When it Comes to Contemporary Art, Miami Wants More and More

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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.

That’s it?

“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. and Mrs. Braman funded ICA Miami’s design and construction themselves. And admission to the museum is free.

“Not a dime of taxpayer money was involved in the construction,” Mr. Braman 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.”

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More, more, more. Here, hardly a season goes by without the announcement of yet another new art museum or expansion — all fuelled 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 Cubina, 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 1980’s 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 Perez 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.)

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?”