Earlier this month, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) announced that it would be getting a permanent home in the Design District. The initial report outlined the ICA's close ties to Norman and Irma Braman -- billionaires who are locally as famous for their seemingly infinite number of car dealerships as they are infamous for recalling mayors -- who touted that the museum wouldn't sell naming rights or take a single penny of taxpayer money.
Braman reiterated his commitment to privately funding the ICA and threw a few more punches in PAMM's direction in a New York Times profile published last week. The Times write up is, perhaps, the ultimate signifier that the Bramans have arrived as major players on the international arts scene. But it also hints at a broader problem in the Miami museum scene, namely the deep disinterest Miami's millionaires have in investing in public arts institutions.
The Times piece is worth a read if only because Braman's position signals a broad disinterest in public-private partnership among the city's elite. The Bramans wouldn't be the first billionaires to shy away from donating to a museum that bears the name of another billionaire. Philanthropy can often be a competitive sport; it's why museums have entire staffs to court that kind of money. Losing that game was the risk Miami took when it slapped Jorge Pérez's name on a publicly-funded museum.
But the Bramans' near-blank check to the I.C.A, raises larger questions about the future of Miami's museums. Namely, what happens when a museum is solely the playground of the wealthy? The answer looks somewhat like the MOCA looked under the board that migrated to the present day ICA: a museum devoid of education and enrichment programs for the community in which it operates, a situation that inevitably creates tension between the wealthy patrons and those who live underserved by the museum next door.
And perhaps what's so frustrating about the lack of funds for public institutions is that Miamians are clearly supporting the Pérez. The Times notes that "While the Pérez's attendance and museum membership have exceeded initial projections -- its endowment stands at $14 million, well below its target of $70 million." But ticket sales and memberships are the domain of the middle-class. Ticket sales don't keep museum doors open, endowments do. The Pérez has a hard sell - museums are expensive to run and it's those who can't afford to endow a museum who are most impacted by its closure. The wealthy can simply jet-set to another city. Look, for example, at Art Basel.
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Enter billionaires who can afford to foot the very big bill. And in Miami, privately funded museums with little to no input from a broader public are a fixture in the landscape: the Rubell and the recently announced Latin American Museum of Art, to name a few. This isn't to suggest that building a museum is a bad thing, but it is troubling whenever a major metropolitan area cedes a monopoly on its art and the often dissident ideas it can generate.
"What's success all about? What's philanthropy all about?" Braman asked rhetorically while laying out his philanthropic philosophies for the Times, "Let's think of our legacy, following in the footsteps of some great Americans like the Carnegies and the Mellons who used their wealth for quality purposes." Braman's invocation of the Carnegies and Mellons is interesting; both famous families made heavy investitures in arts and cultural institutions after unethically amassing fortunes. The robber barons of the early twentieth century were purchasing cultural capital and, as major patrons, had the financial power to determine what kind of art should and shouldn't be displayed. Think of how the Rockefellers wielded this power when they destroyed an offending Diego Rivera mural.
And though public museums have their own set of issues, they are more independent and thus generally freer to exhibit challenging, politically-charged work. But for now wealthy Miamians don't seem to have the taste for public museums (or at least for the Pérez). "The wealth in Miami, by and large, is used more for self-aggrandizement than civic support," developer Lang Baumgarten told the Times, "I wish the real money would step up to the plate."