Thomas "Thom" Collins, new director of Miami Art Museum (MAM), has worked as an administrator, historian, educator, and author who has more than 15 years' experience running some of America's top museums. He has headed the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, where he helped plan construction of a $34 million facility designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid. Collins comes to Miami after five years at the helm of New York's Neuberger Museum, which specializes in 20th-century contemporary and African art. We recently caught up with Collins at MAM's construction site and spoke about his plans to bring the institution to life.
New Times: You have taken the reins at MAM at an interesting time, just when the shovels are about ready to meet the dirt for a new building downtown. The Herzog & de Meuron-designed building has come to represent our community's aspirations for Miami's cultural growth. Are plans still on track?
Thomas Collins: At the new Museum Park site, the necessary environmental remediation and site regrading are currently underway. The best view is from the adjacent causeway. Site preparation is scheduled to be completed by the end of October, and then construction work on the new museum building will begin shortly after. With this on the near horizon, we hope to announce a formal groundbreaking event shortly — once we can coordinate the calendars of the many people who helped make this happen and need to be present. The building should be completed in late 2012 and will open to the public in early 2013. So the short answer: The project is very much on track.
What are your impressions of Miami so far? Have you settled in, or are you still in the process of moving?
I suppose I've been most struck in my first month as a resident by the way in which the extraordinary diversity of the population is really legible in the discrete buildings and neighborhoods that make up the physical fabric of the city and county. This phenomenon is more pronounced in Miami than in any other U.S. city I know. What I haven't yet discovered or explored are those spaces in the city where diverse subpopulations come together to share new ideas and experiences, to engage in meaningful dialogue and debate. Given the fact that we hope to explore the potential of the new MAM to be just such a progressive social forum — in addition to its more traditional functions — this is an informal research challenge I've set for myself.
Have you had a chance to take in the Wynwood arts crawl or to conduct studio visits with local artists?
In my first month in Miami, I've made a point of getting the general lay of the land in Wynwood and other neighborhoods with a visible community of artists, gallerists, and collectors. But not surprisingly, August wasn't a great month to connect directly with too many people here. That comes next. In every city in which I've ever lived and worked, I've found my personal connections to cultural producers of all kinds, as well as to those who support and promote them, to be as stimulating and sustaining as any of the more formal aspects of my work as curator and arts administrator. And Miami is a city with an extraordinary wealth of genuinely talented working artists, smart and interesting galleries and nonprofit arts spaces, and cutting-edge private collections, many generously made open to the public. So I'm enthusiastic about getting started. I'm working through the networks I already have in order to put itineraries together, but suggestions are welcome.
MAM currently has an exhibit featuring homegrown talent. Will the museum continue expanding its support of Miami talent under your watch? Do you plan to work with local curators and artists to organize future shows?
Like many people in the art world, I know Miami principally as a visitor to Art Basel — and in my experience, that hasn't been the best way to get a sense of the richness of the local arts scene. So I was really knocked out by the "New Work Miami" exhibition currently on view at MAM. There is a variety, critical and formal novelty, international perspective, and uniform quality to the art in the show that would do a larger city with a higher profile proud. This is really promising and suggests to me that there is potential for a much more dynamic relationship between MAM and Miami-based visual artists. Our new Museum Park facility will also allow us to collaborate more actively with local artists working in time-based arts such as film, dance, music, and theater, and I'm a big fan of interdisciplinary work.
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You are well steeped in the social history of art. Did the opportunity to take the museum to the next level in a community as diverse and young as Miami influence your choice to move here from New York?
For sure. I believe art that weds novel forms to important ideas has a unique power to impact the way individuals think and behave; thus it has the power to catalyze ameliorative social change. Because Miami is a city that looks now — socially, politically, economically — like many other cities will look in the not-too-distant future, MAM has a special opportunity to model a substantially new, community-engaged museum practice that would become a model for other North American museums.
We often spy MAM curators haunting lunch dives, such as El Cacique, across the street from the museum and chugging shots of Cuban coffee. Have you had a chance to visit our local Latin restaurants? Do you have a favorite yet?
I'll eat anything, anywhere — just as long as I don't have to cook it myself. So far, the Miami restaurant scene has been a great treat.