Vote for Culture

Long before they lead the charge to annex more than half of Bicentennial Park, the good folks who run the Miami Art Museum should consider offering a master class on the art of political subterfuge. They are masters at it.

Not only did the museum's director and trustees persuade one of the area's toughest environmental groups to advocate constructing two massive buildings in Miami's last unadulterated waterfront park, they also managed to lure 57 percent of local voters into giving them an astounding $275 million to make it happen.

As a result of the November 2 passage of county bond issue #8, the Miami Art Museum stands to rake in $100 million while its partners in this caper -- the Miami Museum of Science and the Historical Museum of Southern Florida -- will reap a cool $175 million.

Museum administrators and their boards -- packed with real estate developers, attorneys, and other members of Miami's business elite -- had good reason to believe that if large numbers of voters were truly informed, a $275 million museum bond issue would fail. So with the help of key county officials, they crafted a stealthy, sneaky campaign. It worked like a charm.

For nine long years MAM director Suzanne Delehanty and her board of trustees have dreamed of building a big new facility. In 1995, soon after she was hired, Delehanty spent six months determining what museum supporters and other interested members of the public wanted from the institution, which at the time was a county-run outfit named the Center for the Fine Arts. The vision that emerged was of a collecting museum (rather than merely an exhibition space for traveling shows) that reflected Miami's role as a nexus between North and South America and which would be located on a site that could contain a sculpture garden.

Its location in the Miami-Dade Cultural Center in the heart of downtown, alongside the historical museum and the main library, was too small for those ambitions. (MAM is now independent, although it leases space from the county. One of the museum's biggest donors, the county contributes more than one million dollars per year.) In 1997 David Lawrence, then MAM board chairman and Miami Herald publisher, hired a planning firm to search for new sites. Bicentennial Park, one of the last open green spaces downtown, topped the list.

Meanwhile trustees at the science museum, confined to an old county-owned building across Bayshore Drive from Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, were also ready to bust out. But because their building is historic, that was impossible. A prestigious affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution in 2000 intensified the desire for expansion.

Mindful of the substantial political and financial clout wielded by museum trustees, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas brought the two institutions together. The museums' boards adopted a joint resolution in July 2000 to collaborate on a plan to build two new facilities in Bicentennial Park. Essential to that plan was the need for a private-public partnership with county government. "David Lawrence and I talked to Mayor Penelas and to county managers many times, telling them that Miami-Dade County needed a great art museum," says attorney and veteran Democratic Party operative Aaron Podhurst, who replaced Lawrence as MAM board chairman that year. "We got a lot of encouragement, but nothing firm."

The museums weren't alone in having designs on beleaguered Bicentennial Park. Florida Marlins owner John Henry was obsessed with having a publicly financed stadium built there. The Marlins' interest served the museums well. In February 2001, with opposition to Henry mounting, the Miami City Commission hired Dover, Kohl & Partners of Coral Gables to create a master plan for the 29-acre park. Part of the process was a design charrette, a gathering in which members of the public could have a hand in imagining the park's future. Some 350 ordinary citizens attended the daylong event at the Biscayne Bay Marriott Hotel. Under the guidance of Dover, Kohl, a number of large tables were spread around the meeting room, each accommodating a dozen or so volunteers and professional facilitators. Each table aimed to reach some kind of consensus regarding a redesigned Bicentennial Park. Large sheets of paper were used to sketch out ideas, which would be presented at the end of the session. Oddly, at each table one or more volunteers insistently proposed including the art and science museums in the park.

The museums had stacked the charrette.

"Participatory democracy -- it's a beautiful thing," MAM's lobbyist Dusty Melton says with a smile. "Clearly the charrette would be the defining moment in the planning process. Of course we [museum supporters] showed up in huge numbers. Why everyone else failed to do that, go ask them." And so when the charrette leaders gathered up the designs, all featured museums. The people had spoken -- apparently.

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen

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