Miami-Dade County

Miami’s Cuban museum got $10 million in public money. It’s now embroiled in a nasty spat

The chairman of the Cuban museum’s disputes claims that he broke in

Marcell Felipe, chairman of The American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora’s board of trustees, announced the firing of the museum’s director, Ileana Fuentes, and her daughter, Carisa Perez-Fuentes, who served as head of communications and design.
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Marcell Felipe, chairman of The American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora’s board of trustees, announced the firing of the museum’s director, Ileana Fuentes, and her daughter, Carisa Perez-Fuentes, who served as head of communications and design.

Festering troubles at Miami’s taxpayer-funded but lightly attended Cuban museum have broken out into the open amid claims of unpaid debts, allegations of nepotism and a nasty split in its leadership.

The spat reached a climax over the weekend, when the chairman of The American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora’s board of trustees, Marcell Felipe, announced the firing of the museum’s director, Ileana Fuentes, and her daughter, Carisa Perez-Fuentes, who served as head of communications and design.

But Felipe was promptly contradicted by another museum trustee, former chairman Rafael Robayna, who claimed the current chairman acted without board authorization in firing Fuentes and her daughter.

Robayna then raised the stakes, saying he’d hired a lawyer to fight Felipe and alleging the chairman broke into the museum’s building on Coral Way on Saturday, damaging locks and setting off a burglar alarm — a claim that could not be verified Monday. Robayna contends Felipe represents a disaffected minority faction on the board.

“We are very much troubled by Mr. Felipe’s actions and assure you that we will fight in court until this situation is resolved,” Robayna wrote in an email Sunday to Miami-Dade cultural affairs director Michael Spring.

On Monday afternoon, the board of The Cuban, as the museum dubs itself, was meeting to address the issue. Felipe said in a text message he was in New York and provided no substantive comment. Robayna did not respond to messages requesting comment. Fuentes said in a text message she had been advised by attorneys not to comment until the question of her status was resolved.

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Ileana Fuentes, Director of The American Museum of the Cuban Diapora, a New Cuban Museum at 1200 Coral Way, in November 2016. C.M. GUERRERO. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

The skirmish at the museum, which opened its doors two years ago on Coral Way to scant attention, comes amid a Miami-Dade County audit into how The Cuban spent a $550,000 grant last year.

The gleaming museum building was funded by $10 million in county bonds, but the cash-strapped nonprofit that owns and runs it has put on only a handful of little-publicized exhibits and has been dogged by claims of poor management and complaints that it has stiffed contractors, artists and freelance curators. The museum has also struggled to attract public attention and donations.

In late 2017, the Miami-Dade Commission approved $550,000 in annual funding to the museum even though the county’s cultural affairs division had declined to provide administrative grants to The Cuban, saying its leaders needed to raise that money privately.

While the museum did receive the first $550,000, the second annual installment has been held up until Fuentes responds to a request for overdue records showing how it spent the last portion of that initial grant, Spring said.

Separately, Spring said, he also requested an audit last fall into “a variety of issues” at The Cuban. Those include whether the museum has any rules on hiring of relatives, and whether Fuentes’ hiring of her daughter complied with museum policies, he said.

“That’s kind of unusual, to say the least,” Spring said.

The museum has not responded to auditors’ requests for documents and information since October, Spring said.

“They were dragging their feet,” he said.

Another issue auditors want to look into, he said: A claim by a public relations and marketing agency, Rock Orange, that it’s owed $120,000 by The Cuban. Rock Orange, an established agency that won a competitive bid to work for The Cuban, says it helped organize the museum’s launch and developed its logo, website and Facebook page.

Agency directors told the county that The Cuban stopped paying them after a couple of months of work on its contract, promising to make good after receiving the $550,000 grant. The agency, which also works for the Perez Art Museum Miami, told Spring it still had not been paid by The Cuban as of last week.

Spring said he was “surprised” to learn that Fuentes had been fired, then perplexed when Robayna claimed the move was not authorized by the board. Neither Fuentes nor her daughter are employees, but work as contractors, Spring noted.

But he said the personnel question is an issue for the museum board to resolve.

“Honestly, I said to all of them, ‘Work it out. Get your act together,’ “ Spring said.

The museum, almost fully funded with public money, was meant to spotlight Cuban exile art and culture, filling a badly needed role in Miami’s crowded cultural scene. But its opening was delayed for years amid construction issues, and the museum was short on funding and programming even before it opened, factors that have kept its profile low.

Months after opening with a borrowed exhibition by esteemed Cuban artist Luis Cruz Azaceta, the museum canceled a touted restrospective of works by Cuban exile artists with little explanation, and remained essentially dark for months.

It is now showing an exhibit on Cuban salsa queen Celia Cruz that features some of her elaborate stage costumes and personal items.

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