Miami Art Museum’s Future

“Miami Art Museum Should Rethink its Identity,” IN VIEW at Artinfo.com – December 7, 2010, 3:41 pm, by Jason Edward Kaufman.

Miami Art Museum Should Rethink its Identity,” INVIEW at Artinfo.com, December 7, 2010, 3:41 pm.

By Jason Edward Kaufman

[Officials break ground on the Miami Art Museum last week.]

As the Miami Art Museum (MAM) breaks ground for its new Herzog and de Meuron-designed building in Museum Park, its leaders should rethink the scope of the institution’s program.

The institution began a quarter century ago as a kunsthalle, and in 1995 the board decided to begin a permanent collection. They opted to focus the institution on postwar and contemporary art with an emphasis on the Americas, particularly Latin America to reflect the strong presence of Hispanics in Miami.

The board has yet to build a significant collection. The collection numbers only around 600 objects, mainly contemporary works and photographs. There are a handful of significant pieces, but not enough to merit a vast building.

The board’s financial commitment has not been very impressive, either. They have $31 million in pledges and cash for construction of the $131 million building, with the $100-million balance public money from a 2004 County bond issue. They have raised only $15 million for an endowment to operate the future institution, suggesting that financial stability is unlikely if the facility opens as scheduled in 2013. Should scarce public money be used to construct a building when the board of trustees – who will be responsible for raising operating funds and for building a collection – have not demonstrated a serious commitment to the project?

The project is proceeding based on a “Field of Dreams” model: “If you build it they will donate, fund and come.” This is the shakiest of armatures on which to build an institution.

[Miami Art Museum by Herzog & de Meuron, South elevation view. © Herzog & de Meuron]

Moreover, the contemporary-art focus is too limited to serve the needs of the citizens of Miami who are bankrolling the lion’s share of the future museum.

The thinking was that it would be impossible to create an encyclopedic museum, or even a museum of Modern art. Great classic works – whether by Old Masters or Picasso — are exceedingly rare and the cost of acquiring them is prohibitive even for the wealthiest art organization in the country. But, Miami is already rich in postwar international and Latin American art. The city has renowned private collectors devoted to these areas, and nearly all of them have established public museums in which to show their holdings.

Martin Margulies presents rotations from his modern and contemporary collection, a trove far superior to MAM’s permanent collection. Don and Mera Rubell and Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz also have private museums devoted to their collections. Ella Cisneros created CIFO foundation which operates a museum that hosts contemporary art exhibitions, many based on her superb collection of Latin American modern and contemporary art.

There is no shortage of contemporary art available to Miamians. What’s missing is older art, anything from before 1970, and particularly from before the Second World War.

There is almost nothing from antiquity and the Middle Ages on public view in Miami, few objects from the Renaissance to early Modern periods, and almost nothing from all of Asia and Africa. The Bass Museum in South Beach offers around 200 European paintings and a smattering of material in other media. The best Old Masters in the region are hours away at The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, not easily accessible to Miami residents and students. And the nearest major encyclopedic collections are in Atlanta.

What Miami needs is an institution that can host traveling exhibitions of all kinds, from antiquities to Asian art, and loan shows of Old Masters and modern and contemporary art from around the world. The publicly funded MAM should create a place to see the likes of King Tut, China’s Terracotta Warriors, and less commercial shows of masterpieces from the Metropolitan, the Louvre, and  the world’s other great museums that could introduce Miami audiences to work not otherwise available to them.

When the museum was established it mounted shows covering the whole of art history. The decision to build  a collection with the focus on 20th– and 21st-century international art and the Americas makes sense, but the museum should revert to its more encyclopedic scope for its exhibition program.

A broad range of shows could attract a larger audience for the museum’s in-house exhibitions and programs. They would produce income to operate the museum. What’s more, they would help put Miami on the international museum exhibition circuit, benefiting the citizens of Dade County. Miami Art Museum should mount such exhibitions, either in its future building or in a separate pavilion that could be built in Museum Park. The publicly funded museum should aim to provide the greatest public benefit. Opening the exhibition program to traveling shows of all kinds would serve that public purpose.

Jason Edward Kaufman

This article appeared in IN VIEW at Artinfo.com, December 7, 2010, 3:41 pm

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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