Artful departure

Thom Collins prepares to don a hardhat while on the construction site of the new art museum in 2012.
Thom Collins prepares to don a hardhat while on the construction site of the new art museum in 2012. MIAMI HERALD

Just as it did for LeBron James, home — in this case Philadelphia — is calling to Thomas Collins, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami. He has resigned and is packing up.

Before he goes, Mr. Collins deserves a tip of the hat for seeing the showpiece museum completed during the worse economic times to hit South Florida in decades, not to mention controversy.

This much is true: Mr. Collins shepherded PAMM across the finish line. For that, he deserves the community’s thanks.

Under his leadership, the museum by the bay opened in December 2013. It has since attracted more than 300,000 visitors, far exceeding expectations.

The critically acclaimed building designed by prestigious firm of Herzog & de Meuron is the centerpiece tenant in a stretch of bayfront called Museum Park that the city and county are using to revitalize downtown Miami.

Mr. Collins now has an opportunity to return to his hometown as director of the Barnes Foundation, the museum of his childhood. For Mr. Collins, 46, the chance to go back was to hard to pass up, he told the Miami Herald.

But his legacy in Miami-Dade is for being a lead player in a chapter of the museum’s long and sometimes-controversial story. In fact, he secured its future.

This story begins in 2004, before the recession hit. Miami-Dade voters approved a $100-million bond issue to help build a new exciting home for what was then called the Miami Art Museum.

Opened in 1984 as the Center for the Fine Arts, the museum was part of the Cultural Center in downtown Miami, a locale barely noticed by the art world. It had 60,000 visitors a year and 1,000 members, compared with its current 9,000.

The move-and-makeover plan called for the museum to raise about $100 million to match the bond money. No sweat, everyone thought in those heady times. There were plenty of potential benefactors and collectors flexing their muscles for a showy museum.

Then the recession hit in 2008, and Miami’s massive building craze came to a grinding halt. Money stopped flowing. Suddenly, fund raising for a new museum as people were losing their homes and businesses became exceedingly difficult; even the deep-pocketed bowed out.

In 2009, MAM director Terence Riley unexpectedly resigned, but not before setting a solid course for the museum by selecting an architect, securing the waterfront locale and navigating the complex county and city legal issues and permits.

Enter Mr. Collins, who came on board to find a financially strapped museum. A new cash infusion was needed. Salvation arrived in a gift from Miami developer Jorge Pérez, who pledged $20 million in cash over 10 years and $20 million worth of art from his collection.

The offer came with a catch: Mr. Pérez wanted the museum to carry his name. The museum’s abbreviation went from MAM to PAMM.

Mr. Collins knew that the museum’s existence was in danger without the generous gift, which had strings attached.

His decision to accept the offer immediately set off an uproar, with some board members and benefactors resigning or turning their backs on the museum. Mr. Collins, however, had done the right thing, the forward-looking thing.

Today, things are easier. The museum has raised more than $120 million, topping the $100 million in public funds from the 2004 bond measure. But it continues to wrestle with operating costs and has unsuccessfully sought help from the county.

Now, Mr. Collins is moving after being at the helm through the museum’s most turbulent times and helping it survive.

Mr. Collins set a brisk pace. It’s up to the committee seeking his replacement to find the person who can keep it up.