At the soon-to-open Institute of Contemporary Art Miami, curators are willing to dig deep to showcase challenging new art — literally so.
They happily left a hole in the white-oak floor and burrowed into the building foundation to install an untitled work of art by Robert Gober that consists of a brick-lined, water-filled sewer drain with a man’s upturned, hairy torso at the bottom. An almost inconspicuously ordinary-looking street grate in the middle of the gallery floor is the only sign of what lies below. The work touches on Gober’s concerns with domesticity and personal hygiene among other themes, the curators say.
“Our mandate is to show the most innovative work being made today,” said ICA director Ellen Salpeter, as she guided visitors through the recently finished museum, which opens Dec. 1 in the Miami Design District. “Not being a county museum, we can go deep.”
That last bit is a key distinguishing feature of Miami’s newest art museum, which is expected to be a stellar attraction for visitors during Art Week in December and beyond: It is entirely privately funded, privately built and privately run, with no use of public money.
It’s also fully open to the public and free of charge to visit at all times. And it’s embedded in a blossoming urban scene with cafes, shops, restaurants and numerous works of public art in the streets — all of which supporters hope will encourage visitors to stroll around the Miami Design District and help make the ICA a popular draw.
That free-admission approach stems from ICA backers’ conviction that contemporary art — even work at the very bleeding edge — can indeed be for the whole community, provided that people are made to feel welcome and the art is presented in a way even the uninitiated can appreciate.
The guiding philosophy is that of ICA founding couple and leading backers Norman Braman, the billionaire auto dealer, art collector and civic activist, and his wife, Irma, chair of the museum’s board of trustees. Norman Braman has been sharply critical of lavishing taxpayer money on sports stadiums and other facilities for private endeavors, and the couple decided to put their money where their mouth is when it came time to launch the museum.
“So many people have never been to a museum,” Irma Braman said, confidently predicting that many will find their way to the ICA. “They will come and will enjoy it and feel that it’s not elite, but part of the community.”
The story of how it came to be follows a roundabout route.
The ICA was born three years ago from the acrimonious break-up of the publicly owned Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, where Irma Braman led the board of directors. When the museum’s holdings — reputed to be the best contemporary art collection in town — were divided between the city and the board under a lawsuit settlement, the Bramans decided to pursue a new institution that would dispense with public financing.
Norman Braman had lunch with developer and fellow art collector Craig Robins, the principal figure in the ongoing transformation of the once-dowdy Design District into a deluxe urban shopping and dining destination. Braman made Robins an offer: Donate property, and we will build a museum. Robins agreed, turning over a parcel of land just steps from a building housing the private De la Cruz family art collection, which is also open to the public and free.
The Bramans — who decline to disclose how much they have spent — then purchased three lots in the historic Buena Vista East neighborhood behind Robins’ donated property and demolished three non-historic duplexes for a sculpture garden. The three lots went for a total of $2.25 million, according to the county appraiser’s website.
The couple insisted that museum admission be free in perpetuity.
“As you know, I’ve been involved in this community many years and I’ve been fighting the use of taxpayers’ dollars for various purposes,” Norman Braman said in an interview as he sat a few feet from the Gober drain piece, which he and his wife own and have loaned to the ICA on a long-term basis.
“I wanted to show the community you can build something here without having to raid taxpayers’ dollars. What better way to show the community what we’re all about, as a welcome to come to the Institute of Contemporary Art and be a part of what we’re doing here?”
The fully private, independent approach of the ICA is unusual for a museum in Miami-Dade, even as the county fairly brims with new and established art institutions and exhibition spaces. MOCA, which retained more than half of its collection, remains open as a city-run museum. The 4-year-old Pérez Art Museum Miami, just like the brand-new Frost Science Museum next door, required public investment reaching into the hundreds of millions of dollars; both receive significant public operating subsidies. The newly reopened Bass in Miami Beach is privately run but owned by the city, which contributed $7.5 million toward a $12 million expansion.
Three other collecting institutions are based at universities. The Lowe Art Museum is part of the University of Miami, which is private. Florida International University, a public institution, owns and operates The Wolfsonian in Miami Beach and the Frost Art Museum on its main campus in west Miami-Dade.
Meanwhile, in one of the most enticing lures for art lovers in Miami, several collectors have set up private exhibition spaces over the past 15 years and opened them to the public. Unlike museums, which typically answer to boards of directors and show traveling exhibits and loaned artworks in addition to pieces from their own collections, the private collectors almost invariably display art they choose from works they personally own.
These include the Rubell Family Collection and the Margulies Collection in Wynwood, the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) in downtown Miami and the De la Cruz Collection just yards to the west of the ICA.
With the exception of the Frost at FIU, CIFO and the De la Cruz, all charge admission to defray costs or, in the case of Margulies, to support the Lotus House homeless facility in Overtown.
Carlos de la Cruz and his wife, Rosa, run the collection’s exhibition space in a spare modern building that makes a fitting architectural companion to the ICA’s equally contemporary home. Having both close together creates a critical mass of attraction for the burgeoning neighborhood, he said. Both institutions plan to cooperate on future exhibits and events, the De la Cruzes said.
“The ICA building looks great and having it next to us makes us very happy,” Carlos de la Cruz said. “We get along.”
He also noted an intriguing fact: Put the 29,000 square feet of gallery space in the De la Cruz building together with the ICA’s 20,000 square feet of interior exhibition space and its 15,000-square-foot sculpture garden, and in conjunction they match the amount of exhibition space at the lauded new Whitney Museum in New York’s Meatpacking District. The Whitney, according to its website, has 50,000 square feet of indoor galleries and 13,000 square feet of outdoor exhibition space and terraces.
Neither the Bramans nor Salpeter will specify how much the couple put into the museum or how much the building cost. But Salpeter said the campaign to build and launch the ICA set a goal of raising $75 million from art patrons and museum trustees, and is close to meeting its target. Annual operational money, budgeted at $6 million, is assured, though Salpeter said there’s no way to know exactly how much it will take to manage the new building and new institution until it’s actually open and running.
“We are really a start-up,” she said.
But Braman stressed that funding will not be an issue for the ICA.
“We wanted to make sure that there were enough commitments being made that this museum would operate as a first-class institution,” he said. “That’s where so many in the community really came forward to make sure we had the foundation financially going into the future, so that this museum will operate at a quality level from its inception.”
The 37,500-square-foot building was designed by the Madrid firm of Aranguren & Gallegos Arquitectos, in collaboration with Miami’s Wolfberg Alvarez & Partners. It’s the Spanish firm’s first U.S. building. Behind a metallic face made of interlocking diamond shapes, it contains three floors of expansive and flexible open-plan exhibition galleries to encourage experimentation. The ceilings are high, at 16 feet and 18 feet. Facing north at the rear, glass walls offer surprisingly green-filled views of the Buena Vista East neighborhood and beyond.
“I’ll go on record and say we have the most beautiful gallery spaces in South Florida,” Salpeter boasted.
For a start-up, the ICA has already drawn quite a bit of art-world attention. Three years ago, in a long piece detailing the MOCA split, ArtNews magazine baldly stated: “The ICA is poised to be one of the more influential museums in the art world.”
ICA curators are aiming to live up to the heady expectations with a series of ambitious opening exhibitions that, true to the museum’s mission, promote experimentation and the work of young or under-recognized artists — not that the work of the well-known is stinted.
The main inaugural attraction, “The Everywhere Studio,” focuses on artists’ depictions of their working spaces. It comprises 100 works in painting, sculpture, video and installation by more than 50 artists from the past five decades, including big names like Picasso, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Bruce Nauman. The show also dedicates an entire gallery to what chief ICA curator Alex Gartenfeld called an “immersible installation” by the late and relatively obscure Anna Oppermann, a German artist he says deserves wider recognition.
In another gallery is the first museum exhibit by Haitian-American Miami artist Tomm El-Saieh, who does colorful abstract paintings. Next door is a disquieting installation composed of found furnishings, “The Soup Course at the She-She Cafe,” a major work in the ICA collection that’s among several 1980s pieces by Edward and Nancy Kienholz. The work was donated by the Bramans in previous years.
Nearby are newly commissioned paintings by the celebrated Chris Ofili, best known popularly for sometimes using elephant dung in his work. It’s the artist’s first Miami exhibition.
The museum will change exhibits every four months or so, something Salpeter said should encourage people to drop by often to see what’s new. Next year, ICA visitors can look forward to a couple of big exhibits: 13 rarely seen paintings by minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, and a retrospective of work by conceptual artist Terry Adkins, whose stature has grown since his untimely death in 2014 at age 60.
For the garden, shaded by live oaks, black calabash trees and an African tulip, the ICA has tapped some local resources. It holds an installation by George Segal of figures seated on a park bench, loaned by Margulies, and a sculpture by Coconut Grove-based artist Mark Handforth that consists of a metal light pole twisted into a rough star shape.
There’s also a massive installation of granite slabs and a construction crane by the Puerto Rico-based duo Allora & Calzadilla that alludes to the impact of the island’s economic depression on its building industry before Hurricane Maria. (It made an unexpected noise when a 20,000-pound chunk of granite was dropped during installation, damaging a transport trailer and putting a hole in the street.)
The installation may be unintentionally apt: When the museum opens, much of the street will be a construction project. Robins’ partnership is rushing to complete a 900-space parking garage directly across from the ICA where each facade will be covered by screens designed by different artists. On the ground floor, the garage will have a coffee shop and a pizzeria, amenities the ICA — which deliberately has no cafe — is counting on.
Down the street, Paradise Court, a set of shops and restaurants set around a public plaza, will open soon.
For the ICA and the Bramans, it’s the ideal location, making a visit to the museum part of a larger Miami urban experience they hope will help cement a feeling of community. But, they stress, they did not do it alone.
“For us personally, it’s more than we expected. It’s beautiful,” Irma Braman said of the ICA. “The building is in the right location. It’s in the city. It’s in the neighborhood we want to be in. It’s where a lot of new things are happening. We are so proud.
“But when I say ‘we,’ I include the board, the trustees of course, and the other people in this community who stepped forward financially or with help in some way or another.”
IF YOU GO
What: The Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami
Where: 61 N.E. 41st Street, Miami Design District
When: Opens to the public Dec. 1, at noon. A family celebration day will be held Dec. 3 from noon - 6 p.m.