Pérez Art Museum Miami's Small Endowment Is Slowing Its Growth

Pérez Art Museum Miami
Pérez Art Museum Miami Photo by Angel Valentin
Shortly after Pérez Art Museum Miami opened in the winter of 2013, the New York Times critiqued the fledgling institution, blaming its "reduced staff" and "lackluster" permanent collection on its $14 million endowment, well below its stated goal of $70 million.

Four years later, the endowment has grown to only $16 million. Staff and critics say its lagging budget has diminished the museum's potential. Christina Boomer Vazquez, PAMM's deputy director of marketing and public engagement, tells New Times that growing the museum's endowment would directly help the museum in terms of elevating its collection and attracting visitors.

"Our efforts right now are focused on strong annual support in conjunction with growing the endowment," Boomer Vazquez says. "The growth of an endowment provides a reliable and predictable source of income. All new gifts to the endowment allow for a larger annual draw, which would help support and enrich PAMM’s offerings."

PAMM's namesake is real-estate developer Jorge Pérez, estimated to be worth about $3 billion. His initial $40 million donation to Miami Art Museum in 2011 during its move to Museum Park spurred its permanent renaming. But some observers say Pérez's naming privilege on the museum has deterred other affluent philanthropists from donating larger sums and valuable familial collections that the museum hopes to receive.

Rather than donating their collections and funds under the Pérez name, without the possibility of having the museum renamed for them, major donors have opted to be charitable to more generically branded institutions, critics say. "Jorge Pérez calls himself a billionaire, but his donation has been the most insignificant and irrelevant poor donation," says Gary Nader, a local gallerist and self-professed "ex-friend" of the developer's. "He promised to build a significant collection, and instead he goes to Cuba to buy unhistorical, inconsequential art for PAMM. He wants others to do the great donations and take the credit for it. He's not fooling anyone anymore."

But Pérez says he's simply trying to do the right thing for South Florida culture. "It is my intent that my entire collection of over 1,000 art pieces will at some point go to PAMM, just as it is my intent that a substantial portion of my net worth continues to go to philanthropy, mostly benefiting South Florida," he says. "My contributions speak for themselves. I have donated or pledged over $65 million in cash and art to PAMM and will continue to support the museum."

In recent years, high-net-worth individuals in Miami's cultural set have, indeed, opted to donate large gifts of money to other art museums. One example of this phenomenon, most recently — and perhaps most noticeably — was when local billionaire Norman Braman helped fund the construction of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami's gleaming new museum in the Design District.

Braman's philanthropy didn't come with a naming-rights clause. The New York Times pointed out the gift was a bit of a snub to Pérez: "'It’s the ICA Miami, it’s not the Braman ICA or anything like that,'" Mr. Braman told the paper, in a not-so-subtle swipe at the Pérez Art Museum Miami." ICA Miami is poised to develop a revered collection of blue-chip art, one that the Magic City's cultural cognoscenti have stopped believing will grow at the museum on the bay.

Tobias Ostrander, the chief curator of PAMM, has stressed the art on display is not meant to show work by famous names, though, but to present pieces by emerging artists through a "Miami lens."

“One of the strengths of our collection and program has been to emphasize artists from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the African diaspora,” Ostrander says, “many of whom have not previously received the recognition they have deserved.”

Nader says those goals are conveniently inexpensive in light of PAMM's available funds: Work by less established artists tends to be cheaper across the board. The drawback, of course, of capitalizing on lesser-known artists is they lack the lure of more renowned Latin American artists. Although it is South Florida's flagship — in the densest-populated area in the nation's third-most-populated state — PAMM receives only 300,000 visitors each year.

It's not a bad number — the museum is one of the most visited in South Florida — but it isn't the impressive figure for which Miamians had hoped. PAMM's immediate neighbor in Museum Park, the Frost Museum of Science, which opened last spring, saw more than 500,000 visitors in its first six months, and the new museum is anticipated to attract more than 1 million visitors in its first year.

Frost Science's success shows Miamians' — and tourists' — fervor to seek out cultural experiences. However, that mass excitement has not translated equally to PAMM, which is curious because, in most cities, art museums tend to boast the greatest number of visitors.

Despite its lackluster attendance, though, PAMM isn't failing. And it's still aiming to reach its long-term goal endowment of $70 million. But without the help of more wealthy residents, the museum might not reach that number for decades. A PAMM spokesperson told New Times the museum's staff expects to reach $25 million in its endowment by 2026.

Recently, an anonymous donor gave PAMM a $15 million mixed gift of funds and art, of which $5 million was paid in cash and can be used immediately by the museum staff. In contrast, Pérez is contributing a $15 million cash donation to PAMM in installments over ten years. Because the museum, in cultural terms, is still in its infancy, it needs access to more robust resources to ensure it's developing strongly, not merely remaining sustainable.

Miami's chief art institution should thrive, not simply get by. Pérez could help PAMM meet its $75 million goal — less than 3 percent of his estimated wealth — at a faster rate than currently expected. But his name is already on the building. And Nader, himself a renowned art collector, claims there's another reason Pérez might be holding back.

"He has the sensibility of a donkey when it comes to art," the gallerist says. "He doesn't get it. He has no idea."
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Jonathan Kendall is a former editor at Big Think. He studied journalism at Harvard and is a contributing writer for Miami New Times as well as for Vogue, Cultured, Los Angeles Review of Books, Smithsonian, and Atlas Obscura.
Contact: Jonathan Kendall

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