A luxe arm of county government for decades, Miami-Dade’s Vizcaya Museum and Gardens may soon be spun off into a private charity.
The privatization plan won unanimous approval by the County Commission’s Parks and Cultural Affairs committee on Wednesday, clearing the way for a final vote before the full board. The change would set up an arrangement that mirrors other county-owned museums and cultural institutions. Taxpayers would own the real estate and subsidize the operations, while a private nonprofit runs the facility and raises donations to close funding gaps.
“The current structure is complex and cumbersome,” said Ray McGhee, chairman of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens Trust. The nonprofit helps run the Mediterranean-style mansion and grounds built by farming-machine magnate James Deering on the Coconut Grove waterfront in the 1920s. Under the proposal, the trust would take over the museum while still receiving the county’s operating subsidy of about $2.5 million a year. Miami-Dade would continue to own the Vizcaya property, its furnishings and valuable art collection.
Miami-Dade already has a similar arrangements with the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and History Miami. McGhee and other Vizcaya backers say they need to ramp up fundraising in order to take over the Deering property on the other side of South Miami Avenue that was previously occupied by the Miami Science Museum (which moved downtown and was reopened as the Frost Science Museum).
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Vizcaya taking over the science museum’s old home sparked some controversy in 2015, when the county commissioner representing Coconut Grove, Xavier Suarez, wanted other uses considered for the site. But Suarez said Wednesday he was no longer fighting the Vizcaya trust’s plans to create a historic village on the property to recreate life during the early days of the estate.
That left Vizcaya’s county employees as the main concern for committee members. Trust leaders have agreed to keep all 75 existing employees at current pay levels and with benefits resembling what they receive on county payroll. But about 30 want to remain in county employment, and Miami-Dade leaders say they can’t promise landing spots on the 27,000-position workforce after the planned handover on Oct 1.
“There are no guarantees,” said Michael Spring, the county administrator who supervises parks and museums, including Vizcaya. “Those employees will have to fairly compete for any openings.”
Spring said the county is eager to find openings for Vizcaya employees who don’t want to join the privately run museum and will give workers two years to land other positions in Miami-Dade without losing seniority. A major complication is the hiring freeze imposed across most county departments this year amid a drop in sales tax and other revenues.
Lynette McCleod, who last year earned about $32,000 as an attendant on the museum’s retail side, told commissioners she didn’t want to leave her county job just because management would change.
“I’ve been serving Dade County for 16 years,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair.”
This post was updated to reflect the fact that the Perez Art Museum Miami is owned by the non-profit that operates it.