Martin Z. Margulies has long been one of Miami’s most prominent art collectors, with much of his work regularly on display at his namesake collection in a Wynwood warehouse.
This year, the Martin Z. Margulies Collection at the Warehouse celebrates its 15th anniversary, and the collector’s expansive selection of American photography is the subject of an exhibition at the NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.
After more than 30 years of collecting, it’s difficult for Margulies to pinpoint the moment he decided to start. But he does recall attending a Sotheby’s auction at which educated and sophisticated people were paying tens of thousands of dollars, then exorbitant sums, for works by living artists like Jasper Johns.
“I said, ‘My gosh, these are pretty smart people and they’re putting their hard-earned dollars into this. There must be something to this art nonsense,’” Margulies said in an interview with the Miami Herald.
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Since then, he has amassed one of the best collections of contemporary art in the world. And he became part of a group of collectors — including the Rubells, the de la Cruzes and Ella Fontanals Cisneros — who helped pioneer what became known as the “Miami model,” in which private collectors opened to the public and put the city on the art world’s radar.
Working behind the scenes with Margulies since the early days of the collection has been longtime curator Katherine Hinds. Her role has been so crucial to the collection that Margulies says he sometimes thinks the work is in better hands with Hinds in charge while he’s away. He jokingly says that should the two ever get into a fight, it would be he who would resign.
“Katherine is a cut above the people who are involved in the arts in this community,” Marguiles says.
While his warehouse has been around for 15 years, Margulies’ commitment to making his collection public dates back far earlier.
For many years, the public was welcome to see his sculpture garden on Grove Isle, a small, private island with condominium towers and a hotel in Coconut Grove and historically one of the most exclusive addresses in the city. After tensions with island management, much of the collection was moved to Florida International University’s main campus in West Miami-Dade.
For many Miamians who didn’t have the means to frequent cultural capitals like New York or Paris, their first interactions with Willem de Kooning’s wild, erratic style or Joan Miro’s surreal sensibilities was through these sculpture parks.
But as the collection grew, so did the need for space to hold it. Thus the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse was born in 1999 in then-derelict Wynwood.
What set the Margulies Collection apart from the others has been its emphasis on installation and sculptural works, many created by blue-chip artists.
The cavernous space of the warehouse is perfectly suited for them. It is hard to imagine where else in Miami you’ll find a work like Olafur Eliasson’s Your Now Is My Surroundings, an installation which visitors travel up a small flight of stairs outdoors and discover a narrow, tall space lined with walls of mirrors and a slotted skylight that opens to the elements.
Each new Art Basel brings another opportunity for Margulies to show off his newest acquisitions. Among this year’s is British artist Eric Bainbridge’s Occurrence on an Endless Column, a towering work that resembles an assemblage of oversize pet toys.
Another is an untitled painting by American artist Jeff Elrod, who is seeing a mid-career resurgence as collectors vie for his abstract works created from painted tracings from projections of digital doodles made with archaic computer software.
You’ll also find longtime favorites of the collection such as George Segal’s haunting depictions of a lonely subway rider and a bread line during the Great Depression, and Donald Judd’s minimalist rectangular masses rendered in weathering steel.
In the spirit of the collection’s anniversary, Margulies and Hinds have brought out prominent works that have not made an appearance in years.
Among the most extraordinary of those is by artist Do-Ho Suh, who created a life-size, translucent nylon replica of a corridor from the apartment where he lived while attending art school in New York. Hoping to capture the optimism and anxiety of going to college in a foreign country, the artist intricately recreated the hallway in light fabric, including details such as the doorknobs and light switches, imbuing the work with an ethereal, dreamlike quality.
Coincidentally, the NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale will also host an exhibition highlighting Margulies’ collection of American photography just in time for the warehouse’s anniversary.
Although the timing was serendipitous, according to museum director and chief curator Bonnie Clearwater, it is quite apropos. The warehouse was created in part to service Margulies’ desire to collect more photography. Space had run out in his apartment as he was collecting photographs by the hundreds, and a new site was needed.
When Clearwater joined the museum last year, she says, the first phone call she made was to Margulies, who was excited by the idea of combing through his extensive library of photographs.
“I was interested in how Marty as a collector shaped the collection, how the collection shaped him as a human being and how these artists shaped our perception of America and ultimately photography itself,” Clearwater said in a recent interview.
There is a highly personal nature to the photography collection. Margulies grew up in New York as the son of grocers who owned a store in Harlem. Many of the photos, such as those by photographer Helen Levitt, depict the New York City that the collector experienced as a child in the 1940s.
Others, such as Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration and Lewis Hine’s documentation of child labor, have struck a chord with the collector on an emotional wavelength that transcends mere art appreciation (although these photographers’ prowess with a camera has never been questioned).
However personal his photography collection may be, there is the sense that Margulies has amassed an astounding body of work that offers a bird’s-eye view of how photographers have depicted America in the 20th and 21st centuries. Through Clearwater’s laser-sharp curatorial eye, you can see the shifts in American photography from the documentary style of the early 20th century to more-conceptual contemporaries.
The conceptually driven artists on display in the show include Ed Ruscha, who took photographs of his earlier iconic photographs of gas stations that he made for open-edition art books. While those earlier photos were intended for mass production, the later ones are, in a way, photocopies of the originals produced on silver gelatin; thus the process becomes as important as the image he is reproducing.
As for the future of the collection, Margulies says he probably will see that the vast majority of his collection is dispersed to charities that focus on disenfranchised constituencies.
But for now, Margulies and Hinds hope to stay the course, acting as a private arts institution with no outside funding and a focus on outreach and education hoping to reach new audiences, particularly high school and college students, in the hope they will see art in a new light.
“Perhaps we’ve educated them. Perhaps we’ve given them some pleasure. Perhaps we’ve not given them pleasure. Because that’s all of part of it ... At the end of the day, it’s having a viewpoint on something and maybe exposing people to something they may have not been exposed to before.”
If you go
▪ NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale: “Café Dolly: Picabia, Schnabel, Willumsen,” “American Scene Photography: Martin Z. Margulies Collection,” 1E.Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets $10 (senior citizens $7, students $5, under 12 free). moafl.org; 954-262-0249.
▪ Margulies Collection at the Warehouse: To celebrate its 15th anniversary, new works from sculptors Mario Merz, Hans Josephsohn and Richard Long will be unveiled. 591 NW 27th St., Wynwood; margulieswarehouse.com; 305-576-1051.