEO and chairman of the Related Group is focused on a less concrete transformation: fostering artistic programs he hopes will make Miami a leading cultural capital and ensure his own legacy as a pillar of that change.

“I have made more money than I ever thought anybody should ever make,” said Pérez, 66, sitting in the art-and-book filled family room in his bayside mansion in Coconut Grove. “But who cares if you’re worth $500 million or $1 billion? That is not what I want to be remembered for, but for giving something back.”

Easy to say for a man whose net worth Forbes.com estimates at $3.4 billion.

Yet while the Related Group remains an enormously successful enterprise, with 75 projects (mostly in Florida) valued at $15 billion currently under development, Pérez says these days he spends less than a third of his time on the business that made him a fortune.

Instead, his life is increasingly filled with a growing slate of charitable and artistic projects.

Today, for instance, he’s meeting with Alonzo Mourning over boosting donations to the former Heat player’s Overtown Youth Center, and having dinner with Mark B. Rosenberg, the president of FIU, where Pérez donates to programs for Cuban art and the nursing college that his second wife, Darlene Pérez, attended.

He’s sponsored Cuban and Argentine filmmakers at the Miami International Film Festival (and is producing films himself) and an artist residency program at the National Young Arts Foundation. Even his time at the office is often consumed by conferences about design and art for Related’s buildings.

“The worlds of art, philanthropy and business are absolutely intertwined,” said Pérez, who in 2012 signed Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates’ “Giving Pledge” where the super rich commit to give half their wealth to charity.

Those worlds meet in a complex Related has proposed to Miami Dade College, which combines a museum, performance space, sculpture garden and meeting center with condominium and office towers. The company is contending with a group headed by art dealer Gary Nader, whose unsolicited proposal to build the MDC complex triggered a competition for the project.

Nader has attacked Pérez for bidding on the project, invoking a 2011 controversy when Pérez’s donation of $40 million in cash and art put his name on what became the Pérez Art Museum Miami. The move was overwhelmingly approved by the board of directors but prompted complaints from some community members about naming the public institution after a single donor.

Pérez professes puzzlement that efforts he believes benefit Miami are seen as self-aggrandizing.

“There’s a saying that no good deed goes unpunished,” Pérez said. “Every time you pop your face up, somebody someplace will try to take a shot at you. … I’m trying and I will continue to try to do what is best for my community.”

His late-life focus on art and philanthropy is motivated largely by a pair of crises in the late 2000s, when the economic crash devastated his business, and a serious health scare (a growth on his pancreas which turned out to be benign), prompted him to reevaluate his life.

“You think ‘oh my God, I have a very limited time,’” Pérez said. “And I said what do I really want to do, what is my legacy?”

Aaron Podhurst, the chairman of PAMM’s board, says success has given Pérez the luxury of concentrating on his legacy. “He doesn’t have to climb the mountain every day — he’s at the top of the mountain,” Podhurst said. “Now he wants to give back to the community.”

Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, calls Pérez, who’s a current member and previous chair of the Cultural Affairs Council, an “arts advocate extraordinaire.”

“Jorge is a natural born leader,” Spring said. “He really believes the arts should be for all people. And he is extremely effective.”

The drive that made Pérez a business success is rooted in his history as a son of Cuban exiles and a striving immigrant to the United States. He remembers his mother being forced to surrender her jewelry at the airport in Havana as they fled to live with relatives in Colombia.

“My parents lost everything,” he said. “You understand the vulnerability you have when one day you have everything and the next day they take everything away from you. You understand not just philosophically, but physically.”

The passions for art and philanthropy that drive Pérez now are in many ways a return to ideas that animated his youth. His upper class mother was a lover of philosophy who, while not a supporter of communism, taught him that corruption and inequality in Cuba led to the revolution. When he first came to the U.S. from Colombia in 1968 to attend Miami Dade College (which he still calls by its original name of Miami Dade Junior College), Pérez had hair to his waist and was a leader in Students for a Democratic Society, a leftist activist group.

“I was never supposed to be a businessman,” Pérez said. “I was going to change the world. I was going to go back to Latin America and work on agrarian reform and equalize the differences between rich and poor.” (He calls himself a “a rare Cuban liberal Democrat” and is a staunch supporter of President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton; photos of him with both leaders are tucked amidst the ranks of framed family pictures. There are none of Donald Trump, whom Pérez calls a friend, great for talking shop over a beer, but with whom he “totally disagrees” on politics.)

Pérez earned his masters in urban planning at the University of Michigan, which led to a job as economic development director at the City of Miami. He went into business in 1979, first developing affordable housing and later moving into luxury condos — a shift that allowed him to work with world class architects and install top flight artwork. Over time, the urge to build better cities merged with business ambition, along with the desire to prove himself as a Latino immigrant who would shape his U.S. home into an international cultural capital.

“He’s always seen the potential in Miami,” said Manny Diaz, who was mayor of Miami from 2001 to 2009, when Related led the city’s building boom. “I remember many conversations with him where it wasn’t just build a building but what Miami had to become. … Yes, of course, there’s a profit motive. But it’s also ‘this is great, this is my hometown.’”

Pérez’s vision for Miami has sometimes led to legal clashes and accusations of over building. In the late 2000s, a non-profit group successfully fought a massive Related condo project near the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. In 2013, complaints from Miami Beach residents and officials prompted Pérez to withdraw from a planned redevelopment of Watson Island.

“My life has been a series of risks, most of which have panned out, but some of them haven’t,” Pérez said. “You get up, you learn from it, you get stronger, you get smarter.”

These days Pérez turns the full force of his Type-quadruple-A personality on his passions; he seems alternately spontaneous, impetuous, impulsive and meticulous focused.

On this weekday morning, he’s been up since 6, rising, as usual, with 12-year-old Felipe, his son with Darlene. He expounds enthusiastically on the art that fills his house, pointing out paintings by Jose Bedia and Alex Katz, turning on a multimedia work by Rafael Lozano Hemmer that displays a stream of current world news and facts.

Impatient with a housekeeper, he bounds upstairs to plug in his Kindle so it will be charged for his regular late night reading. He devours detective novels, which are scattered amidst the tomes on art filling his bookshelves, and ponders denser fiction like The Brothers Karamazov, which he’s currently rereading.

PAMM officials say his hands-on expertise during construction, when he was a regular visitor to the museum building site, enabled them to finish on time and on budget. Since his initial gift, Pérez has spent an additional $10 million on artwork and donations for the museum, frequently traveling with PAMM curators to art fairs to seek new pieces.

He proposed and co-funded a $1 million program for African-American and African diaspora artists with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. And he has pledged his entire personal art collection to PAMM after he passes away.

But Pérez won’t buy anything he doesn’t love, says Patricia Hanna, the art director for Related who oversees the company’s artistic holdings as well as Pérez’s personal collection.

“He’s really driven by passion and his immediate reaction to the piece — I know immediately whether he loves or hates it,” Hanna said. “He wants to look at it every day. He’s very decisive. It’s a great day when we agree on something.”

Pérez relishes times like the one at a recent art fair in Madrid, when a late night call from a Cuban artist led to hanging out at an artists’ party until the wee hours. When curator Elizabeth Cerejido approached him about funding a Cuban-American and Cuban artist exchange program, Pérez immediately matched the gift she had received from the Knight Foundation, and later traveled to Havana with the artists.

He seems as determined to fill his life with art and experiences as he once was to be successful.

“You have to live life to the fullest,” he said. “I don’t want to slow down. I want the giving to be stepped up. So the older I get, the less I will be involved in the business side, the more in the philanthropic side.”