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In the last exhibit at its Flagler Street locale before moving to a new 29-acre home on Biscayne Bay, the Miami Art Museum transports viewers back to a Coral Gables' art walk circa 1998.
That's not a nostalgia-tinged compliment. And considering that "Frames of Reference: Latin American Art From the Jorge M. Pérez Collection" is a thorough sampling of the 110 works donated by the real estate developer whose name will grace the museum's new home, it also raises worrying questions about whether the Pérez Art Museum Miami's permanent collection will match its world-class facility.
The 43 works on display do include some classic examples by masters from Chile, Cuba, Argentina, and Uruguay, a selection that curators contend should excite fans of classic Latin American work. "These works are historically important and also reflect Miami's cultural legacy and the museum's mission to showcase the art of the Americas," says Tobias Ostrander, MAM's chief curator and the exhibit's organizer.
But overall, the collection lacks the cutting-edge punch the museum will need to equal the excitement surrounding the new building on Biscayne Bay designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron.
From the beginning, Pérez's deal with MAM has raised eyebrows and critiques in the art world. In 2011, the megadeveloper announced he'd donated $35 million — including a big chunk of his own collection — in exchange for renaming MAM in his honor. Some protested the move, pointing out that taxpayers had contributed three times more than Pérez, while others wondered whether his artwork was valuable enough to merit the honor. One former MAM president, Mary Frank, even resigned her seat on the board and called the news "a sad day for Miami."
Now, MAM's ongoing show offers the first public glimpse into the controversial donation that will form the heart of the museum's permanent collection. Ostrander and other museum officials worked closely with Pérez to select the 110 works he has donated. Of these pieces, more than a third are on display.
There are certainly some highlights in the exhibit. One of them is Roberto Matta's 1938 oil on canvas, Crucifixión, a dark abstract painting that marked the Chilean master's move from drawing to oil and ushered in what scholars define as his most creative period.
Uruguay's Joaquín Torres-García, considered one of the 20th Century's most influential names for his role in spreading geometric abstraction throughout Latin America, is represented by several works. Construcción con dos Mascaras (1943) depicts his recurring mask motif and his interest in Native American archeological artifacts, all represented in a colorful grid.
Nearby, a modest watercolor painting by Argentina's Alejandro Xul Solar is an interesting example of the enigmatic talent's quixotic open housing developments. The artist employs mystical references in room interiors and ladders to convey the notion of spiritual ascension. Likewise, an undated oil-on-board piece titled Gato by Uruguay's Pedro Figari reflects the folkloric nature of many of the scenes on display. The modest, distinctly naive work depicts a group of gauchos and elaborately costumed dancers celebrating a village festival.
More contemporary examples in the Pérez collection include large paintings by Miami talent José Bedia, who explores Afro-Cuban religious themes, and Argentina's Guillermo Kuitca, whose oeuvre was the subject of a 2009 survey at MAM.
The problem is that both of these important contemporary names are also known for commanding installations recently on view in major solo shows at the museum — yet noticeably absent from the Pérez collection. And despite the curator's well-intentioned efforts to "knit important pivot points in the history of Latin American art," the collection, as presented, lacks depth.
One glaring hole is the uninspiring works by some of the exhibit's most loudly trumpeted names.
Early works by Wifredo Lam and Diego Rivera stand out mostly because they are not representative of the enduring legacy these masters left on the history books. A small 1919 oil on canvas by Rivera titled Mujer Frente al Espejo, portraying a woman grooming herself in a mirror, leaves an odd impression because of a sports-memorabilia-like brass plaque attached to the tacky velvet-and-wood frame. The plaque's function seems to be reminding viewers that this picture was actually painted by the famous Mexican muralist and makes one wonder why curators didn't have it reframed. The plaque also suggests an inexperienced collector's status anxiety.
It's also notable that, among the more than 40 works on display, only eight were created between 1985 and 1998 — and none was made more recently. That's a concern to many who want to see the museum concentrate on a more contemporary permanent collection that better reflects its gleaming new edifice.
MAM's director, Thom Collins, admits the Pérez collection is heavy on classic Latin American works but says that focus is a strength, not a weakness. Many of the donations would be too expensive for the institution to purchase otherwise.
"The Latin American market is very strong, and works are very prohibitive to acquire," Collins says. "Jorge Pérez is very knowledgeable, with a very refined aesthetic sense. His collection of modern and contemporary works has made our Latin American collection more robust and will contribute to our growth as we move forward in the new space."
More important for MAM, though, is that Pérez isn't the only big name who has donated a large chunk of artwork for the museum's new home. Earlier this year, the Dennis and Debra Scholl Collection announced a gift of more than 300 contemporary works with a value in the millions. Compared with the Pérez collection, the Scholls' donation is more focused on cutting-edge art created since the '60s, with installations by Ólafur Elíasson, a video by Raymond Pettibon, Anna Gaskell's photos, and giant birdhouse installations by Simon Starling.
But it's difficult to grade that collection because none of those works is on display yet. In fact, Collins estimates it will take between "ten and 15 years to get it all out in public in the museum's rotation."
Pérez Art Museum Miami remains on schedule to open this December, just in time for Art Basel. Collins predicts the opening — amid one of the world's biggest art fairs — will lead to more high-profile donations.
"Miami is a very young city, and promises here have been made and not delivered on in the past. When potential donors see something is real, it becomes easier for them to make gifts to the institutions," Collins says.
The Pérez collection at MAM today won't be the end of the developer's gifts to the museum, either. Ostrander has been working with Pérez to help handpick future gifts.
Still, in its current state, Pérez's gift doesn't inspire great hope for MAM's new permanent collection. The Scholl donations might help fill the glaring need for contemporary work, but it's difficult to tell just yet.
Inside MAM's old home on Flagler, viewers are left with the impression of a collection checked off a wish list by someone with a picky taste for the traditional rather than the adventurous.