Terence Riley on Why There's Still No Miami Art Museum

Six years ago, county voters gave the Miami Art Museum $100 million to build a new home at Bicentennial Park. There were no specifics on the ballot, or timelines, but in the flush times of the early '00s, it was another one of those "Sounds good and why not" votes.

The new museum would be a cultural avatar on the bay, backers said, Miami's Sydney Opera House, and it would revitalize a part of downtown that had gone unused for decades. But nearly $20 million later, the project is already two years behind schedule and short on cash.

This week's Metro story is the first to chronicle the major obstacles the new museum faces before it actually gets that fabled new home.The take on the Miami Art Museum is that its problems began when prickly director Terence Riley resigned last October.

But Riley, the man the Miami Herald once unsarcastically called Mr. MAM, is just roadkill in this pileup. Speaking in February from his snazzy minimalist office in Wynwood, Riley says he resigned when he realized the building on the bay would take longer to build than he had originally anticipated.

"Under ideal circumstances, I would have stayed and seen the project through," says Riley, wearing khaki pants and a roomy navy blazer, looking schlubbier than the Rottweiler in power suits he's reputed to be. "But from any objective perspective, it's more complex politically than virtually any other project I'm aware of."

What made the circumstances "not ideal"? Here's part of what the story finds out: For starters, there's the money. The county manager reported two weeks ago that only $30 million has been raised for the construction of the new building, not $45 million like the museum had said before. Half of that is in pledges that might not materialize.

In other cities, trustees might have come to Riley's aid. But some trustees were dubious of his reputation from the beginning. Pamela Garrison, a trustee who left the board in 2008 and the wife of millionaire R. Kirk Landon, called Riley "a strong personality." Ella Fontanals-Cisneros also was "not a happy camper," says David Lawrence, former publisher of the Miami Herald and an ex-trustee. In toto, nine trustees left the board in two years, including Fontanals-Cisneros, who took her $5 million pledge with her. Motormouth local collector  Marty Margulies also questions whether the museum's trustees are truly committed to the project. They have to raise only $10,000 a year, where, as Margulies points out in his Brooklyn drawl, "If you gave $5 million in New York, you'd look like a schlep." 

For a museum in transition, to lose that many trustees and a director, is "troubling," says art world wise man and NYU professor Pepe Karmel. In October, the risks were so high for Riley that originally he wanted to disengage himself entirely from the museum. "There's a pretty long list of directors who've probably ruined their careers getting involved in a building program," he says. "It could be career tragedy."

But Aaron Podhurst, chairman of the board and the lawyer who represented Elián González's crazy Miami relatives, persuaded Riley to stay as a consultant. Neither man would discuss Riley's new salary, and it's not available in their financial audits, but we guess it's only a step down from the $345,000 he was pulling in before his resignation. "MAM is still my biggest client," Riley says.

The report from County Manager George Burgess's office is here. Our story is here.