Tumbling Chairs

The people of Miami take a crash course in art, parks, and democracy

The trouble with democracy is that all these people get involved. That's why the MADA, the Museum of American Democratic Art, is such a mess. MADA didn't cost much to build: just enough to silk-screen the names of museum movers and shakers on the canvas backs of 60 or so director's chairs. At this imaginary museum, you play a different role as you sit in each chair. In the Curator's chair, pinch your nose and proclaim: The best artists are dead artists. In the Big Dick Lawyer chair, lean back and complain to the board of trustees: These fucking artists, what do they know? In the chair of the Token Latino Power Whore, wink and demand: Hey, give me my cigar so we can talk about this. And in the chair for the 501C-3 Slave, lift up your nonprofit voice and sing, You dudes are set; you've got all these rich white guys supporting you.

Local artist/activist Cesar Trasobares built MADA -- an installation commissioned in 1994 by the downtown Miami museum then known as the Center for the Fine Arts -- to call attention to a big change in the way museums work. A century or so ago wealthy white robber barons bequeathed museums to industrial cities across the United States, building monuments to coal and steel in the names of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Guggenheim. Since then, the wealthy and the white continue to be players in the museum world (just ask the Big Dick Lawyer), but other people have found a place as well (ask the Token Latino Power Whore). As Trasobares's work makes clear, artists want a say in how museums are run. "The museum is no longer a container for objects that won't talk back," Trasobares insists. "Artists should have a voice in policy making." So the artist stacked his chairs in a teetering hill in the CFA lobby. Didn't take much of a stir for the whole heap to come tumbling down.

Since the end of the robber baron days, the government has gotten into the museum business too. Sure, only pennies per citizen go to the arts in the United States every year (and that's a few pennies less today than last week, thanks to budget slashing by the Florida state legislature); still our tax dollars do subsidize museums, give grants to artists, and provide tax breaks to arts organizations (just ask the 501C-3 Slave). Ed Abel, president of the American Association of Museums, points out that "only" 30 percent of museum funding nationwide is paid for by our taxes. That's enough to make museums take on what Abel calls a "larger civic engagement." Today's museum, says the AAM prez, is "a neutral place, a safe place, where the community comes together to talk about community problems."

Cesar Trasobares
Museum Park Miami: Another of the city's fields of dreams
Museum Park Miami: Another of the city's fields of dreams

Only in Miami the museum itself is a community problem. When the CFA grew up to be the Miami Art Museum in 1995, MAM's ambitious director set her sights for a new building on city-owned parkland. MAM joined forces with the also-expanding Miami Museum of Science & Space Transit Planetarium in 2000. Together the museums piled onto a grassroots campaign to save Bicentennial Park, the City of Miami's last patch of public waterfront. A new cadre of City of Miami pols are thrilled with the idea of Museum Park, but parkland activists feel betrayed. When news of the plan hit the art world, concerned aficionados began to ask: Who is going to pay the projected $65 million price tag for MAM's new building? And where is MAM going to get all this art to fill a new space? Kick over a chair and who knows what might topple next.

The full-color brochure titled Miami's Central Park, paid for by the City of Miami and produced by the urban-planning firm Dover Kohl, is as suspicious as it is seductive. A beautiful artist's rendering shows the 250,000-square-foot Science Center of the Americas tucked into 4 acres at the southwest corner of the 28-acre Bicentennial Park, and a 150,000-square-foot Miami Art Museum nestled in another 4 acres at the northwest. A vast green space between the two buildings gives a view clear through from the boulevard to the bay. Across the boulevard stand tall, old-fashioned buildings of the sort that overlook Manhattan's Central Park. There are no cars on the streets, so there are no parking lots. A walkway lined with majestic palm trees runs along the waterfront. On the southern bank of a peaceful boat slip where old-fashioned sloops drift, the enormous eyesore that is the American Airlines Arena looks as idyllic as a barn in a painting by Andrew Wyeth.

This is the image of Miami that taxpayers buy again and again and again. From the 1972 Parks for People Bond Issue that allowed the city to purchase the entire Biscayne Bay waterfront for just under $40 million (with $15 million earmarked for Bicentennial Park), to the 1996 county vote to pony up $8.5 mil a year in taxpayer cash to run the American Airlines Arena in exchange for a surrounding swatch of grass that was never built, to the misleadingly named Homeland Security bond issue of November 2001 (that designated another $17 million for Bicentennial), voters keep voting to fund public parks even though the city keeps leasing the land out from under us.

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