The Perez Miami Art Museum seems like the most luckless new museum in recent memory. The vandalism of an Ai Wei Wei work, “Colored Vases,” by local artist Maximo Caminero is only the latest episode in the museum’s long and contentious escape from the bloated faux hacienda Philip Johnson inflicted on it in 1983.
Noisy skepticism accompanied the museum’s quest for a new building, when the collection was still small and new. Though voters approved $100 million to build it, the project came on the heels of a number of disastrously delayed and expensive pubic projects, and so many presumed that the Herzog & de Meuron design would prove to be yet another massive boondoggle.
A lot of this noise came from prominent private collectors, a group that public museums cannot live without. Several had opened their impressive private collections to the public, and urged cancellation of the project. Though delays having to do with Miami’s brutal, real estate-induced crash and deep budget-cutting, director Thom Collins persevered with a vision developed by his predecessor, Terence Riley. He sees the museum growing “as a hub of activities” for the private collectors, the gallery scene, local museums, and the enormously successful Art Basel Miami fair.
Museum trustees resigned following the decision to name the museum after Jorge M. Pérez, who had pledged $40 million in cash and art. Perez’s sins were (pick all that apply) A. to ask to have a public building named after him (hardly unusual…); B. that he didn’t put up enough money/overvalued his collection; C. that he was — shocking! — a real-estate developer (a species thick on the ground in Miami, including among prominent private collectors).
With its paint barely dry, the Perez opened last December to a remarkable reception: raves (including from me). Herzog and de Meuron’s fluid, spacious interior, with a suite of curiosity-inducing gallery types rather than an intimidating lineup of white boxes, suited Collins’ intention to display a broad mix. He boosted the Perez’s holdings with small borrowed collections, single-artist galleries, and traveling shows, including the Ai Wei Wei exhibit that Caminero vandalized.
Caminero said he was protesting the museum’s lack of commitment to local artists, but local artists are actually well represented in current and future shows, as Collins was able to point out.
Why did Caminero choose the Perez, which could hardly be expected to prove itself in three months, especially in a city with a tiny art scene until Art Basel Miami came along in 2002? The private collectors who so resisted the public museum would seem juicier targets. Though some collect and display local artists, many are barely open in the hot months when out-of-town art lovers are scarce.
Collins has defended the Perez as a “public trust.” He adds, “We have an obligation to make these materials available. There’s no onus on private collectors to collect with any critical frame or to be encyclopedic. They can buy and sell at will and are under no obligation at all to make their collections public.”
Caminero, who has made an incoherent defense of his destruction as an artistic act, deserves to be punished. But he may have done the Perez an unintentional favor, legitimizing its importance in a city now rich with artistic ferment.