Tumbling Chairs

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

The Dover Kohl drawing makes everything all right, restoring to us the view, the green space, and the waterfront walkway promised and denied all these years. Look close and you'll even see, to the east of the American Airlines Arena, the soccer field Micky Arison and his Miami Heat folks pledged when they duped the public into the arena deal, then reneged once the deal was done. Taxpayers agreed to pay for all this before. Why not see if they'll pay for it again?

For a minute it looked like things might go differently with Bicentennial Park. Sure, the homeless have long wandered the grounds, staggering across the concrete gash left by the abandoned Miami Grand Prix speedway and sleeping on the brown grass killed off when the racetrack cut the sprinkler system. Artificial hills hide the bay from boulevard view. Heck, the park itself is pretty well hidden from the street. How do you get in there? And then there was the bankrupt café and that unfortunate murder.

But in 1998, when then-owner of the Florida Marlins John Henry tried to pull a Micky Arison and get the public to build his team a new ballpark in Bicentennial, long-time park crusader Dan Paul balked. He enlisted like-minded citizens to form the Urban Environment League and launched the Save Our Park campaign. Then upstart Johnny Winton upset incumbent J.L. Plummer in the city commission race for District 2 in November 1999. With the blessing of the new forward-looking commish, the Urban Environment League held a design charrette in March 2000, inviting the public to dream up alternative visions of the park and making the number-one priority the preservation of "maximum possible open space."

Town meeting at the Margulies Collection: 350 views of what MAM should do with its new museum
Diamondimages.com
Town meeting at the Margulies Collection: 350 views of what MAM should do with its new museum
Miami Art Museum director Suzanne Delahanty has a world-class vision
Steve Satterwhite
Miami Art Museum director Suzanne Delahanty has a world-class vision

John Henry lost. The parks people won.

At least that's how it seemed.

As Dan Paul and friends were trying to save Bicentennial Park, the Museum of Science and MAM were trying to find a way to put big new buildings on the parkland.

You really can't blame the museums. There isn't much more they can do with the spaces they already have. Science, founded in 1949, is housed in a gorgeous if slightly rundown 55,000-square-foot historic building across Bayshore Drive from Vizcaya. Because the building is historic, by law the museum cannot alter the structure to expand. Instead there are plans to redo the planetarium with removable seats so the star dome can double as a meeting space. Drop ceilings over the exhibit space conceal storage -- and since the museum affiliated with the Smithsonian in 2000 and gained access to that institution's 142 million artifacts, the overhead space is especially cramped. The wildlife rehabilitation center is full of wounded raptors, misfit reptiles, and critters confiscated from customs, putting a tight squeeze on the museum's wildlife research partnerships.

If Science has outgrown its space, MAM is convinced that it needs new space to grow. When the Center for the Fine Arts opened in 1986, the 40,000-square-foot space was designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson to fit a modest budget and fulfill the modest ambitions of a kuntshalle, a space for bringing traveling art exhibits to Miami-Dade County. When director Suzanne Delahanty came on board in 1995, she knew the museum could be so much more. She led an all-day retreat for the CFA board followed by six months of community-based planning that gave the museum a grand new name, the Miami Art Museum, and an even grander mission: to give Miami a "flagship" museum with a "world class" art collection in a "world class" museum building. A second board retreat in 2000 confirmed that mission was too big to fit on Flagler Street.

A tour of the facility by associate curator Lorie Mertes is a catalogue of structural inadequacies. The museum's 150-seat auditorium also serves as a library, a banquet room, an art conservation laboratory, a temporary storage space. For entertaining there is a tiny kitchen with two chairs for staff and no room at all for a public café. An architectural oversight makes the loading dock MAM shares with the public library and the Historical Museum of South Florida too small to accommodate semi-trucks -- large-scale works must be carried through the downtown streets, up a long platform, then through the museum's front door.

Worst of all, there is no room in the present facility for a major permanent collection. Even the current, rather meager collection of less than 200 objects acquired over the past six years is too big to store in the humidity- and temperature-controlled cage in the museum basement.

When Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas learned that both Science and MAM were looking for a new home, he urged the museums now housed in county facilities to work together to pursue a space in the city-owned Bicentennial Park. From that point on, gushes Delahanty, "MAM and Science were just joined at the hip."

So when Commissioner Winton convened a second design charrette for the park in February 2001, the museums came prepared to the Saturday session at the Biscayne Bay Marriott. Five full-color professional handouts -- filled with photos of museums in parks around the world and featuring a detailed map of where the museums would fit in Bicentennial Park -- easily outshone the photocopied proposals for Miami Tropical Gardens, an Amphitheatre of the Americas, and a clunky five-story sculpture called Sculptura.

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