Miami Art Museum in Bicentennial Park: "It'll never happen"

It's Election Day, November 13, 2001. Most people in Miami are focused on the mayor's race. Newcomer Manny Diaz has just defeated dinosaur Maurice Ferre. But at a party with a few staffers, Miami Art Museum director Suzanne Delehanty is celebrating the victory of an obscure $255 million bond issue on the ballot. Gleefully, the almond-eyed 65-year-old raises her glass to a hootin' and hollerin' crowd.

"This is the first step," she says, "toward the dream for a museum at Bicentennial Park."

More than eight years later, the new museum is still little more than a promise. Despite nearly $20 million in taxpayer dollars spent on planning and design fees, the project is at least two years behind schedule. Terence Riley, who followed Delehanty as director and whom the Miami Herald once unironically called Mr. MAM, is gone. So are nine trustees who have left the board in the past two years; among the departed is grand dame Ella Fontanals Cisneros, who had planned to contribute $5 million. And County Manager George Burgess recently reported that half the $30 million raised for construction is in pledges. These could vanish because of the recession.

"It'll never happen," art collector Marty Margulies says. "That's the pattern of public facilities here. They started building with no money, so they'll come to the county to pony up the money. That's what happened with the Arsht Center, which was [supposed to cost] $240 million and turned out to be $400 million."

MAM first opened in 1986 as an exhibition space called the Center for the Fine Arts. It was part of the $25 million beautification project known as the Metro-Dade Cultural Center. The faux-Mediterranean plaza was designed by the father of the skyscraper, Philip Johnson. Like the other civic projects that were finished then — the James L. Knight Center and county government complex — the plaza was supposed to revitalize downtown Miami and save the city from the pall of race riots that plagued the area in those years.

From the beginning, its small size caused problems. There was no permanent collection, and large exhibits wouldn't fit in its 34,000 square feet. Local collectors generally chose to open their own galleries-cum-museums, such as Margulies's the Warehouse. That has happened so often here — the Rubells, de la Cruzes, and others have opened private spaces — that art critic Tyler Green last year dubbed it "the Miami model."

Not until 2001, the year before Art Basel Miami Beach was born, did voters approve cash for a new, larger museum. Diaz had stumped for a county-funded museum, and city Commissioners Arthur Teele and Johnny Winton, who'd failed to land a stadium at Bicentennial Park, argued a museum could revitalize the area. Voters responded by approving $3.5 million of the $255 million bond for that purpose.

Three years later, an overwhelming majority of residents approved more cash, $553 million, to "construct and improve cultural facilities." One hundred million dollars of that bond would be allocated for a new Miami Art Museum. Plans stated the museum would open in 2011. Backers would raise $75 million in private funds.

Riley, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was hired in 2006 to lead the Miami effort. One sign of his importance to the project was the annual salary: $345,000, almost $100,000 more than that of the county mayor. Riley had abruptly left MoMA after its expansion was complete, and he had a reputation for being difficult. Pamela Garrison, a trustee who left the board in 2008, calls Riley "a strong personality."

At his office in the Wynwood Art District, Riley says he quickly realized he would have many overlords while developing the new MAM. "It was more politically complex than any other project I'm aware of," he says. He would have to please the City of Miami, which owned the land; the county, which controlled the public cash; and dozens of prickly donors.

In late 2008, when the economy began to crater, the museum cut its $6.5 million operating budget by 10 percent. Salaries were sliced, three staffers were laid off, and exhibits were cut back. The planned opening date for the new building was then delayed until 2012, audits show. Capital fundraising also stalled.

This past October, just a few days after unveiling the new museum's lush design by pricey Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron — which also designed the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing — Riley abruptly resigned.

"It's a big deal to lose a director," says New York University professor Pepe Karmel. "The director is not only the manager of a project like that, he's the primary cheerleader. In a museum in transition, it's much more of a crisis."

In December, Cisneros followed, taking with her not only her daughter, Mariela, who was also a trustee, but also her $5 million pledge. [email protected], a popular partnership between the Cisneros Foundation and the museum to show the work of Florida artists, also disappeared. Among the other trustees who left were Garrison, the wife of millionaire collector R. Kirk Landon; George Lindemann, the Palm Beach billionaire who's on the Forbes list of richest Americans; and Lori Ferrell, the widow of lawyer Milton Ferrell, who counted among his clients billionaire Victor Posner and the governments of Oman and Saudi Arabia.

They were replaced by nine new trustees, including embattled Jackson Memorial CEO Eneida Roldan. None are collectors, Margulies points out.

After the exodus, a new delay was announced. In February, Aaron Podhurst, chairman of the MAM board, said he anticipated the new museum would open in 2013.

MAM is one of many museums that have cut back or postponed expansion plans, says Janet Landay, head of the Association of Museum Directors in Washington, D.C. MAM faces a crisis similar to that of the Cleveland Museum of Modern Art, which has been through four directors since its renovation began in 1999 and is millions of dollars over budget. There are a few key differences, though: that museum has an already established collection and an endowment valued at $600 million.

Finding a new director won't be easy. There are 13 directorships open across the nation; among them are plum locales such as the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Carlos Gimenez is concerned. He's pondering whether the project should be downsized. "The county has approved nearly $7 million in funds for this year, in addition to the museum's $5 million-per-year budget," he says. "When the performing arts center went over budget, and private donations didn't pan out, the county ended up footing the bill. I'm trying to avoid a repeat."

Board chairman Podhurst is more sanguine. He's been a project leader for nearly a decade. A lanky lawyer still practicing at age 73, Podhurst argues that trustee turnover is fairly common. Finding a director? The museum has already formed a committee. Money problems? It's difficult to fundraise for everybody right now. "We are poised to finish the building," he says. "I believe that when we put our shovels in the ground, we'll raise the cash."