Miami has often attracted a particular breed of art collector, most notably, the fair-seeking seasonal variety who favors the grab-and-go style of art acquisition. Consequentially it can seem like great art is always passing through the city, but rarely finding a home. This trend has shifted as a result of a handful of resident collectors who have committed to making Miami a cultural destination by sharing their artwork and opening their doors to the general public year-round.
The distinguishing characteristic of a private collection is that it is acquired through independent means and usually does not have any direct affiliations with an institution or municipality. Most private collections are built slowly as passion projects and are often later bequeathed to a township or museum from the collector’s estate. In the last decade, Miami, which has always been known as a real estate developers’ town, has become known for art collections financed by international business tycoons and philanthropists. Some of these business leaders have transformed warehouse spaces to display their magnificent collections; others have used museum donations as a way to bring their work to the public.
Take real estate developer Jorge M. Pérez’s most recent contribution to the Miami Art Museum. The billionaire entrepreneur supplied a $40 million donation in the form of both cash and artwork, and in exchange his name went on the public museum’s masthead. Art from the likes of Louise Nevelson and Lorna Simpson will grace the halls of this 200,000-square-foot Herzog & de Meuron building, now titled PAMM (Pérez Art Museum Miami). Additional supporters include the Knight Foundation’s Vice President of Arts, Dennis Scholl and real estate developer and Design Miami co-founder Craig Robins, who have also recently contributed collections to the museum’s growing inventory.
Simon Starling, Inverted Retrograde Theme, USA (A House of a Song Bird), 2002 Wood, iron, tree trunks, and birds, 133 x 122 x 140 inches; Collection of Pérez Art Museum Miami, Gift of Dennis and Debra Scholl; © Simon Starling / Courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York
Pérez’s influence has shifted the narrative of Miami’s museum culture. In a town where many exhibitions focus on Latin-American and Cuban art, the new and improved PAMM aims to put Miami on the map as a globally focused city sensitive to the canons of art history. Public opinion remains divided, however. The sizeable donation has been wrought with controversy and speculation into the motivations of the mogul’s generosity. What sort of legacy is the entrepreneur looking to leave with the community—do his intentions have more to do with property value than cultural value?
Other venues such as the Rubell Family Collection and the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse have been influencing the local art scene for years. Both organizations are housed in the Wynwood Arts District, with each family creating a not-for-profit extension of their financial empires. Martin Z. Margulies, who has been known to give impromptu guided tours to unsuspecting art lovers (myself included) where he offers firsthand accounts of schmoozing with some of the godfathers of modern art. The Rubells host similar docent-led art tours through their collections and both organizations collaborate with local public and charter schools like Design District’s DASH (Design and Architecture Senior High) with a curriculum of educational and special events programming.
Rosa & Carlos de la Cruz; Courtesy of the de la Cruz Collection
Cuban collectors Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz have also made their collections accessible, as has Ella Fontanals-Cisneros who launched the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) in 2002. Both host international residency programs with a focus on supporting Latin American artists. These types of educational and community driven programs are often the wards of municipal tax dollars, so it’s particularly noteworthy that both of these families largely fund such programs with little recourse to public money.
The question critics may ask is why have these exceptionally wealthy families and business moguls taken the time to buy, build, and maintain multi-million dollar—the Margulies Collection alone has an estimated net worth of $800 million—“passion projects” with no direct financial incentive in sight?
The answer to that question may be found in Harvard Professor Joseph Nye’s famous essay “Soft Power,” which details the political influence of cultural institutions and their ability to shape public opinion. In the essay, Nye writes, "Culture shapes the environment for policymaking, but does so indirectly, through a process that is slow and can take years to manifest. It is therefore necessary for actors—individual organizations and governments alike—to create environments, physical locations and situations where culture can be exhibited as well as exchanged.” For Nye, political power rests in an entity’s ability to influence its environment. The cynic might assume that perhaps for the wealthy Miami art patron and business mogul, a few hundred million is a worthy investment if it will garner the kind of political clout that will literally change the city’s landscape and infrastructure.
Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, President and Founder, CIFO; Courtesy of CIFO
In the end, however, it is the Miami resident who benefits from the power-plays of the elite. As the artifacts of fine art and high culture are assembled in permanent collections on display for the Miami community, the opportunities for a socially conscious mindset will potentially foster a stronger, more rigorous artistic community capable not only of keeping local talent duly engaged, but of attracting artists and visitors from around the world. It could certainly be viewed as a long-term power play. Then again, perhaps these generous donations and family collections are simply “thank yous” to a town that made their success possible.