Art Basel

A banner first year for Miami’s bayside art museum

Pérez Art Museum Miami director Thomas Collins gets a closer look at Mark Handforth’s light sculpture in the second floor gallery. The museum is celebrating its first birthday on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, just as Miami Art Week gets underway.
Pérez Art Museum Miami director Thomas Collins gets a closer look at Mark Handforth’s light sculpture in the second floor gallery. The museum is celebrating its first birthday on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, just as Miami Art Week gets underway. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Exactly 12 months ago, the bayside grounds and terraces of the Pérez Art Museum Miami looked like a Home Depot garden center — chockablock with racks and pallets of plants in containers. Workers frantically rushed around planting trees, welding upper-terrace railings and drilling art into the walls inside to ready the new $130million building for its Dec.4 grand opening.

What a difference a year makes.

As PAMM gets set to celebrate its first birthday with another high-profile Miami Art Week bash Thursday, the museum, with its expansive terraces and bayfront restaurant, has firmly cemented its position as a must-see for Miamians and visitors alike.

The gardens are growing in nicely, the famous hanging vines are thriving, and the building — an arrangement of boxes floating on stilts under a shady canopy and providing unparalleled vistas of Biscayne Bay and downtown Miami — is an unqualified critical hit.

But more significantly, the exhibition halls, the kids’ classrooms and Verde the restaurant are packing in the visitors in numbers that have stunned even the most optimistic museum administrators and supporters.

PAMM officials say the new museum has exceeded attendance and revenue projections by substantial margins, blowing by the expected numbers for the first full 12 months of operation shortly after mid-year. By the end of November, the museum had admitted some 300,000 visitors, 50 percent over the projected first-year attendance of 200,000, they say.

And contrary to perceptions that museum visitors are the wealthy elite, the attendance figure includes some 70,000 school kids and visitors from every zip code in Miami-Dade, PAMM officials say. PAMM buses kids to the museum on a daily basis for tours and hands-on classes and has free admission on the second Saturday of every month.

“It’s been a success beyond all our expectations,” said Aaron Podhurst, chairman of PAMM’s board of trustees. “All of Miami is proud of PAMM, not just art people. We should be proud of it. We’ve done something special. It’s an incredible success because the people of Miami-Dade love it.”

A great deal of the credit goes to the building, designed by Swiss superstars Herzog & de Meuron. It has been broadly praised by critics, artists and curators as an unusually felicitious blend of beautiful galleries, architectural originality and astute use of waterfront.

“It’s been praised internationally almost as being a perfect building,” said Michael Spring, a special advisor to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and head of the county’s cultural programs. “It reflects its environment and is a great showcase for art — and believe me, you rarely get both of those in one building.”

But backers say PAMM has also outdone itself in what was supposed to be its weak point — the art. Its curators have supplemented what some critics derided as a starter collection with acquisitions and gifts of works by top artists, more than doubling the number of works in it to 1,800. Those include a massive steel sculpture by Mark di Suvero that will be installed in the museum garden; a gift of 10 works by Pop Art masters; and a gift of six works by women artists such as Maya Lin, celebrated designer of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

They’ve also extended the museum’s reach with a canny rotating schedule of first-rate visiting exhibitions and borrowings, mostly with a focus on Latin American and international art, as well as showcases for Miami artists with a national reputation like Adler Guerrier and Edouard Duval-Carrie.

On view for Art Week: Difference Between Weather and Climate, an installation by Mexico City-based artist Mario Garcia Torres, commissioned by PAMM for one of the first-floor galleries dedicated to special projects; and Beatriz Milhazes: Jardim Botânico. The first major U.S. survey of works by the Brazilian abstract artist Milhazes, it features more than 40 large-scale, color-saturated paintings, collages and prints.

The building and its curatorial success have raised the museum’s profile in the art world — PAMM director Thom Collins says he’s fielding frequent requests by other institutions to host their shows — and also kept visitors coming back for repeated visits, surveys of museumgoers show.

“The idea is there’s always something new to see,” Collins said.

The most telling statistic is perhaps the sharp increase in memberships, Collins said. That has shot up from 1,000 households when it was the Miami Art Museum, then housed in the cultural center tucked away on Flagler Street, to 9,000 today, representing revenue of $2.24 million, according to PAMM numbers. Membership is on pace to reach 10,000 households next year, Collins said.

“The feedback and the public response have been uniformly great. We get offered things we didn’t get offered before. We’ve upped our game at every level,” Collins said. “But in some ways membership speaks even more to the success of the program, and how exhibitions have been calibrated to this community.”

Nor does it hurt to have a well-reviewed cafe by a name restaurateur, Stephen Starr, that boasts that unreasonably rare Miami commodity, a waterfront location. Verde has become a hot spot for downtown residents and workers who come to PAMM just for lunch — eating there doesn’t require museum admission.

That synergy has increased since the city of Miami belatedly opened PAMM’s green companion, Museum Park, this summer. Strollers often find their way to the PAMM terrace and Verde, and museumgoers also set out to explore the new park, PAMM administrators say.

That was always the goal, but planners say they’re gratified to see it start to work.

“People love to come and congregate around the building,” Podhurst said.

There have been low points, to be sure. In February, a Miami artist protesting what he wrongly thought was the exclusion of local artists from PAMM smashed a Ming-era vase in an exhibit by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, stunning the art world. A subsequent review by a consultant found no issues with the museum’s security, Collins said.

Then, in September, Gimenez, facing a tight county budget, yanked a long-promised increase in annual subsidies paid from from hotel taxes to help PAMM cope with the increased cost of running the new, larger building.

The $1.5million would have come in addition to the $2.5million the museum had received while still in its old, county-owned building, where Miami-Dade picked up maintenance costs. The county put up $100million in voter-approved bonds for the new museum, while PAMM has raised $101million toward a private fundraising goal of $120million, which includes an endowment.

PAMM supporters say the loss of the pledged increase stung because the museum’s $16million operating budget must now cover all maintenance costs at the new PAMM, as well as the additional staffing needed to run a more complex museum building and program — an especially unfair result when the museum has met and exceeded its budgetary and operational goals, they contend.

In response, the museum has curtailed hiring. Its staffing, at 120 full and part-time employees, is about 25 percent lower than planned, Collins said. The saving grace was a $1million grant from the city Omni redevelopment agency, which helped it extend its educational programs, though that money may be unavailable next year, he said.

Podhurst said PAMM will pursue reinstatement of the additional subsidies, which he said are essential, next year.

“In the old facility the county paid for a lot of things, so in effect we’ve gotten less from the county. It’s the facts,” Podhurst said.

Spring, the county cultural czar, blamed a bad budget year.

“They made a very convincing case, but the county simply couldn’t afford it this year,” Spring said.

Although most new museums experience a drop-off in attendance after the first year or two, PAMM officials say that might not happen here. That’s because the new Frost Science Museum, now under construction at the entrance to Museum Park on Biscayne Boulevard, is scheduled to open in mid-2016.

The construction of Museum Park and the science museum have obscured the entrance to PAMM, and many Miamians don’t realize the art museum is even open, Collins said. PAMM recently hung a banner on the side of the building facing the MacArthur Causeway to let motorists know it’s there.

So when the Frost opens, Collins said, he expects PAMM’s attendance to balloon even more. Not that it’s shown any sign of slowing down so far. Collins said he expected a lull during summer, but instead 65,000 people came.

He and his staff are exhausted but gratified.

“I tell you, it has not abated,” he said. “That’s a great thing.”

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