This Space for Rent

Millionaire developer T homas Kramer's Portofino Group baited its hook with $15,000 -- and reeled in a wall at the Bass Museum

Joe's Stone Crab, that hub of Miami Beach hubbub, was crackling with more excitement than usual this past June 16, the opening night of Thomas Kramer's six-day South Pointe charrette. At his own expense, the German millionaire had brought together ten architectural firms from around the world to create a development plan for the southernmost tip of South Beach, where he had shelled out for 35 acres of real estate. On this night, politicians and developers, attorneys and news media crammed the restaurant, which was to serve as charrette headquarters, to hear the welcoming presentations and to shake hands with the 36-year-old host.

The giddiness was palpable. For years, after all, South Pointe had lagged far behind the rest of Miami Beach on the development curve. Too many failed redevelopment projects, too much crime. But in Kramer, the city's leaders hoped they'd found the troubled neighborhood's savior, someone who at least had opened his wallet as often as his mouth. And so the architects hunkered down for the intensive design session as the bigwigs cheered loudly and crossed their fingers, and the German boy wonder beamed heroically.

That was six months ago. When the hoopla subsided and the architects flew home, Kramer and his development company, Portofino Group, faded out of the public eye. Kramer himself, previously a party boy of the highest magnitude, largely dropped off the social scene, and his company stopped sucking up huge tracts of land. Portofino has begun constructing a mixed-use commercial/residential development on Washington Avenue at Fifth Street, but the company, evidently, prefers to keep their newest projects under wraps. Company officials refused to respond to repeated requests for an update on the status of their projects. According to town planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who helped organize the June charrette and is now working with the City of Miami Beach to create design guidelines for South Pointe, the development company has not been dormant. "They're trying to close contracts on land and to get going with development initiatives on property they already own," she reports.

While it's unclear whether Kramer will adopt any of the architects' ideas, their labors weren't completely worthless. Beginning next month, the Bass Museum of Art will display the drawings and plans in an exhibit entitled "South Pointe Charrette: Ideas and Process," one of three architecture-related installations this winter (the other two feature architects Morris Lapidus and L. Murray Dixon).

The charrette display has piqued curators and museum officials in South Florida, but not strictly because of its subject matter. Rather, Portofino itself is fully underwriting the $15,000 cost of mounting the South Pointe exhibit.

Especially as public funding for art continues to decline, corporate underwriting has become quite common. But sponsors nearly always back exhibits that have nothing to do with any product they manufacture or sell, such as Phillip Morris's past sponsorship of exhibits at New York's Whitney Museum. On its face, the Bass exhibit is a paid advertisement for Portofino.

Peggy Loar, executive director of the Wolfsonian Foundation, says she learned during the charrette that Kramer and company were interested in locating a venue to display the architectural drawings they had commissioned. At first, she expressed interest on behalf of the foundation's museum, which features Micky Wolfson's collection of decorative and propaganda arts. "But then I learned Mr. Kramer really wanted to use an exhibit as a showcase for potential developers and investors," Loar says. "And when I learned that, I backed away and felt it was a conflict of interest." Bass officials, who didn't share the propaganda museum's compunction about displaying this particular propaganda, agreed to hang the exhibit instead.

While Loar won't comment on the Bass's decision, she says museums these days have to be especially vigilant against entering into corporate sponsorship agreements that may compromise their ethical standards. When she directed the Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibition service, Loar recalls, she organized an enormous exhibit of Frank Lloyd Wright's work, which included four illustrations of the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin. The exhibit's sponsor: Johnson Wax. The museum's general counsel gave Loar a choice: either remove the four illustrations or cancel the show altogether. "I said, 'But this is an icon of American architecture. You couldn't do the Frank Lloyd White show without this building,'" Loar recalls. "I wouldn't censor the show, so we canceled it. That is how precise some museums are in ethical considerations."

Evidently, not the Bass. Chief curator Alan Aiches says the museum offered to display Portofino's architectural plans after discussing the conflict-of-interest issue and concluding that the cultural benefits were too attractive to pass up. The $15,000 grant came in handy, too; Aiches admits the museum didn't search elsewhere for sponsorship of the exhibit. "We are looking at this as an educational opportunity for the community to learn more about the planning and design process," Aiches explains. "This is something that we wanted to do. We approached Portofino about doing it, and they were pleased to assist us by providing this grant."

Critics of the Bass Museum emphasize that they, too, feel the Portofino exhibit will serve the public good; the question, they insist, is one of curating ethics, and whether the Bass is whoring its walls.

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