After more than a decade of planning, advocates for the Cuban Exile History Museum made their first serious fundraising pitch during a posh event on Sunday.
Held aboard Oceania Cruises’ Riviera, docked for the day at PortMiami, the luncheon took place less than a mile from the museum’s intended waterfront site east of AmericanAirlines Arena.
“We have a huge job ahead of us,” secretary and director Nicolás J. Gutiérrez Jr. told a crowd of about 200 people. “We need to formalize our operation. Now we’re going to formalize it, we’re going to professionalize it. We need to start funding a professional fundraising mechanism.”
The goal is substantial: Raise $125 million for construction, an endowment and acquisition of exhibitions that will tell the story of the exodus from Cuba and the exile community.
In a welcome address Sunday, Oceania Cruises founder Frank Del Rio — now president and CEO of parent company Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings — told the crowd that the story of the last 55 years must be shared so future generations can understand what it means to be Cuban American.
“History is forever, but memories fail,” said Del Rio, whose family fled Cuba when he was a child. “So it’s up to all of us to make sure we build a permanent repository to showcase for all to see our remarkable victories against all odds.”
Miami-based architect Robert Chisholm, who created renderings of the museum, described plans for an 80,000-square-foot facility with rooftop terraces, a courtyard, research library, visitor center, theater, restaurant and 45,000 square feet of interior exhibition space.
“All significant buildings should bring together a mixture of history, symbolism and human values to what they are and what they mean,” Chisholm said in an interview before the lunch. “This was the driving force behind the building.”
Organizers hope to open the nonprofit museum by Jan. 1, 2019.
“That’s not hard and fast,” Gutiérrez said in an interview last week. “That’s sort of aspirational.”
The idea for the museum has evolved over the last 10-plus years: Originally, a group was trying to create a museum for the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association. That effort ended up with a site in Hialeah Gardens, but a new plan emerged.
“During that process, many of us that were working on this realized that as important as the Bay of Pigs was historically, the Cuban exile history is much broader than that and really merited its own museum,” Gutiérrez told the Miami Herald.
The county-owned site next to the arena known as Parcel B was first considered for the earlier concept in 2008, but the recession scuttled any momentum. In July, Miami-Dade County commissioners told Mayor Carlos Gimenez to start negotiations with museum backers with the provision that county money could not be used for construction or maintenance.
Commissioners would still need to approve an ultimate plan, but Gutiérrez said last summer’s vote was enough to let organizers kick the campaign off.
“We couldn’t really raise money seriously until we had the site secured,” he said.
The Miami Heat rents the five-acre plot now, and the latest plan from the county involves pursuing two different ideas at the same time. One track would involve using the land solely for the Cuban Exile museum, while the other would also include a black-history museum and a new site for the HistoryMiami museum.
Gutiérrez told the Miami Herald that Parcel B doesn’t have room for all the museums — especially if some public green space will be included — so he expects the county to have to “retrofit” the space to accommodate everything.
“That’s all sort of in the future and not in our direct control,” he said.
On Sunday, Gutiérrez and other members of the museum’s board and advisory panel focused on what they could control: urging supporters to donate generously.
Along with a menu boasting courses such as potato salad with caviar, lobster risotto and veal tenderloin Wellington, each place setting at the luncheon included a small brochure with a tear-out donation page. Sponsorship levels ranged from $1,000 to $100,000 but also included a category marked “other.”
Gutiérrez said the fundraising efforts would target individual donors, corporations, foundations, grants, radio drives and more.
“This is a gargantuan task, and we have no illusions that it’s easier than that,” he said. “But we feel that our community can get behind it and adequately support it because it is our history. It’s the story of all of our families.”