Art Basel

A year away: Miami Art Museum’s new name, site, building on Biscayne Bay

By this time next year, if all goes according to a very immodest plan, the modern-art museum that bears Miami’s name will metamorphose into something almost entirely new.

The institution soon to be formerly known as the Miami Art Museum will have a conspicuous new location, at the downtown edge of Biscayne Bay; a striking new building designed by the Swiss “starchitecture” firm of Herzog & de Meuron; and a new, if not uncontroversial, name and less-than-sonorous acronym.

When it opens in time for Art Basel/Miami Beach in 2013, it will be as the Perez Art Museum Miami, or PAMM, after the Related Group’s Jorge Perez, a prominent Miami developer who made a contribution of cash and art valued at $35 million.

The fresh start, museum backers and administrators say, will propel PAMM toward the status that has long eluded the institution, launched in 1984 as a public exhibition hall with no collection: Art-world player. Agent of transformation.

“We have huge ambition for this institution,’’ said MAM director Thom Collins. “We have outsized ambition. In terms of scope and exhibitions and new commissions, it’s like going zero to 100, not zero to 60.’’

The new building, the product of an infusion of $100 million in public money and a private obligation to raise $120 million more in contributions, is rising at the foot of the MacArthur Causeway. The site occupies several acres of 29-acre Bicentennial Park, a desolate space that’s also slated for an eventual makeover as Museum Park.

Next to PAMM’s home, and about a year behind it in construction, will be a new cutting-edge science museum. The two buildings will flank a lushly planted new public plaza designed by James Corner Field Operations, landscape architects for New York’s High Line, the elevated rail running along the west side of Manhattan that was famously converted into a park.

For an art museum, Herzog & de Meuron’s building has an unusual configuration, designed to provide considerable exhibition flexibility and take maximum advantage of the waterfront location. It’s an arrangement of stacked, interconnected concrete boxes containing dramatically expansive exhibition and performance spaces that were made possible by a structural system that all but dispenses with interior columns.

“It really gives us much more space and makes it possible for us to create unusual juxtapositions,’’ Collins said. “We can do one gigantic thing or we can do multiple things of different character.’’

Large, hurricane-resistant windows will afford views of bay and skyline, and a grand staircase will lead down to a new baywalk. An open terrace wraps around the building and will be shaded by a massive, overhanging lattice-like canopy just now being installed. The landscape plan looks like a surreal dream out of a J.G. Ballard novel: Vines will hang from the canopy and trees will grow through the terrace, as if a subtropical jungle were about to engulf the building.

Like so many recent museum commissions, the building was conceived in part as a revitalization scheme. Forming a cultural nexus with the nearby Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the museum should bring new life to the once-forlorn north end of downtown Miami, civic and government leaders say.

But museum backers’ hopes extend well beyond that. They say they want PAMM to function as cultural rocket fuel for the city and its maturing arts community, providing greater local visibility for contemporary art and helping boost Miami artists to the world stage. They plan to do so by bringing the best of the art world to show at PAMM, but also to work here and mix it up with the locals.

“In the end, the building is a means to an end. It just happens to be a smart and elegant means to an end,’’ Collins said. “It is our aim to become the go-to cultural institution in Miami.’’

There will be more collaborative, multi-disciplinary and experimental work at PAMM, Collins said, with an expanded focus on the hot media of video and performance (the museum is now looking for a video and film curator).

For PAMM’s grand-opening show, for instance, museum curators have commissioned works from four contemporary-art luminaries: two photo, film and video artists, Israel’s Yael Bartana and Moroccan Bouchra Khalil; Polish sculptor and installation artist Monika Sosnowska; and Scottish painter and sculptor Hew Locke. All four will visit Miami several times to participate in public discussions, mingle with its artists and generally soak up the city.

Or take the New Work Miami 2013 exhibit on the ground floor of its current home, hidden within a misconceived, fortress-like cultural center that its architect, Philip Johnson, would later virtually disavow.

Ten Miami-based artists collaborated on a series of artworks and installations that use real and reconstructed architectural fragments as the undergirding theme and exhibition framework — arches from the Fountainebleau, glass blocks ubiquitous in the ’80s, a two-tone pastel wall from Miami Beach’s Art Deco district, granite kitchen and bath counters that appear to have been stripped from foreclosed homes, and bike racks from the plaza outside that continue to be used inside the museum’s lobby.

Outside the building, a 15,000-pound granite sign bearing the logo of Miami’s collapsed CenTrust Bank sits below the elevated Metrorail tracks, a reminder of the roller-coaster cycles of international investment and capital that have shaped Miami’s urban development.

Artist George Sanchez-Calderon, who rescued the behemoth from a Wynwood scrap yard, said he hopes the new PAMM will follow through on administrators’ pledge to increase support of the local art community, especially financially. The current show, he said, is a good start.

“It’s time that there is more investment, in the way you see in other cities like New York and L.A.,’’ Sanchez-Calderon said. “They need to go deeper into the community, and broader.’’

But progress on the new building has not come without its share of controversy. Though voters approved the bonds for its construction, some vocal critics have criticized the use of public money for what they describe as an “elitist’’ institution, as well as the loss of several acres of park space in a city desperately short of it.

The new PAMM could also require increased public operating support, now about $2 million, because the costs of exhibitions, educational programs and staff are projected to more than double to about $11 million. Some prominent local collectors, including Martin Margulies and Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz, have questioned whether the museum’s relatively sparse collection — around 1,000 pieces — merits that kind of public expense. But perhaps the most public, and stinging, flap was over the museum board’s decision to accept developer Perez’s naming offer, roughly half backed by art from his collection. Some say Perez got a bargain and they raise concerns that, by tying up naming rights for the long-term, the decision will discourage donors from making other, larger gifts.

Collins and board members have strongly defended the naming decision, saying Perez’s cash gift went a long way toward helping the museum meet its fundraising obligation, which includes $31 million to offset construction costs, $19 million for transitional expenses, and $70 million for an endowment.

The museum has so far received $75.5 million in pledges and checks, more than enough to cover construction and moving expenses, and is now focused on raising endowment money, MAM said. That pledge total includes a $5 million gift from Coral Gables healthcare entrepreneur Miguel “Mike” Fernandez and his wife, Constance, that was announced on Thursday.

Perez’s donation of 110 works, Collins said, was a valuable supplement to the museum’s collection, particularly its Latin American segment. A selection from the Perez gift, including works by Wifredo Lam, Diego Rivera and Jose Bedia, will go on exhibit at MAM in March as the current museum’s swang song.

Perez, meanwhile, has proven an active patron of the museum, Collins said.

“Jorge has worked overtime to connect us to people we haven’t been connected to in the past. That helps you scale up, and it’s been truly wonderful,’’ he said.