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Executive Privilege

On the last Friday of 1994, there were few visitors at the Center for the Fine Arts (CFA), and most of the staff was on holiday. Outside, near the bottom of the ramp leading to the esplanade of the Metro-Dade Cultural Center (which consists of the CFA, the main branch of the public library, and the Historical Museum of Southern Florida), it was a bit busier: A group of homeless men celebrated the impending new year with a bottle in a paper bag, and vendors sold flowers and hot dogs to a skeleton crew of county employees and a trickle of tourists who had strayed from their shopping to the far end of West Flagler Street. Standing outside the museum's employee entrance, Suzanne Delehanty, just in from New York City for her first day on the job, frowned at the filthy stucco on the building's exterior, then turned her face to the afternoon sun and took a deep breath of warm air.

County administrators and members of Miami's art community have been breathing a little easier since October, when Delehanty was named the problem-plagued CFA's new director. Filling a position that had been vacant for more than a year, Delehanty becomes the institution's fourth director in its ten-year existence. The 50-year-old Delehanty arrives with impressive credentials, having previously held directorships at Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania (1971-78), the Neuberger Museum at the State University of New York at Purchase (1978-88), and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston (1989-93). For the last year, she worked as an independent curator and museum consultant in New York. She describes herself as a "curatorial director" rather than as a "business manager-director," focusing on twentieth-century painting, sculpture, and multimedia art. One of the first projects she worked on at Philadelphia's ICA was conceptual artist Christo's initial U.S. exhibition, and she speaks with pride of a show of works by the avant-garde opera designer Robert Wilson that she organized in Houston.

Sitting among cardboard boxes in her office, Delehanty, a tall, slim woman dressed in a navy blue suit, talked about her first impressions of Miami -- it's physically segregated and geographically spectacular -- while reeling off some immediate concerns regarding the CFA: creating a ten-year plan of museum priorities and goals; organizing a retreat for the staff, board members, and pertinent county employees; hiring key staff members to fill a number of open slots; defining priorities for the planned new collection; organizing a biennial show of Miami-based artists; identifying exhibited works with bilingual or perhaps trilingual wall labels; creating a stronger community education program; and stocking the bookstore with international art magazines and catalogues. Personable and articulate, Delehanty comes across as a career museum professional with a problem-solving approach, a broad knowledge of the history of art, a commitment to current art-world issues, and an infectious enthusiasm.

Delehanty has been brought in to guide the CFA as it changes from a kunsthalle, or temporary exhibition space, to a collecting institution. As a kunsthalle, the museum never has had a clear curatorial mission, something evidenced over the years by a haphazard schedule of hit-and-miss exhibitions. While most kunsthalles in Europe and the U.S. concentrate on contemporary art, the CFA has in the past showcased historical exhibitions, often featuring second-rate work of acknowledged masters (last year's Degas show, for example). Few exhibitions have been organized by the museum staff, and little attention has been paid to the work of area artists. The exhibition program's inconsistencies can be attributed primarily to frequent staff turnover and the conflicting priorities of the previous three directors. But a sense of institutional chaos also can be traced to a lack of consensus among members of the exhibitions committee and the board of directors, plus administration and funding battles with the county.

At present the museum has no director of development, the person responsible for raising funds. Its operating budget for the current fiscal year is almost $3 million dollars, with more than $1.5 million of that slated to come from memberships, admissions, museum store profits, and donations. A slightly smaller amount, $1.285 million, is provided by the county. The $366,831 exhibition budget includes costs of curatorial fees, installation, and catalogue production. According to Delehanty, that figure is "pretty modest" for a museum the size of the CFA.

This year's disparate, jam-packed exhibition schedule, which highlights the work of artists from Latin America, was put together by Louis Grachos, the museum's curator for three years. Grachos bowed out suddenly last summer, taking a job at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. (Associate curator Kate Rawlinson has been doing an admirable job since his departure.) Delehanty already has begun a search for a new curator of exhibitions, as well as for a curator of collections. A curatorial assistant, director of education, and museum store manager also must be found to replace employees who left those jobs recently.

 

Since its inaugural show in 1984, ironically titled "In Quest of Excellence," the Center for the Fine Arts has borne the marks of cultural misadventure. This begins with the building itself, part of the Metro-Dade Cultural Center, a $25 million postmodern folly designed by architect Philip Johnson. The museum contains claustrophobic, windowless picture galleries that are both oblivious to the particulars of the South Florida environment and insensitive to the exhibition requirements of contemporary multimedia artworks. -- sculpture garden has not been used to full advantage, although the Canadian duo Fastwrms set a promising precedent last year with a site-specific installation featuring a large black snowman and stalks of corn. The basement office space is insufficient, especially for the curatorial staff. And in a place as casual and tourist populated as Miami, there are no visitors' lounges, only a sandwich stand on the plaza during weekday lunch hours. This colonial fortress, an architectural reference to a period many people do not wish to relive, is generally inhospitable. At night it can seem downright frightening.

Whether the result of its downtown location or problems in maintaining an exhibition schedule that appeals to the polyglot Miami community, what should be the pivotal art institution in Miami currently attracts as few as 50 visitors a day. And the announcement of the creation of a permanent collection should in no way be interpreted as a panacea for the CFA's problems. If the museum has been mediocre as an exhibiting institution, why should it fare any better with a collection? Then there is the bigger question, the one that looms over any museum embarking on such a difficult undertaking at this time in history: a collection of what? Private collections that evince the initiative, foresight, and dedication that have been lacking at the CFA already exist in Miami, including the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry, the Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz collection (see "Collect Calling," page 13), the Don and Miera Rubell collection (now housed in its own building downtown), and the holdings of Micky Wolfson's Wolfsonian Foundation on South Beach. Whether these or any other important South Florida collectors can be enticed to promise works to the CFA remains to be seen. And what of the territory already staked out by other collecting museums in the area: the Lowe Museum, whose holdings include nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American paintings, pre-Columbian, Asian, and Native American art, and the Cuban Cintas collection, on long-term loan; the Fort Lauderdale Museum, with permanent collections of American and Cuban artists; the Norton, in West Palm Beach, which recently announced a planned expansion; the Art Museum at FIU; the Bass Museum; and the growing Center of Contemporary Art, home for emerging modern art that the CFA has largely ignored.

"I think that a collection is really for a city and the generations of people who live in it," asserts Delehanty. "So if you frame it as a collection that gets established now and you think about the collection in its real flowering as taking several generations, you really see it as a collection that's for everyone's grandchildren. The minute you give it that kind of real perspective, the long view, I think it's absolutely feasible and totally doable.

"I mean [New York's] Metropolitan had to start a collection some time, and they did it a hundred years ago, and look where it is today," she continues. "So Miami, as a much younger city, is just beginning to build a collection that is distinctive to this place and to this time."

Delehanty defines the proposed collection as one that will include international art since 1945, with an emphasis on the art of North and South America. An acquisitions fund will be established through gifts and through the ongoing "New Works" series, in which artists do projects specifically for the museum.

Despite all her plans for the CFA, Delehanty still had second thoughts about even taking the job, withdrawing her candidacy last spring when she was being considered as the new executive director. She says now she was not prepared to take on such a big administrative challenge at the time. But after thinking it over for three months, she changed her mind and asked to be reconsidered. She won the post and describes it as "the best job in the country right now.

"Miami's a young city and to sort of start from scratch is very exciting for me," Delehanty notes. "There's something about helping an institution grow up that really appeals to me. The center's going from infancy to adolescence, and I really like that stage in an institution's life."

 

The new director has studied the history of the CFA and the reasons for its failings. "I think having that broad a chronological sweep between exhibitions [here] made it difficult to have a clear-cut definition of what the center was about," she explains. "That was confusing to people. They didn't understand what the relationship was from one exhibition to the other. You have to think about how you can have resonances between what you do. You have to have a sense of its direction and flavor. An exhibition season should be like a composition."

Delehanty already has outlined a ten-year plan for the museum, designed to set museum goals, strengthen its infrastructure, and articulate the CFA's curatorial mission. "Let's face it, to change from a kunsthalle showing work from 1850 forward that embraced everything, including Faberge eggs, to becoming an institution that collects, committed to international art since 1945, with all of the responsibilities that a collection puts forward to a board," the museum director says, taking a big breath, "there are things to be resolved.


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