MIAMI — Building a new contemporary art museum in Miami is easy. Just ask Irma Braman, a founder and co-chairwoman of the board of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, which opens in the Design District on Friday.
“Norm was having lunch with Craig one day and said, ‘I’d love to have a museum.’ Craig said, ‘I have this piece of land,’” Mrs. Braman recalled.
“It was that simple,” she said.
Of course, if you want to start an art museum in Miami, it helps if the “Norm” in question is Mrs. Braman’s husband, Norman, a Miami auto dealership magnate and fixture on the Forbes 400 list with a net worth estimated at $2.5 billion. And the “Craig”? That is Craig Robins, one of the city’s most prominent real estate developers and, if not yet Forbes-worthy, certainly a future contender.
Three years after that fateful lunch, and $75 million in cash and donated land later, the ICA Miami and its gleaming new three-story building are a reality. Lest anyone wonder how this major metropolitan area with the second-highest poverty rate in the nation can afford this artsy largess — especially with still unforeseen costs to address the rising sea and regularly flooded streets — it can’t. Mr. Braman funded ICA Miami’s design and construction himself. And admission to the museum is free.
“Not a dime of taxpayer money was involved in the construction,” he insisted. “We have all kinds of difficulties and problems here, and I’ve always felt public tax dollars should be utilized for the needs of the community first.”
More, more, more. Here, hardly a season goes by without the announcement of yet another new art museum or expansion — all fueled by the homegrown excitement and international attention surrounding the Art Basel Miami Beach fair each December, and all primarily focused on Basel-style contemporary art at the expense of virtually every other artistic milieu.
Left behind is the math underlying this increasingly crowded landscape: Can Miami afford all of these art museums? A private museum like the ICA Miami must compete for philanthropic funding alongside the city’s public museums, as well as its major university-owned museums, also now mostly showing contemporary art. Are there enough deep-pocketed donors to go around? Just as important, how many contemporary art museums does Miami actually need?
“We’re all looking at the same piles of dollars, we’re all looking at the same corporate sponsors,” conceded Silvia Karman Cubiñá, the executive director and chief curator at the Bass Museum of Art. The museum, which reopened in Miami Beach in October after a $12 million expansion, has a rechristened name — just the Bass — to reflect its new mission of exhibiting of-the-moment art. “In 20 years, maybe we’ll all look back and say, we bit off more than we can chew, but we’re all still doing it.”
The Bass joins two other public art museums founded and partially funded by a municipality, relying on a mix of tax dollars and private donations for their annual budgets: North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art, from which the ICA Miami’s board split in a bitter 2014 divorce, and the Pérez Art Museum Miami, known locally as PAMM. Ostensibly PAMM covers the cultural waterfront, but its director, Franklin Sirmans, told the Brooklyn Rail in June, “We are, ultimately, a museum dedicated to international contemporary art.”
Not to be forgotten are Miami’s four collector-run private museums, each focused on their owner’s contemporary acquisitions rather than underwriting other art institutions: the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, the de la Cruz Collection, the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse and the Rubell Family Collection. (A fifth is in the works, courtesy of Bruce Berkowitz, the hedge fund owner and devotee of James Turrell.) Each contains works that rival the permanent collections of any of Miami’s public museums. Yet a stray Andy Warhol silk-screen aside, you’ll be hard pressed to regularly find much on display that predates the 1980s in any of these private venues.
Miami’s public museums seem consigned to fighting over whatever scraps of taxpayer funding remain. Public transit advocates were left fuming this past September when $500,000 from a legal settlement with Uber was earmarked by Miami-Dade County commissioners for a new group seeking to build an African-American history museum — one whose supporters seem especially interested in showcasing contemporary artists. That same month, the new county-founded American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora — so far focused on contemporary art — also came to the commissioners looking for help after not finding sufficient private funding. During a contentious budget hearing, it was awarded $550,000 from the $4 million subsidy previously promised to the Pérez Art Museum Miami — despite pleas from Mitchell Bierman, a PAMM trustee, that the result would be cuts in its staff and programming. This may be more than scaremongering: PAMM’s 2015 tax return, the most recent period publicly available, shows it ended that year with expenses exceeding revenue by nearly $5 million. (The museum, while not disputing the tax return, says the numbers do not reflect the full financial picture.)
PAMM stands as a cautionary tale, Ms. Cubiñá of the Bass explained, a reminder to “keep it modest.”
When PAMM opened in its Herzog & de Meuron-designed building in 2013, she said: “A lot of us were a little nervous because their budget was so huge — they needed to raise $15 million every year, and their building was so big. I thought, oh my God, are they going to suck all the funding out of everything?”
In fact, she added, at the Bass, “our budget has gone up, our attendance has gone up.”
Like PAMM, the Bass is a public-private hybrid. The city of Miami Beach provided a $7.5 million construction grant, in addition to a $650,000 annual subsidy and handling building maintenance. The museum is run by a private board responsible for the rest of its $3.5 million yearly budget. Accordingly, while renovations removed an indoor pedestrian ramp and doubled its exhibition and classroom spaces, the exterior of its 1930s Art Deco building remained largely unchanged “to stay within our budget,” Ms. Cubiñá noted. “I don’t want to be fund-raising for air-conditioning.”
Ms. Cubiñá said she hopes the museum’s location, a block from the ocean, continues fostering a connection with potential Miami Beach donors looking to support a museum in their backyard. And there’s a built-in audience: “Here we have so many people already visiting, going to the beach, or just taking a walk and they bump into us!”
If all that fails to keep the Bass afloat, Ms. Cubiñá, like the ICA Miami, has her own billionaire to fall back on: George Lindemann. The president of her museum’s board since 2008, Mr. Lindemann, his sister Sloan, and his older brother, Adam (also a well-known art collector), are heirs to a family fortune that Forbes estimates at $3.2 billion.
Mr. Lindemann said making the Bass sustainable was key. “It was kind of like a start-up, yet we had a 40-year history to work with,” he said, recalling the Miami Beach city manager’s initial request that he leave PAMM’s board of trustees to helm the then-moribund Bass board. His first task was to address the museum’s troubled origins. Opened in 1964 as a showcase for a collection of old masters and Modern paintings donated by the retired sugar baron John Bass, many of the artworks — including a supposedly second “Mona Lisa” — turned out to be fakes or misattributed. In a 1969 report, the Art Dealers Association of America called the Bass’s collection “the most flagrant and pervasive mislabeling by any museum known to the association.”
Even Pablo Picasso weighed in. When the ADA sent him a photo of one of his pastels owned by the Bass, he mailed it back with his artwork’s signature crossed out and faux, French for false, handwritten underneath it.
Mr. Lindemann considered changing the museum’s name. “But then we wouldn’t have the lovely building or the city support,” he said, citing city contracts dating to the 1960s as well as their already established museum accreditation and track record of landing grants. “The whole ‘fake’ thing is yesterday’s news,” he continued. “Today, I don’t think people feel burdened by the name.”
Still, he appreciates Mr. Bass’s sense of spectacle, including the museum’s Egyptian mummies — now on display as part of an installation by the Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou, who pairs his own recent work with antiquities from the Bass’s (now thoroughly vetted) collection.
The ICA Miami would seem perfectly primed to pick up on that challenge of moving beyond the narrow confines of the contemporary milieu and showing the full history of art. After all, its main patrons, the Bramans, own masterworks spanning the last century, from Joan Miró to Mark Rothko. Indeed, Mr. Braman has lent a stunning Yves Klein painting and a giant Roy Lichtenstein canvas for the new museum’s opening exhibition, “The Everywhere Studio.” But beyond a few token nods, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator, Alex Gartenfeld, appears largely uninterested in taking a deep dive into earlier eras of art. And Mr. Braman says he won’t force the curatorial issue — for the same reason his own name isn’t on the museum’s facade.
“We don’t want the museum to be construed as ours, it’s the community’s museum,” Mr. Braman said. “It’s just not our style to put our names on the philanthropy we’ve done. It’s not in the Jewish tradition of tzedakah,” of civic responsibility.
In keeping with its prescribed mission, the ICA Miami certainly holds its own within the contemporary sphere, in the process introducing several lesser-known talents to a wider audience. A highlight is a room of massive abstract paintings by Tomm El-Saieh, whom Mr. Gartenfeld praised as “one of the leading artists working in Miami today” for his drawing upon both expressionist and Haitian folkloric traditions.
At PAMM, Mr. Sirmans insisted he would always make room for an informed dose of art history. He pointed out the museum’s current pairing of two early-20th-century paintings by Joaquín Torres-García with a fresh-out-of-the-studio work by Njideka Akunyili Crosby — all three canvases exploring kindred issues of identity.
But was he daunted by his fund-raising competitors, those new museums sprouting up? “We’re a city that values culture,” he said. “What better way to demonstrate that than to make temples to culture?”