Art Basel

As Art Basel blooms, Miami’s museums set a new course

Miami Herald Staff

As a wave of new museum directors sweeps Miami, the city is poised to push past its image as the art world’s equivalent of Suntan U.

From Art Basel Miami Beach’s beginnings more than a decade ago, many fairgoers have used the event to preen like exotic tropical birds perched on impossibly high heels and showcasing the trendiest fashions. For them, the week was a masquerade without the masks, a post-Halloween romp for adults who didn’t mind seeing a bit of art amid the mimosas and mojitos.

While sun, sand, surf, and the lifestyle that goes with all that assuredly remain South Florida’s calling card, the art and the professionals who oversee it are anything but frivolous. The area has become such a serious crucible of culture in the past decade that museum directors from two of the globe’s most robust cities for contemporary art — Los Angeles and New York — have moved here. That’s no coincidence, says Dennis Scholl, former Knight Foundation vice president for the arts.

“You have to acknowledge the change in perception about the Miami art world when you have pretty much the leading curatorial candidate to be a director, which is Franklin Sirmans, who chooses to leave a hotbed of contemporary art activity in Los Angeles to come to Miami,” said Scholl. “And then you have a very well-known deputy director at the Jewish museum, which is the hotbed of activity in New York — Ellen Salpeter — who decides to leave New York and come to Miami.”

In September, Sirmans announced he was leaving his curatorial post at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to head the Perez Art Museum Miami after a search chaired by Scholl. Later that month, Salpeter of New York’s Jewish Museum signed on as director of the newly created Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami. Both join a cadre of museum directors who migrated to Miami in the past 18 months. Other new directors include Timothy Rodgers at the Wolfsonian-FIU in Miami Beach, Babacar M’Bow at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Jill Deupi at University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum, and Jordana Pomeroy at Florida International University’s Frost Art Museum.

“All bring with them a wealth of knowledge and a real desire to help to make our city grow,” said Victoria Rogers, who succeeded Scholl at the Knight Foundation in May. “I just think that says volumes about how Miami can attract and maintain talent. It makes me very excited about the future of our city and definitely for the arts.”

With directors of international stature comes the opportunity to see great art. Now more than ever, the local museums have become a magnet for the display of serious and sensational shows.

“The world’s eyes are kind of looking at Miami, and Miami has become a very respectable city,” said the Frost’s Pomeroy. “For example, to try to get an exhibition here — maybe 15, 20 years ago, Miami? No way! Now it’s, ‘Can we get our show in Miami?’ There’s really been a transition, and I’m sure a lot of that has been kick-started by Basel.”

As the new director of the Wolfsonian, Timothy Rodgers hopes to use the Art Basel enthusiasm as a springboard for expanding existing programs and integrating the museum into collegiate courses at FIU. Rodgers, who joined the Wolfsonian in July, also sees FIU as the perfect repository for the bulk of the museum’s collection. Most of the museum’s 180,000-work collection is currently stored off-site. Rodgers wants to get it into the hands of the students and faculty, while continuing to run the museum at its current location in the heart of Miami Beach’s Art Deco District.

Art Basel Director Marc Spiegler expects Rodgers and the new directors will add a new vibrancy.

“You always trade stability for rejuvenation … all of these people will think about these institutions,” Spiegler said. “It’s not going to have a huge impact this December, but I think next year, next December, it will have a big impact. What’s important for [Art Basel] is that there’s this kind of parallel cultural activity going on outside the show. The fact that we have a group of new directors in place, with new energy and something to prove, is good news for us.”

Miami’s status as a young, growing city coming into its own as an international hub fuels the arts community, said Michael Kaiser, former president of the Kennedy Center in Washington. Kaiser now runs the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland and is interim CEO at Miami’s National YoungArts Foundation. As a consultant, Kaiser helps arts managers and their boards thrive in an era of cutbacks. If the community wants to have a great arts presence, its members have to reach into their wallets, he said.

“We need to build a larger philanthropic base in Miami if we’re going to see our arts organizations continue to grow,” Kaiser said. That requires arts managers who know how to build audiences and donor bases. “It’s important to also build a board and the cadres who are going to serve on boards of organizations so they can help attract support of these wonderful artists. It all has to develop in tandem. It can’t just be one piece of it.”

Money certainly is an important element in keeping up a museum’s momentum. At the Pérez Art Museum Miami, Sirmans will have to work with a $20 million endowment that’s less than a third of its expected goal of $70 million.

As the second director at PAMM, which opened just two years ago during Art Basel, Sirmans said he’s up to the task. Although this marks his debut as a museum director, Sirmans is well-acquainted with fundraising. In his most recent role as department head and curator of contemporary art at LACMA, Sirmans worked with Viveca Paulin-Ferrell, a museum trustee and the wife of actor Will Ferrell, to create a core of donors called Contemporary Friends. For the past two years, the group reportedly raised some $400,000 annually to acquire 26 works.

Sirmans envisions turning the PAMM into a gathering place for all people — even those who prefer basketball to Basquiat. “We’re located right down the street from the arena,” he said. “I want all the people who go to the arena to come to the Perez. I want them to feel that it’s part of their city, something to be proud of, something that plays a role out there in the world, the same way that the Miami Heat does.”

Over at ICA, Salpeter is a seasoned fundraiser. At the Jewish Museum, Salpeter had a $19 million operating budget, for which she was responsible for raising $11 million annually through donors, membership, special events and institutional giving. That’s more than double ICA’s projected $5 million budget.

Perhaps more challenging than finances is the prospect of literally creating a museum from the ground up. The museum is so new that it doesn’t yet have a permanent building. It broke ground on a 37,500-square-foot building, with its adjoining 15,000-square-foot sculpture garden, earlier this month. Salpeter said she plans to use the time in her temporary quarters at the iconic Moore Space to build a patron base before moving into the new building.

She faces other challenges at ICA, which was founded last year by break-away board members and staff who left the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.

At MOCA, director Babacar M’Bow projects the power of positive thinking. M’Bow, who joined MOCA in June 2014, set lofty goals: secure a $10 million bond to develop the museum, including the addition of a second floor, and expand the collection through donations. They are high aspirations indeed: North Miami voters shot down an expansion proposal in 2012, and many former donors have shifted their support to ICA. Despite the obvious financial hurdles facing the museum, M’Bow seeks to make MOCA a showcase for local talent, stating boldly, “If we gave to Miami artists the place in our museums — give us three years and we will have the rise of Miami as an art capital of the world.”

Salpeter hopes the local museums can work together to bring great art to South Florida.

“I’m so looking forward to getting down there and really digging in to shape the presence and think about the kinds of things we’re going to do, both in the new building and then in the interim, certainly with the temporary space and what we’re doing now with great programs in education and community engagement,” Salpeter said. She, like other new directors, is oriented toward collaborating with the various museums in the area. “Of course, that’s the opportunity to come and to help shape this new institution, especially in a changing landscape like Miami. It’s very exciting. I am a builder. So, I’m very excited by the opportunity.”

Director Deupi at the Lowe echoes that sentiment.

“I believe very firmly that a rising tide lifts all boats, and I don’t see the other museums in town as my competitors,” Deupi said. “I see them as peers and colleagues. I think that we gain so much by working together and being partners. I think it increases a richer experience for everyone, and our audiences in particular.”

Bonnie Clearwater, who left MOCA in 2013 to head the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, sees the recent changes in the area museums as an opportunity to turn all of South Florida into an arts destination. She likes to tell people, “I haven’t left Miami, I’ve just moved northward so that Fort Lauderdale becomes this hub that bridges Miami and Palm Beach into this continuous art coast.”

Miami Herald Visual Arts Editor Jane Wooldridge contributed to this report.

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