Art Basel

Director sees Miami’s new art museum as ‘town center’

For Thom Collins, director of the striking new Perez Art Museum Miami, the past couple of years have rushed by like the time lapse video of the construction project posted on the museum’s website: cranes moving in; rebar and concrete materializing; walls and columns shooting up; wrap-around terraces stretching out — all at dizzying speed.

Collins spent five years as director of the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y., before taking the helm of Miami Art Museum in the summer of 2010, as the museum prepared to build a new home on the water’s edge. With the Herzog & de Meuron-design art house taking shape, he has lost count of how many groups he has taken on dusty tours, his white cowboy-style hardhat tipped against the blazing sun.

“When I was growing up in Philadelphia, we went to the art museum every month. I think the PAMM could emerge as that kind of institution for Miami, a culturally oriented town center where people and ideas meet, and where you know you will always find thoughtful, sophisticated programming.’’

Soon after arriving in Miami, Collins, who favors skinny suits and square-framed glasses, moved to a working-class neighborhood bordering art-centric Wynwood, determined to understand from the inside this young city experiencing a modern cultural boom.

“This is a place with such dynamic cultural diversity, and that gives it such potential. This is a city where the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the New World Center, the new science museum and the PAMM are all going up within a period of about 10 years. That’s remarkable. That’s instant cultural infrastructure.”

The PAMM is scheduled to open during Art Basel week, on time and within budget — though not without its share of controversy over its name honoring Miami developer Jorge Perez, who in 2010 donated $40 million in cash and art. Still, Collins is celebrating the fact that the museum has locked in more than 90 percent of its $220 million fundraising goal ($100 million came from public funds).

“There is a lot of aspiration in Miami. And a recognition that we are building a real repository for the city’s shared cultural heritage. You can see this in the support the museum is receiving.”

Collins himself managed to gain broad support from the community almost from the time he arrived — which is no small feat.

“Thom makes it all look easy,” says Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs. “For the whole cultural community to move forward, you have to have top leaders at the flagship institutions who are steady professionals, who can earn the respect of the people around them.

“When you talk to Thom, you get a sense of confidence. This is someone who is a national leader in the visual arts. And he is charming, funny, good in social situations, which is very important when it comes to building relationships with donors and collectors.”

Perez Art Museum Miami opens Dec. 4 in downtown Miami’s Bicentennial Park. 305-375-3000;