Long-suffering Bass Museum director Diane Camber in the new upstairs gallery
Steve Satterwhite

Damp Art, Dry Art, No Art

The Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach's premiere visual-arts institution, lost three full-time employees last week, a serious blow to an ailing organization. Says museum director Diane Camber: "We only have about eighteen full-time employees, so other staff people will have to pick up the slack."

The personnel cuts are just the latest in a long string of setbacks linked to the infamous Curse of the Bass -- a renovation and expansion project from hell that has plagued the museum for the past five years. How hellish has it been? Well, problems arising from the renovation were severe enough to cause the museum to shut its doors on July 20. (It's not expected to reopen before mid-November.) But that's hardly the whole story. This is the fifth time the project has closed down the museum. In fact, as a direct result of the Curse, the Bass has been fully functional only eight of the last thirty-six months.

The Coral Gables-based engineering firm Spillis Candela DMJM has been responsible for the project. Playing a supervisory role has been the City of Miami Beach, which owns the museum building and splits operating costs with Bass support groups. Among the myriad screwups: a collapsed ceiling, broken floor beams, flooding, and a leaking new roof that still hasn't been fixed (administrators cover their desks with plastic tarps at the end of each workday). The climate-control system -- essential for any art museum, especially in South Florida -- has also caused its share of headaches. That troublesome system, in fact, forced the current closure.

Camber's head is splitting. And no wonder. For the second year running her museum is scrambling to open in time to host the opening party for Art Basel, which has quickly become one of the most important art events in the nation. "It's a race against time again," Camber frets.

The expensive but balky climate-control system was installed in 1998, but only two years ago Camber made a shocking discovery: It wasn't the equipment she'd requested. One vital component was never included, and its absence has threatened to damage the museum's permanent collection of paintings. That revelation, and the ensuing arguments over responsibility and solutions, caused last month's abrupt shuttering of the museum.

For more than 60 years the Bass building (originally a library) sat peacefully in its Collins Park home between 21st and 22nd streets just west of Collins Avenue. Its current troubles can be traced to 1993, when ambitious plans to expand and renovate the facility were unveiled. Renowned architect Arata Isozaki was commissioned to design the new space. Work began in early 1998 and was supposed to conclude by the end of 1999. While the museum has opened in fits and starts since then, the eight-million-dollar construction project has never really ended.

The major work now under way involves a climate-control system that was supposed to monitor both temperature and humidity. A state-of-the-art dehumidifier worked reasonably well, though it needed a serious tune-up not long after installation. But missing was its counterpart: a humidifier for Miami's winter dry spells.

Camber says systems that maintain humidity levels between 45 and 55 percent are an industry standard among accredited art museums. In addition to protecting a facility's own collection, proper humidity control is expected by high-end art lenders, from individuals to institutions. Which is why she requested and expected that the Bass's new system would meet those standards. Camber notes that had she been aware the equipment would be installed without a humidifier, "I would have screamed bloody murder. I was on the building committee, but that committee wasn't apprised of any shortcuts of that nature." The result: On some days during the winter months, humidity inside the Bass could drop to as low as 30 percent, according to Camber. Dry spells with low humidity could be damaging, she says, especially to centuries-old Renaissance and Baroque paintings in the Bass's permanent collection.

City staffers who have overseen the renovation and expansion project did not respond to interview requests, but Spillis Candela spokeswoman Alexandra Spencer says all plans, including the climate-control system, were submitted to Bass Museum staff, city staff, and Isozaki's firm, and that no one voiced objections.

The construction nightmares have taken a toll on the Bass. Over the past five years, Camber estimates that two million dollars have been lost in revenues, grant money, deposits on canceled exhibits, and publicity costs for all the reopenings that never took place.

Then there are the missed exhibits -- more a loss in stature than finances, but a topic that brings out the melancholy in the normally staid Camber. "Our starting show was to have been this major Latin American blockbuster, the Costantini collection," she recalls. "There was a window of opportunity because the collector was building a museum for his collection." But the Bass was still closed by the time the Costantini collection, including works by Frida Kahlo, Wifredo Lam, and Roberto Matta, went on permanent display in Buenos Aires. "We would have been the only place in the U.S. to have shown it," Camber laments.

And so, having wasted roughly $100,000 on announcements, press releases, and unused invitations, Camber finds herself desperately in need of some good PR as word of extended delays and questions about iffy climate control spread throughout the art world. "The specter of this sort of lurks out there," she says.

The humidity problems, which will cost the city $350,000 to fix, seem to have been emblematic of the entire renovation. "The engineering firm wanted to do a wet-pipe system for fire control," Camber recounts, referring to the kind of extinguishers seen in schools and offices everywhere -- exposed sprinklers that spray as soon as a smoke alarm is activated. "Art museums can't have that!" (Spillis Candela's Spencer says the proposed fire-control system -- inappropriate or not -- was approved months before Camber and others took issue, after construction had already begun.)

If past reopenings are any guide, the Bass will be welcomed by the public and the art world as soon as exhibits are mounted and the Art Basel festivities commence. Eventually the foibles of the last decade will recede into memory. Until then, Camber continues to deal with a most unpleasant aspect of the Curse of the Bass. "It's embarrassing," she confesses.


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