Tumbling Chairs

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

Suzanne Delahanty is invited to make the museum's case, but the MAM board persuades her to sit the panel out because, board chairman Aaron Podhurst explains, it doesn't make sense to debate whether MAM should have a building in Bicentennial Park when, he claims, a two-and-a-half-year process already determined it will. "We're proud to have won this beauty contest," he quips. Withdrawing Delahanty from the debate turns out to be a tactical mistake. Despite reassurances from Podhurst and fellow board member Paul Cejas that there is money for the project out there, the movers and shakers of the Miami art world come away from the meeting less convinced that the Museum Park project is feasible.

"What is going to go in there?" asks art critic and University of Miami art professor Paula Harper. "That question hovers in the air over everything. There is a 'build it and they [the collectors] will come' attitude. Some of the people at MAM have fallen in love with their vision of a beautiful museum on a waterfront spot. There's a big gap between that vision and what is practically possible."

Rosa de la Cruz, one of the major collectors quite sympathetic with MAM's mission, also is worried about practicality. "Sometimes you have dreams, then you have to put your feet on the ground," she says. De la Cruz looks at the hard times other museums have endured staying afloat in Milwaukee, Chicago, San Francisco, and Fort Lauderdale after investing huge sums in construction. "Form and content, same as art," she explains. "You have a shell and then you have what goes in the shell."

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

De la Cruz doesn't think public money should pay for the museum. "Why should poor people pay for rich people's things?" she asks at the town meeting. "We should be able to generate enough gifts to pay for the place."

"There should be a percentage [of the government budget] for art," Margulies concedes, "but should that go to a hollow edifice?"

Filling that edifice, according to another local collector, Design District developer and MAM board member Craig Robins, will require a cooperative spirit. "Miami has several collections that would be rated among the best in the United States," he points out. "If they were to combine under one roof, we could instantly have a great museum. I think that all the collectors would have to get together, talk about it, and decide to be incredibly generous."

Would Robins contribute his collection? "I don't know," he laughs. "[My wife] Ivelin and I would approach such an opportunity with an open mind."

What Cesar Trasobares wants is an open discussion, one that includes the voices of artists. "The only line of defense so far [for MAM at Museum Park] has been that we already had a public process," he argues. "That does not mean that process has ended."

In Commissioner Winton's office in city hall, Bob Weinreb, the project liaison for Bicentennial Park, sits with a big red book of dreams he is trying to turn into reality. Here are all the documents relevant to the park, from its earliest days in the 1970s to the 28 drawings from the February 2001 charrette, to applications for permits and grants to rebuild a portion of the park's collapsing seawall. Weinreb prefers to let his bosses speak to the press (neither the commissioner nor city Manager Joe Arriola responded to requests for an interview), but his actions speak for themselves. It's Weinreb's job to coordinate the city's plans with the museums' plans with the plans of the Florida Department of Transportation and the requirements of the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) and whoever might have a hand in what happens to Bicentennial Park. In the meantime he is to do everything that can be done to restore Bicentennial Park no matter what else happens there.

There is good news: The city won a grant to rebuild the seawall; the environmental study didn't turn up any nasty hazards. There is bad: DERM is raising myriad objections to plans for the walkway along the water. And there is a lot of wait and see: Before the museums can negotiate a lease with the city manager, the city must complete the Bicentennial Park master plan. No planner has yet been hired.

Still everyone involved with the city agrees on one thing: Something will happen in Bicentennial Park.

"There are three plans," explains urban planner and dean of the UM architecture school Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who is also a co-chair of the Bayfront Park/Waterfront Renewal Committee: 1. a park with no buildings maintained by a dedicated funding source at a cost of $30 million; 2. Museum Park, with either the Science and/or the Miami Art Museum; or 3. if money cannot be raised for the park or for Museum Park, the city will sell a five- to seven-acre portion of the land to a commercial interest to pay for the upkeep of whatever is left of the park. "Both alternative one and two are in play right now," says Plater-Zyberk. "Whoever gets through the door first [wins]."

In this three-legged race, the Miami Museum of Science has a head start with a 54-year track record and a brand-new president who has been through this all before. At her last job, Gillian Thomas oversaw the controversial construction of a science center on abandoned public waterfront land in the economically depressed city of Bristol, England. The no-nonsense Brit brought the community along by partnering with social service agencies and securing special construction contracts that turned the long, drawn-out building stage into a job-training program for 400 unemployed workers and a big dusty science experiment for local students.

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