Tumbling Chairs
Cesar Trasobares

Tumbling Chairs

The trouble with democracy is that all these people get involved. That's why the MADA, the Museum of American Democratic Art, is such a mess. MADA didn't cost much to build: just enough to silk-screen the names of museum movers and shakers on the canvas backs of 60 or so director's chairs. At this imaginary museum, you play a different role as you sit in each chair. In the Curator's chair, pinch your nose and proclaim: The best artists are dead artists. In the Big Dick Lawyer chair, lean back and complain to the board of trustees: These fucking artists, what do they know? In the chair of the Token Latino Power Whore, wink and demand: Hey, give me my cigar so we can talk about this. And in the chair for the 501C-3 Slave, lift up your nonprofit voice and sing, You dudes are set; you've got all these rich white guys supporting you.

Local artist/activist Cesar Trasobares built MADA -- an installation commissioned in 1994 by the downtown Miami museum then known as the Center for the Fine Arts -- to call attention to a big change in the way museums work. A century or so ago wealthy white robber barons bequeathed museums to industrial cities across the United States, building monuments to coal and steel in the names of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Guggenheim. Since then, the wealthy and the white continue to be players in the museum world (just ask the Big Dick Lawyer), but other people have found a place as well (ask the Token Latino Power Whore). As Trasobares's work makes clear, artists want a say in how museums are run. "The museum is no longer a container for objects that won't talk back," Trasobares insists. "Artists should have a voice in policy making." So the artist stacked his chairs in a teetering hill in the CFA lobby. Didn't take much of a stir for the whole heap to come tumbling down.

Since the end of the robber baron days, the government has gotten into the museum business too. Sure, only pennies per citizen go to the arts in the United States every year (and that's a few pennies less today than last week, thanks to budget slashing by the Florida state legislature); still our tax dollars do subsidize museums, give grants to artists, and provide tax breaks to arts organizations (just ask the 501C-3 Slave). Ed Abel, president of the American Association of Museums, points out that "only" 30 percent of museum funding nationwide is paid for by our taxes. That's enough to make museums take on what Abel calls a "larger civic engagement." Today's museum, says the AAM prez, is "a neutral place, a safe place, where the community comes together to talk about community problems."

Only in Miami the museum itself is a community problem. When the CFA grew up to be the Miami Art Museum in 1995, MAM's ambitious director set her sights for a new building on city-owned parkland. MAM joined forces with the also-expanding Miami Museum of Science & Space Transit Planetarium in 2000. Together the museums piled onto a grassroots campaign to save Bicentennial Park, the City of Miami's last patch of public waterfront. A new cadre of City of Miami pols are thrilled with the idea of Museum Park, but parkland activists feel betrayed. When news of the plan hit the art world, concerned aficionados began to ask: Who is going to pay the projected $65 million price tag for MAM's new building? And where is MAM going to get all this art to fill a new space? Kick over a chair and who knows what might topple next.

The full-color brochure titled Miami's Central Park, paid for by the City of Miami and produced by the urban-planning firm Dover Kohl, is as suspicious as it is seductive. A beautiful artist's rendering shows the 250,000-square-foot Science Center of the Americas tucked into 4 acres at the southwest corner of the 28-acre Bicentennial Park, and a 150,000-square-foot Miami Art Museum nestled in another 4 acres at the northwest. A vast green space between the two buildings gives a view clear through from the boulevard to the bay. Across the boulevard stand tall, old-fashioned buildings of the sort that overlook Manhattan's Central Park. There are no cars on the streets, so there are no parking lots. A walkway lined with majestic palm trees runs along the waterfront. On the southern bank of a peaceful boat slip where old-fashioned sloops drift, the enormous eyesore that is the American Airlines Arena looks as idyllic as a barn in a painting by Andrew Wyeth.

This is the image of Miami that taxpayers buy again and again and again. From the 1972 Parks for People Bond Issue that allowed the city to purchase the entire Biscayne Bay waterfront for just under $40 million (with $15 million earmarked for Bicentennial Park), to the 1996 county vote to pony up $8.5 mil a year in taxpayer cash to run the American Airlines Arena in exchange for a surrounding swatch of grass that was never built, to the misleadingly named Homeland Security bond issue of November 2001 (that designated another $17 million for Bicentennial), voters keep voting to fund public parks even though the city keeps leasing the land out from under us.

The Dover Kohl drawing makes everything all right, restoring to us the view, the green space, and the waterfront walkway promised and denied all these years. Look close and you'll even see, to the east of the American Airlines Arena, the soccer field Micky Arison and his Miami Heat folks pledged when they duped the public into the arena deal, then reneged once the deal was done. Taxpayers agreed to pay for all this before. Why not see if they'll pay for it again?

For a minute it looked like things might go differently with Bicentennial Park. Sure, the homeless have long wandered the grounds, staggering across the concrete gash left by the abandoned Miami Grand Prix speedway and sleeping on the brown grass killed off when the racetrack cut the sprinkler system. Artificial hills hide the bay from boulevard view. Heck, the park itself is pretty well hidden from the street. How do you get in there? And then there was the bankrupt café and that unfortunate murder.

But in 1998, when then-owner of the Florida Marlins John Henry tried to pull a Micky Arison and get the public to build his team a new ballpark in Bicentennial, long-time park crusader Dan Paul balked. He enlisted like-minded citizens to form the Urban Environment League and launched the Save Our Park campaign. Then upstart Johnny Winton upset incumbent J.L. Plummer in the city commission race for District 2 in November 1999. With the blessing of the new forward-looking commish, the Urban Environment League held a design charrette in March 2000, inviting the public to dream up alternative visions of the park and making the number-one priority the preservation of "maximum possible open space."

John Henry lost. The parks people won.

At least that's how it seemed.

As Dan Paul and friends were trying to save Bicentennial Park, the Museum of Science and MAM were trying to find a way to put big new buildings on the parkland.

You really can't blame the museums. There isn't much more they can do with the spaces they already have. Science, founded in 1949, is housed in a gorgeous if slightly rundown 55,000-square-foot historic building across Bayshore Drive from Vizcaya. Because the building is historic, by law the museum cannot alter the structure to expand. Instead there are plans to redo the planetarium with removable seats so the star dome can double as a meeting space. Drop ceilings over the exhibit space conceal storage -- and since the museum affiliated with the Smithsonian in 2000 and gained access to that institution's 142 million artifacts, the overhead space is especially cramped. The wildlife rehabilitation center is full of wounded raptors, misfit reptiles, and critters confiscated from customs, putting a tight squeeze on the museum's wildlife research partnerships.

If Science has outgrown its space, MAM is convinced that it needs new space to grow. When the Center for the Fine Arts opened in 1986, the 40,000-square-foot space was designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson to fit a modest budget and fulfill the modest ambitions of a kuntshalle, a space for bringing traveling art exhibits to Miami-Dade County. When director Suzanne Delahanty came on board in 1995, she knew the museum could be so much more. She led an all-day retreat for the CFA board followed by six months of community-based planning that gave the museum a grand new name, the Miami Art Museum, and an even grander mission: to give Miami a "flagship" museum with a "world class" art collection in a "world class" museum building. A second board retreat in 2000 confirmed that mission was too big to fit on Flagler Street.

A tour of the facility by associate curator Lorie Mertes is a catalogue of structural inadequacies. The museum's 150-seat auditorium also serves as a library, a banquet room, an art conservation laboratory, a temporary storage space. For entertaining there is a tiny kitchen with two chairs for staff and no room at all for a public café. An architectural oversight makes the loading dock MAM shares with the public library and the Historical Museum of South Florida too small to accommodate semi-trucks -- large-scale works must be carried through the downtown streets, up a long platform, then through the museum's front door.

Worst of all, there is no room in the present facility for a major permanent collection. Even the current, rather meager collection of less than 200 objects acquired over the past six years is too big to store in the humidity- and temperature-controlled cage in the museum basement.

When Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas learned that both Science and MAM were looking for a new home, he urged the museums now housed in county facilities to work together to pursue a space in the city-owned Bicentennial Park. From that point on, gushes Delahanty, "MAM and Science were just joined at the hip."

So when Commissioner Winton convened a second design charrette for the park in February 2001, the museums came prepared to the Saturday session at the Biscayne Bay Marriott. Five full-color professional handouts -- filled with photos of museums in parks around the world and featuring a detailed map of where the museums would fit in Bicentennial Park -- easily outshone the photocopied proposals for Miami Tropical Gardens, an Amphitheatre of the Americas, and a clunky five-story sculpture called Sculptura.

More than 350 people spent the day at a dozen or so round tables scribbling plans for Bicentennial Park. Participants were asked to sketch what they would like to see there. Planners had in mind items like shady areas and splash fountains. Instead, at table after table, someone said: How about a museum? How about two?

Not everybody was eager to pencil in Museum Park. Irby McKnight, the chair of the Overtown Advisory Board and one of the few black faces in the crowd, recalls that he resisted at first. "I wish our park could be a park," he laments. "We've given up our waterfront. We will live to regret that." But when he realized that the museum supporters at his table would prevail, he did the best he could to include his own community and extended the park's walkway up Ninth Street to the Lyric Theater in Overtown.

At the end of the charrette, the vast majority of plans called for one or more museums in the park. By Delahanty's account, there was simply a groundswell of support. Still some of the green-space enthusiasts feel the museums stacked the deck. That's another problem with democracy; whoever gets the most votes wins.

"I'm in a tricky spot because I urged there to be a public process to redesign the park," admits Bayfront Park/Waterfront Renewal Committee co-chair and UM historian Greg Bush, sounding a little bit like maybe he's sorry he did. That spot got even trickier in November 2001 when 57 percent of the city's voters passed the Homeland Security bond issue in the wake of 9/11, authorizing among other things $10 million for Bicentennial Park and $3.5 million for each museum (as long as the museums match every city dollar with three dollars of their own). His spot got trickier still in July 2002 when the city commission passed a resolution designating Museum Park Miami the "official design vision for Bicentennial Park" and proposing to lease the museums four acres each. "I frankly think there should be some significant paybacks from the museums [in exchange for the land]," Bush wriggles. "I personally would like to have them help oversee the upkeep of the park. I want to make sure that what remains of the park is really beautiful and well landscaped."

But if Bush concedes victory to the museums on the park's design, he's not about to roll over on public funding for the buildings. "The question is, how much money?" Bush asks. "What is the public buying into? Rather than bowing down and saying an art museum is great, we should open our wallets, there should be broad public debate about the spending of public money and the value of certain institutions."

Dan Paul doesn't need any further debate. "I am unalterably opposed," he states. "I never thought I'd have to fight organizations that I thought were on our side in preserving the waterfront. The land is too small for two museums and even one museum will block the view." Is a Stop the Museum campaign next? "They [the museums] don't have any money to do anything," Paul shrugs. "No point in spinning our wheels for nothing."

In logic, that which is unnecessary is also useless. These words glow green in neon script in the Wynwood warehouse that holds the impressive Margulies Collection of art collector and real estate developer Marty Margulies. The piece, by celebrated conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, is one of more than 2000 pieces Margulies has amassed since the 1970s, roughly ten times the size of the permanent collection currently owned by MAM. Margulies opens the doors to his collection every Friday and Saturday in a building he paid for entirely by himself. He doesn't know why MAM, with its puny collection, should pass the bill for a building on to the public.

"Long after Johnny Winton is gone," Margulies gripes, "people in this community will be paying for these facilities."

Solidly built, like a bulldog, Margulies has the intense stare of the hard of hearing (a condition that runs in his family). He built his collection the same cautious way he builds luxury condos and shopping malls: Start with a sound foundation, then add one floor on top of the next. When he sees a problem, he likes to solve it.

Like kids living in poverty in Overtown. Looking out his car window, Margulies realized there was no one to give those youngsters hanging around on the street all the privileges he gave his own kids. So the developer shelled out $2.5 million of his own money to build the Overtown Youth Center, with a basketball court, a computer center, and of course a studio for art classes. "I feel I want to help the downtrodden, underprivileged people," Margulies says, in the same practical tone he might use to order another load of cement. "The government doesn't give them a break."

So when Margulies can't get the answers he wants about MAM in Bicentennial Park, he calls a town meeting of his own this past March 25. Dan Paul shows up to point out that the plan for Museum Park has no parking. There's also a stray downtown developer who doesn't know anything about art, but knows what he likes when his property values go up. Otherwise the crowd is made up of art lovers: artists, art critics, museum folks, and a few very wealthy individuals with immense private collections like Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz and Mitchell Wolfson. The topic is no longer what is the best design for Bicentennial Park, but whether or not Museum Park is the best next step for the visual arts in Miami. To each constituency, its own debate.

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."

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.

"Most big redevelopment projects have a history of many years of things falling down and then the right combination of people comes along," Thomas says with reassuring confidence. The key, as Thomas sees it, is being realistic about funding sources and building a sustainable program. "What we have to do is go through a really careful consultation process. You need to make sure you know all the stakeholders. You need to know: What will be the big draw?"

What about the cost?

"Unfortunately a lot of those numbers are moving targets," admits the chairwoman of the Miami Museum of Science board, Louise Valdes-Fauli. With her perky sorority bob and serious business suit, Valdes-Fauli efficiently ticks off the costs that need to be covered. She gets a little ticked off herself when pressed for more specifics. "We have over a 50-year history," she snaps. "We are not a new museum starting up a huge building. We have seen economic cycles. We've experienced them."

Together Thomas and Valdes-Fauli run down the "income strands" the new science center would generate: education programs, research projects, hire of the waterfront facilities by corporate partners, rental of the teleconferencing technology by small companies who can't afford their own. "If one base turns down, another base comes along," says Thomas. "Flexibility allows you to adapt quite rapidly."

That all sounds good, but why must the Science Center be on waterfront parkland? In addition to the calming surroundings and wide-open spaces, Thomas sees exhibitions designed to physically change when triggered by shifts in the reflection off the water. She sees an aquarium built as a spectacular wall of fish and digital video feeds from a reef in the Caribbean. She envisions marine biology research conducted near the site that will allow visitors to the museum to mingle with "real" scientists.

"I think the key is that the waterfront can be used," adds Valdes-Fauli. "We are open 363 days a year. You're not leaving the park empty and closed."

Suzanne Delahanty will not be left behind. "Since MAM and Science started working with the city," she coos, "the three of us have become almost triplets." The MAM director has just returned from Fort Worth, Texas, "the museum capital of the Southwest," and is reporting to chairman of the board Aaron Podhurst on her tour of the new Museum of Modern Art building designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. The director's 'do, like her smart jacket and pants, is all black clean lines, a stark contrast to her white skin and burnished silver jewelry. She assesses the Ando building with the cool eye of a real estate developer.

"The building is 153,000 square feet," Delahanty recites. "The cost for construction, furniture, and fixtures is $65 million."

Roughly the same size planned for MAM. "If it's $60 million. If it's $70 million," Podhurst breaks in. "Whatever it's going to take [to build the new MAM]. It's got to be world class, otherwise no one will come to see it."

Speaking of world class, Delahanty flips through the MAM-generated booklet called A World-Class Vision for a World-Class City, lingering briefly over the stunning architectural achievement that is the waterfront Milwaukee Art Museum. Oops. What about museums like Milwaukee's that spent all the money on construction, then couldn't meet operating costs?

"We can learn from other people's lessons," Delahanty counters. "We're certainly not going to do something that will keep us off keel."

So how will MAM cover operating costs?

"Museum Park is a cog in an overall downtown development plan," Podhurst declares. "Issues such as parking and moving [Interstate] 395 [will depend on] the mayor's master plan. Mayor [Manny] Diaz in my opinion is a visionary person. So is Johnny Winton."

Does that mean there will be a high level of public funding?

"A large part will be private but some will be public," clarifies Podhurst. "This is not just going to be a [private] art museum. It will be open to the public. I want to be the opposite of an elitist -- what's the word?"

"Populist?" New Times suggests.

"Inclusive," Delahanty revises.

"Inclusive," Podhurst repeats, satisfied. "I want the fifth-grade underprivileged kid to have access to what they don't have access to. Not only the guy with the great art collection."

Okay, so what about the endowment?

"How big will the endowment be?" Podhurst asks himself. "As big as I can make it." Rather than quote dollar figures, Podhurst refers to the prominent community figures he has enlisted to head MAM's capital campaign: Ambassador Paul Cejas, Jorge Perez of the Related Groups, and pharmaceuticals tycoon Phil Frost, who has already committed money and his family name to FIU's new museum that will break ground next November.

"Whatever we need, we're going to get done and pledged," Podhurst promises. "Before you put a shovel in the ground you have got to get all the people who are able to contribute. Okay, Mr. Big Shot. How much is it going to be? I can't give you a certain price. What I am saying is the money is out there.

"Chicken or the egg?" he continues. "I don't know whether the building comes first, the endowment comes first, or the collection comes first. First you've got to get the piece of land."

And that land inspires the lawyer. He is talking faster and faster now; not waiting for any questions. "I think we're in the right place. This is the most beautiful piece of property left in the city. Green spaces with a sculpture garden. Nobody can tell me this is not going to be beautiful."

Delahanty nods vigorously: "It's gonna happen."

Upstairs in the New Work gallery at MAM, there is an enormous five-tiered house of cards reaching almost to the top of the ceiling, part of an installation called "A Place in the World." A construction scaffold surrounds the pyramid, with wooden ladders leading to platforms on either side of the structure. Tiny human figures, dwarfed by the oversized playing cards, mill about. One man, asleep on a platform, appears to be dreaming. The local Argentine artists who built the installation, Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt, refer to the structure with the Spanish turn of phrase, as a "castle of cards." Who knows if the castle will stay up or fly away?

MAM senior curator Peter Boswell sees Miami in the castle of cards. "It's not clear whether [the structure] is being built or on the verge of collapse," he writes in his gallery notes. "With little historical foundation on which to build, the permanence and viability of [Miami's] lofty dreams seem continually in doubt ... It is a place, for architects and artists, where buildings have much in common with dreams."


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