Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade commissioners not yet sold on Vizcaya becoming independent

Vizcaya Museum & Gardens
Vizcaya Museum & Gardens Miami Herald file

In its push to break away from county government — and instead be managed by its own nonprofit board — Vizcaya Museum & Gardens still has some political persuading to do. A Miami-Dade County Commission workshop on Thursday showed that not all commissioners are comfortable with the idea.

Commissioner Rebeca Sosa noted that Vizcaya would still be getting a $2.5 million yearly subsidy from the county under its proposed non-profit management plan.

“You want all the money we give, you want all the support, but then you want to be independent,” Sosa told Vizcaya Executive Director Joel Hoffman, who had just delivered a detailed Powerpoint presentation on why the new nonprofit status would be beneficial.

Under the plan, Vizcaya would still be county-owned, but no longer county-operated.

Hoffman’s main argument: Private donors are sometimes hesitant to give to a government agency, and might dig deeper into their pockets to help an independent nonprofit. Vizcaya is entering a crucial phase in its fundraising: The historic 1916 mansion, once the winter home of industrialist James Deering, celebrates its 100th birthday next year. That centennial celebration is a prime opportunity to hit up donors.

You want all the money we give, you want all the support, but then you want to be independent.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa

Vizcaya will also likely need donor support for an expansion it is planning on the other side of South Miami Avenue — retaking control of property that once served as a working village servicing Deering’s estate. That “village” property was more recently used to house Miami’s science museum, but with the museum moving to downtown, Vizcaya is now working on a plan to integrate the property with its well known house and gardens across the street.

The nonprofit model is common among many other museums and public gardens, Hoffman told commissioners, including the Perez Art Museum Miami and the Central Park Conservancy in New York City.

“The city of New York has allowed an extraordinary landscape resource to be managed succcessfully through the nonprofit sector,” Hoffman told commissioners.

The Perez museum, while governed by a nonprofit, still receives money from Miami-Dade County to help pay for operations.

But with Vizcaya, Commissioner Sosa expressed worries about a loss of control. She mentioned the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX), which operates independently but nevertheless created a political headache for county leaders when it dramatically expanded highway tolls last year.

“This can become an MDX,” Sosa said.

Vizcaya, it’s so special… and so ingrained into the fabric of this community. I would recommend go slow, and go careful.

Miami-Dade Commissoner Javier Souto

Other commissioners were less critical, but still cautious, on the proposed Vizcaya change.

“Vizcaya, it’s so special… and so ingrained into the fabric of this community,” Commissioner Javier Souto said. “I would recommend go slow, and go careful.”

In the coming months, Vizcaya’s nonprofit plan still has to be presented to a county commission committee — and then the full county commission — for approval. That leaves time for Vizcaya leaders to shore up support among any commissioners who may be hesitant.

Any final transition plan would likely include some provision for the county to retake control of Vizcaya if it is unhappy with how the nonprofit is performing. But the details of how that would work haven’t been ironed out yet.

Some Vizcaya supporters showed up at Thursday’s meeting to speak out in favor of changing how the museum is run. One of them was Suzanne Delehanty, who was the founding director of the Miami Art Museum (since renamed the Perez museum).

Until the mid-1990s, the art museum was a part of county government. Delehanty told commissioners that the art museum’s decision to strike out on its own turned out to be a resounding success. Vizcaya deserves the same chance, she said.

“Allow it to achieve its full potential in the next 100 years,” Delehanty said.