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Philadelphia's prestigious Barnes Foundation recruits Thom Collins of PAMM

Thom Collins, who ushered the former Miami Art Museum into its lauded new bayfront home — and into a new name — is leaving his position as director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami to lead the acclaimed Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Leann Standish, PAMM’s deputy director for external affairs, will take on the role of interim director after Collins leaves in March. A committee headed by museum trustee Dennis Scholl, vice president/arts for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, will oversee the search for a new director.

For Collins, a Philadelphia native who spent his childhood visiting the foundation’s collection, the job — which an arts insider called “one of the gigs of a lifetime” — has a strong personal connection.

“It’s a great moment of homecoming for me, and I’m very pleased about that,” said Collins, who parents live in Philadelphia. While he said leaving Miami is a bittersweet proposition — especially in the winter — he said he is confident about the timing.

After opening its new Herzog & de Meuron-designed campus to critical praise in December of 2013, the museum saw attendance soar to 300,000 — compared to 60,000 at its former home. Membership grew from about 1,000 households to more than 9,000. And Collins said he expects PAMM to meet its private fundraising goal of $120 million before the end of this year.

“To have PAMM now at a moment of not just stability but real strength and momentum makes this a whole lot easier,” said Collins, who joined the museum after spending five years as director of the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York. Earlier jobs included director of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore and chief curator at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.

Scholl, who said he has been involved in more than half a dozen leadership searches in the last five years, said the general time frame is about six months.

Museum board leaders said that while they are sad to see Collins — whom they consider a friend — leave, they were not surprised that he was courted by a high-profile new employer.

“It is not atypical in the museum world that when somebody expends five years of significant energy and then has the kind of successful result that the Pérez Art Museum has had that the director is both sought after and begins to think about a new challenge,” Scholl said.

The next director will have a new massive to-do list — and require a different set of skills — for PAMM’s next phase. Scholl said priorities will include growing the permanent collection, programming exhibitions that are representative of the community and continuing to raise funds to ensure the institution’s financial stability.

Museum board chair Aaron Podhurst said developing more educational programs for both children and adults will also be a focus.

Michael Spring, Miami-Dade County’s director of cultural affairs, said he expects plenty of interest.

“They opened to international acclaim,” he said. “Miami is one of the hottest arts places in the world today and I don’t believe we’re going to have any trouble at all attracting a stellar group of candidates for that position.”

While Collins called the new Stilstville-inspired building “brilliant,” he also acknowledged that he can take no credit for its design. Former museum director Terrence Riley, an architect by training, shepherded the project planning. Collins said he is most proud of public programs, exhibitions and collections that “actively reflect the unique diversity of Miami-Dade.”

“That’s as much of a factor of our attendance success and our membership success as anything else,” he said. “We wanted to create a museum that people can become attached to because they see themselves in it in a variety of ways.”

The tenure wasn’t always smooth. When developer Jorge Pérez donated $35 million in cash and art in 2011, a gift that came with naming rights, a few board members resigned in protest. In February last year, a Miami artist gained national attention after smashing a vase that was part of an exhibit by Chinese artists Ai Weiwei.

Podhurst said Collins handled those issues “very well.”

“Thom does not go off the deep end,” he said. “He’s under control.”

And Collins said a more recent disappointment over the county subsidies in September had no influence on his decision to leave. Mayor Carlos Gimenez originally included a $1.4 million increase to the museum to help with the cost of running a larger building, but redirected that amount in the final budget. Conversations with the Barnes Foundation started in June, predating the budget issue, Collins said.

Scholl said the opportunity to take the helm at the Barnes Foundation — established in 1922 and including extensive works by masters such as Matisse, Picasso and Renoir as well as American icons, African sculpture and antiquities from Mediterranean and Asian regions — would be hard to pass up regardless of any challenges in Miami.

“I think all that pales in comparison to the opportunity to get the keys to one of the greatest art collections in the world, and that’s what the Barnes collection is,” Scholl said. “That’s one of the gigs of a lifetime.”