Miami-Dade County

Miami’s newest museum, The Cuban, opens quietly — but what is it?

The entrance to the new American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, or The Cuban for short, on Coral Way in Miami.
The entrance to the new American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, or The Cuban for short, on Coral Way in Miami. Courtesy, American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora

For years, the sign affixed to the curving shell of a building on Coral Way on the edge of Miami’s The Roads neighborhood promised a transformation that never seemed to arrive. “The Cuban Museum,” it read.

Now it’s here, to the surprise of many, though garlanded with a grander name. Since late November, the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora — or The Cuban — for short, has been making a quiet debut with an exhibition by a noted exile artist in preparation for a grand public opening at the end of April.

Which may prompt a question: What is it exactly?

Almost totally funded by Miami-Dade taxpayers, with $10 million in voter-approved bond money, the privately conceived and run institution has been in the works for more than a decade with scant public attention. The Cuban’s goal is ambitious: to finally provide Miami with the home for Cuban art and culture, in particular works produced by artists outside of the island, that the city has long and perplexingly lacked.

But it’s not there yet.

Even as they get set to formally open the doors to its gleaming, becolumned Spanish Colonial building, The Cuban’s backers say they’re only getting started on fulfilling that promise. The museum has no collection to speak of, no money just yet to buy art, and no budget to operate beyond the next few months, although they say they expect to make fast progress on each goal in the next year.

What The Cuban does have, they say, is four elegant, inviting exhibition galleries and a high-tech auditorium with a 110-seat capacity that’s generating significant interest in the Cuban-American community, galvanizing important artists, collectors, donors and corporate sponsors to pledge works of art or gifts of cash.

“Anyone who walks into this museum, it’s mind blown,” said Maxeme Tuchman, a member of the museum’s board of trustees and the child of Cuban Jews who settled in Miami after the Cuban Revolution. “The Cuban Museum means so much to so many people here. It’s something people want to invest in. All of a sudden, there is a museum that’s taken it upon itself to tell your story.”

Founding director Ileana Fuentes said she has been fielding constant offers since a “soft” opening reception in November drew some 500 people. “There is no shortage of art or desire or collaboration. We’re not pulling teeth here,” she said.

Fuentes bills the inaugural exhibition, “Dictators, Terrorism, War and Exiles,” featuring 32 pieces by eminent Cuban-born artist Luis Cruz Azaceta, as a “preview” of the museum, which for now is open to the public only on weekends.

The museum secured private money, including sponsorship by Bank of America and a Knight Foundation grant, to underwrite the exhibition by Cruz Azaceta, who has lived and worked in the United States since the 1960s and has work in major U.S. museums.

The exhibit, organized by the Aljira contemporary art center in Newark, New Jersey, is emblematic of The Cuban’s goal of displaying the full range of work by significant Cuban artists to what they hope will be an international audience, Fuentes and Tuchman said. Although several pieces in the Cruz Azaceta show focus on the exile experience, for instance, others range broadly from dictatorships in Latin American to the attack on the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City bombing.

That’s one reason why the museum changed its name, they said.

“This is not just una cosita de los cubanos,” a small Cuban thing, Fuentes said. “It’s about a diaspora of two million people all over the world with a community of visual artists who are in major collections and museums. That’s what this is all about, to tell our story through art and culture.”

Added Tuchman: “It it’s just ‘The Cuban Museum,’ then it’s only my grandparents’ or my parents’ story.”

Yet the museum’s opening has been so subdued that even leading figures in Miami’s tight-knit art world were unaware of it.

Prominent Miami art dealer Fredric Snitzer said he happened to be driving on Coral Way recently, saw the banners advertising the exhibit — Snitzer used to represent Cruz Azaceta — and decided to stop in. The gallerist said he was strongly impressed by the art and the building.

“I wasn’t really aware of what was happening there, or that anything was happening there,” Snitzer said. “My honest-to-God first response was how beautiful it was, how well it was presented, how correctly everything was done. I thought it was an excellent show, very, very strong work of his. It was terrific to see, one of those long-overdue-in-Miami things.

“Sometimes Miami can be a little cheeseball. But the physical plant, the graphics, the signage, everything was done to kind of national or international museum standards. It’s a great facility. It’s like a real-deal thing.”

Once the Cruz Azaceta show closes on March 26, though, the museum’s exhibition and programming plans are vague. Most museum shows are organized years in advance, but Fuentes and her small staff of a dozen, most of them part-time workers or consultants, are quickly pulling together an exhibit for the formal opening of “trailblazing” work by 18 Cuban artists in the United States from the 1970s and ’80s by borrowing work locally.

For future exhibitions, Fuentes also hopes to draw on a collection of Cuban art at the University of Miami’s Lowe Museum and historic pieces from UM’s Cuban Heritage Collection.

The museum owns some pieces of art, including one work donated by Azaceta from his show, and 65 works on paper by the late sculptor and printmaker Roberto Estopiñán. Because there is no storage at the museum, though, Fuentes has asked donors to hang on to the works until she can make arrangements for off-site storage.

By next year, though, she plans to “aggressively” ramp up an effort to assemble a collection and raise money for an acquisition fund, Fuentes said. Tuchman is helping lead a broad fundraising effort to generate money for operations as well as what backers hope will be a $10 million endowment within a decade.

Right now, though, the focus is on raising enough money to run the museum. Its projected budget for the year is just over $1.6 million, most of which Fuentes said will be raised from donations, ticket sales and events.

But she’s also asking Miami-Dade County for a one-time operating subsidy of $663,000 — something officials say is unlikely to happen. The county, which supports operations at major institutions like the Arsht Center, the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the troubled but soon-to-open Frost Science Museum, as well as dozens of smaller arts groups, says its cultural budget is stretched thin.

Michael Spring, the county’s cultural affairs director and a senior adviser to Mayor Carlos Gimenez, said in an interview that The Cuban needs to find a deep-pocketed “parent” to support it.

“We’re concerned about their viability from an operational point of view. Their board is doing everything possible. They have a very handsome facility. There has been an organization, but our concern has been the strength of the organization. We’ve been advising them to forge a relationship with a parent, but not us, because we’re a little overcommitted.”

Suzanne Delehanty, former director of the Miami Art Museum, PAMM’s predecessor, said she advised the Cuban museum’s leaders in 2008, when they hired her to do a feasibility study for the proposed facility, that they should prepare a financial and fundraising master plan.

“What people sort of forget is, they put all their energy into the building and don’t realize that building a financial base and loyal supporters takes staff and a lot of planning,” Delehanty said. “In the best of all worlds, I would have been happy to see that happen first. It’s important to have a nice vision and a nice facility, but if you don’t have a staff with a budget, it’s a real challenge.”

But, she added: “It has all kinds of potential. I think they can do something really interesting. It would be lovely to see that happen. Let’s light candles and hope it finds an angel to support it.”

How the museum finds itself with a new $10 million home but little so far to put in it or support operations goes back to its tumultuous origins in a previous, abortive effort to create a Cuban museum in Miami. The Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture, which opened in the 1970s and collected and displayed art and historic documents from Cuba, was embroiled in controversy, and bombed twice, when it auctioned and began exhibiting art by Cubans on the island at a time when that was politically taboo in Miami.

The city unsuccessfully tried to evict the museum from its publicly owned Little Havana home, losing a landmark federal lawsuit on First Amendment grounds, but by then the board had split and community support evaporated. The museum languished for several more years before closing in 1999 and donating its collection to UM’s Lowe.

But some former board members, including arts patron Ofelia Tabares, had begun laying the ground for a new museum, eventually winning key backing from Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro. Working out of a borrowed bank office in Coral Gables, Tabares organized occasional exhibits and musical performances around Miami as a “museum without walls.”

In 2004, voters approved a $2.9 billion bond program that included $10 million towards the purchase and renovation of a building for a Cuban museum. Three years later, Tabares’ group bought the Florida Grand Opera’s former rehearsal hall for $3 million and announced plans to open in 2009 under a plan for a total renovation designed by the Coral Gables architectural firm of Rodriguez and Quiroga. With a grand, sweeping entry staircase and black-and-white marble floors, the building recalls a colonial Cuban casona, a grand house.

But Fuentes, who joined the effort as a consultant, said plans were stalled by the recession, then by the deterioration of the building as it sat partly demolished for years, requiring an eventual total gutting and reconstruction. She said finishing the building became the priority, under the belief that only after people saw it would they believe it was real and be ready to support the museum financially.

“We had nothing,” Fuentes recalled. “We had an empty building. We had a promise.”

Barreiro defends the investment, saying Miami has long needed a Cuban museum. He said visitors to Miami are often disappointed to learn there is no central institution to take in Cuban art or culture.

“As a traveling museum it was difficult to raise the necessary donations to make it a viable operation. Now with a permanent home, people can contribute to a solid place,” Barreiro said. “It has a great location and great visibility. Everyone has been very excited to see it open.”

Snitzer, the gallerist, who exhibited at the old Cuban museum, said the time now appears ripe for The Cuban to succeed, so long as its leaders can hew to high standards.

“I think there is tons of opportunity,” he said. “Like anything in Miami, it has the possibility to be as cheesy as hell and superficial, or it can be something that really makes a contribution. We’ll see. It’s definitely a step in the right direction.”