A tale of two museums

VIZCAYA: The county is considering a plan to privatize the attraction under the control of a nonprofit board.
VIZCAYA: The county is considering a plan to privatize the attraction under the control of a nonprofit board.

Recently, the county administration proposed consolidating and privatizing two of Miami-Dade’s most prized cultural centers: Vizcaya Palace and Gardens and the Miami Museum of Science. This proposal is clearly premature when framed by the historical needs and value of these two facilities.

James Deering built the 180-acre Villa Vizcaya in Coconut Grove in the 1920s. Thirty years later, following Deering’s death and years of disrepair, Miami-Dade County purchased the villa and remaining 50 acres of land for $1 million.

The Museum of Science and Natural History opened in 1960 on a three-acre site owned by Miami-Dade County. Originally conceived in 1949 by The Junior League of Miami, the popular science museum for children quickly established a fundraising mechanism and, in 1966, built the Space Transit Planetarium, which became the leading facility of its kind. In the years that followed, the science museum grew, entertaining and educating hundreds of thousands of Miami’s youngest residents — so much so that in 1989, the county extended the science museum’s lease agreement for 99 years.

Meanwhile, Vizcaya struggled to establish a sustainable funding mechanism for its large capital needs.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens Trust, a governing board under the oversight of the county mayor, was established in 1998. In anticipation of future capital needs, the board set forth its business plan with goals from 2010 to 2015. The plan had specific yearly measurable goals to ensure the sustainability of Vizcaya. However, the annual budgets for the five years that followed demonstrate that the plan failed, and Vizcaya’s capital needs continued to grow annually.

Last month, Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued a memorandum regarding Vizcaya’s well-documented capital needs, the creation of a private board and the addition of the Museum of Science site to Vizcaya’s existing responsibilities. The basic idea appears to be to tear down the science museum and planetarium, replacing it with a visitor’s center, a large restaurant and farm-like gardens under the governance of an independent private board.

We believe that there is a better alternative that honors the history of both sites and, in the shadow of the cranes of our ever-expanding urban core, enhances Miami-Dade’s residents’ access to free public space.

Our plan:

▪ Address Vizcaya’s failure to meet its own goals and determine what the best governing structure is for Vizcaya, one that will ensure accountability and sustainability for years to come.

▪ Convert a portion of the Miami Museum of Science site into a public park, The site, which has been home for more than a decade to one of the largest summer camps in the nation, can be a viable and self-sustaining addition to the Parks Department. By demolishing part of the existing structure, the site could be a robust park with a planetarium and indoor space for families from all areas of Miami-Dade who can enjoy free public access to this beautiful, educational and historic location. The park should include a community garden and host a farmers market that would honor Vizcaya’s farm history.

▪ Encourage community input. These two properties are essential to the tapestry that is Miami-Dade’s history and, as such, the future of both must go through a publicly vetted process that affords everyone the opportunity to participate. This decision cannot be rushed and must include town halls and other forms of neighborhood outreach.

▪ Put out a Request for Application (RFA) that offers the preserved elements of the science museum structure to art and historical collections.

▪ Finally, until a determination is made regarding a proper use of the space currently occupied by the Museum of Science, we believe it is unwise to propose consolidating the governance of the two facilities.

That is why today we jointly hope that the mayor and the County Commission will consider the separate and distinct characteristics of these two properties. Let’s do the right thing for both of these gems.

Raquel Regalado is a Miami-Dade School Board member representing District 6 and an announced candidate for the office of Miami-Dade County mayor. Xavier Suarez represents District 7 on the County Commission and has been mentioned as a potential contender for the mayor’s race.