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margulies versus the expand-o-mam

Post #323 • July 15, 2004, 6:40 AM • 13 Comments

Übercollector Marty Margulies pans the whole Museum Park idea in South Florida CEO Magazine and tries to take down the Miami Art Museum with it.

...we are giving away $50 million in land value on a bayfront public park and funding hundreds of millions of dollars in new construction for MAM an art museum without an art collection, that has failed both in its mission and financial responsibilities. Where is the public or cultural mandate for such folly?

Lobbyists and public relations efforts have equated a MAM building in Bicentennial Park with the Metropolitan Museum in Central Park. Such a comparison is absurd. The Met is surrounded by 830 acres in the heart of Manhattan; it has a world-renowned collection, an endowment, a philanthropic base, and is an international cultural resource. MAM has none of these things. Although four of the 200 top art collectors in the world live in Miami, none of them are on the MAM board. Shouldn't that tell us something about this misguided museum?

MAM has a collection. One can argue that it's not great, but not that it doesn't exist.

MAM's mission, according to its mission statement, is "to exhibit, collect preserve and interpret international art with a focus on the art of the Western Hemisphere from the 1940s to the present." They have done this. I often don't agree with their choices in the process of their doing so, but to say that they have failed their own mission requires evidence that I don't see in Margulies's article. Neither do I see evidence of MAM's failing its fiscal responsibilities.

There are not 830 acres of anything in Miami and pointing out the disparity in area between Bayfront Park and Central Park does not convince me that the city shouldn't go forward with the new facility. If building a new museum requires possession of a Met-level collection, no one will build one ever again. That the museum has no endowment or philanthropic base I am not in a position to evaluate. I question whether MAM could ever become an "international resource" in its present facility.

The rhetorical question at the end of the second paragraph merits extra analysis. Margulies, the Scholls, the Rubells, and the de la Cruzes all indulge in the local vogue of showing - or showing off - their private collections to the public. My own theory is that this is an anamolous manifestation of the one-upmanship endemic to collecting. Whether I'm right or not, it's clear that MAM has nothing to offer these people in terms of exposing their art. They're already doing it themselves. Personally, my pride would get a little more of a zing if I could show my collection in my own facility than if it were sitting in a museum. I think these collectors are working towards creating Frick-like entities for themselves.

There are legitimate reasons that Museum Park should not be built with public money, and Margulies hits the biggest one: the Miami Performing Arts Center is a catastrophe of mismanagement and the same politicians will be in charge of building the Expand-o-MAM. I feel that similar disaster will be averted only if private monies are used to build it.

His other points, namely:

  • Our schools are falling apart.
  • Thousands of children do not have health insurance.
  • Our neighborhood parks are considered the worst in the country.
  • Community centers and health clinics are non-existent or severely lacking funds.
  • Many public housing units are unlivable.

...presuppose that these problems would be addressed if only all that cash wasn't headed towards the Expand-o-MAM instead. To which I reply, yeah, right. No significant political or private will exists to solve them. To put it another way, these issues have neither an endowment nor a philanthropic base. Furthermore, this line of thinking is the old life-trumps-art fallacy: that art isn't important compared to the "real" problems in the world and we should only deal with the former once the latter are addressed. The fallacy is that the "real" problems never go away, and funding cultural initiatives (or even just continuing to make art) in spite of this is a decent idea.

In light of the MPAC debacle as a potential precedent, I'm not going to get behind the Expand-o-MAM as a public work until it comes with a realistic price tag and a robust set of protections against the waste of money. But besides this, the only things less convincing than the arguments in support of Museum Park are the arguments against it. I can only wonder, in the face of the assertions, how much of the conflict between the two sides on this issue is based on personal ambitions and personal animosities.

Comment

1.

alesh

July 15, 2004, 2:43 PM

I struggle with this myself. The TWO big museums planned for the park would be great for Miami. From a libertarian perspective, the government has no business building this stuff, and I find the 'social problems are more important' argument much more persuasive then Franklin.

On the other hand, the government has piles of cash specifically dedicated to building stuff that will grow the economy and increase tourism, and if they can spend it on coliseum/theaters (I count 6 major ones in the immediate area of downtown(!!)), why not a couple of museums? The only other alternative for that space seems to be to turn it into a real public park; the museums seem like a much much better use of the space at this point.

That said, I find Margulies' position pretty fascinating. It seems against his interest artistically in that the museum would make Miami yet more respected as a global art center, which would seem to raise the profile of his own collection. From a financial perspective, it would raise property values in the area, where he's forever building stuff, and presumably make him that much richer.

Unless I'm missing something, he's standing up for convictions that go against his considerable self-interest. (He can't possibly think the city would ever let him build a condo on that space, right??) That, I think, makes his position very worthy of note.

2.

oldpro

July 15, 2004, 3:46 PM

I agree with Alesh that, on the face of it, as presented here by Franklin at least, Margulies apprears to have a disinterested point of view. Whether he does have anything to gain may be less important than the failures he points to, which, even if overstated, are considerable. Usually when controversies like this erupt there are two primary problems. One is incompetence and venality. The other is not having a clear picture of what is the right thing to do and why. The first seems endemic here in Miami. The second, from what I can see, has never been done. Broadly speaking, under these circumstances, Margulies has a strong point no matter how he presents it.

3.

Jack

July 15, 2004, 10:13 PM

I don't pretend to be an authority on all the ins and outs of this project, but I am extremely leery of it for various reasons. The potential for serious financial malfunction is quite high, and I simply don't trust interested parties telling me that they'll avoid that somehow. I have never been especially impressed with MAM, and their collection is very modest, to say the least. They're asking for a facility that they simply don't merit and haven't earned. I smell overweening ambition, among other unpleasant odors. If MAM wants such a monumental concession, let them prove that they deserve it--and simply saying they do, no matter how often or how vociferously, won't cut it.

4.

Franklin

July 16, 2004, 2:42 AM

Jack - what would demonstrate to you that they deserved it?

5.

alesh

July 16, 2004, 2:55 AM

I don't understand the part of the argument that goes, the MAM has a lousy collection, therefore it shouldn't get a new building.

The quality of the collection is a function, among other things, of the organization's age and budget. Anyone can argue with particular purchasing decisions, but that strikes me as silly - I'm sure anyone could disagree with some of the stuff the MOMA has, for example. But they spend tons of money, and so they have lots of amazing stuff, too.

If we give the MAM lots of money every year for a century or so it'll end up with a decent collection, too.

Incidentally, I'm not sure it makes sense to talk about the MAM 'proving they deserve' this or that. The MAM is OUR institution. We the people pay for it, and we the people have a say (albeit indirectly) about how it's run. If we're unhappy with how the MAM is being run it's our own fault.

But I think this is all a separate issue of whether we need a new building. One could very well hold that the MAM is being run lousy, and that we need a new building and new management.

I happen to disagree with the former and agree, with reservations, with the latter.

6.

Jack

July 16, 2004, 3:48 AM

Well, Franklin, for starters, I want to see much more attention paid to building a better collection and putting on better shows than getting a new facility, which seems to be their all-consuming passion. In other words, when they do a significantly better job with and in their current facility, then, and only then, should they ask for a new one (for which they're not currently good enough, in my opinion). I'm still disgusted with their blatantly self-serving "museum architecture" show at Basel time. If that's the best they could do for such an occasion, i.e., glorified PR, why should I respect them? As I said, their building lust seems overpowering.

MAM needs to get the local big-money collectors on board, for purely practical reasons if nothing else, and if the current management has alienated them, then the management may need to be changed. The institution needs those collectors more than it needs its current management, even if we're just talking money/acquisitions. It may be crass, but where is it going to get the resources to build up the collection with prices being what they are? Taxpayers? I don't think so.

My point is MAM does not have enough to show for itself to justify what they're asking for, which is a very great deal. Let them try harder.

7.

Michael Betancourt

July 16, 2004, 6:01 AM

If we assume that the museum exhibit was done in good faith, rather than in bad faith (ie. self-serving and only PR), then we could say that MAM is trying to justify their existence in an otherwise hostile city. Margulies' comments and those of people here make me wonder if MAM is getting dismissed, not for putting on "bad" shows, but for putting on divisive shows of local artists in their project room.
Who should MAM be showing to get a "good show" response?

8.

Phil Isteen

July 16, 2004, 6:41 AM

I go to the MAM regularly, and enjoy it frequently.

In the interim, before a new building starts,
they can expand their collection into the PAC.
The PAC can become the Performing and Visual
Arts Center.

Isn't there space the Philharmonic won't be using?

9.

no

July 16, 2004, 3:43 PM

No the shows are bad first. They are presented badly and then one notices the bad art within them. This goes for the collection too.
Do they still have that nasty carpet on the second floor?? every time I go I want to puke on it.

10.

Kathleen

July 16, 2004, 9:06 PM

MAM does not currently have enough space to continue building its collection; they have no room to store additional works.

The Museums for a New Milleneum show was created by the Art Centre Basel, not by MAM, and put on the schedule about five years ago, before they even started with the Bicentennial Park thing, although I'm sure that they were already keen on a new space--most everyone associated with MAM has been keen on a new space since it's inception. As an aside, the recent show called Between Art and Life was the first show curated by Peter Boswell (the senior curator) to be exhibited since he arrived here in Miami to work for MAM (maybe 1998-ish?); the reason is because they plan so far in advance.

In addition to a lack of room to store works, the building was designed poorly (by Phillip Johnson, at the outset); there is some problem getting large scale works into the building, for example.

As for the funding of the project, the General Ordinance Bond will cover the majority of the construction at no additional cost to the Miami-Dade County taxpayers. Other entities which will be recieving money from the GOB (assuming we all vote to approve it!) include the Parks Department (recreation for the peeps!), the Water and Sewer Department (infrastructure for the peeps!), the Miami MetroZoo (lavish new exhibits for the animal peeps!), etc. The reason it will not cost the taxpayers any additional money is because the Decade of Progress bond which was issued in the eighties, and which went to pay for such things as Metrorail, was recently paid off, and the County can assume another bond without incurring any additional cost. If we do not vote to approve the GOB, the extra money we gain will not necessarily be put back into our communities or into the creation of jobs; it might go to pay the cost of lawsuits for various construction boondoggles ; ) (whereas the GOB must be used for infrastructure and facilities improvements, I believe). I think the money MAM needs to raise is, for the most part, for endowment.

Crappy construction administration on the Performing Arts Center is not indicative of future crappy construction administration on the Bicentennial Park project. Performing Arts Centers are tricky projects. The organization, location and quality of the design and construction managment team are the true indicators. As MAM and the County are painfully aware, a big-name architect does not necessarily make for a good building. But lets imagine that instead of Pelli or Johnson, the Museum Park complex gets an awsome Architect and Design team--it can happen, and being afraid it might happen is not a good enough reason to not try. What can productively be done with the fear of a construction boondoggle is to lobby the county for the selection of a good design team, to advocate for good program management, and to have some sort of citizen's watch to help ensure that cronyism doesn't affect the selection or awards process.

I don't know why certain collectors are not on the MAM board, but I'm not sure it matters. Franklin has a good point about the local collectors' own exhbition strategies.

As excellent as the local collections are, I'm not sure that they can match MAM's impact culturally ; a good art museum has an audience much larger than the art community; it is for all people, and in MAM's case they have an amazing outreach and education program. This summer alone their outreach program will touch 5,000 children from all areas of Miami-Dade County (through the parks system). MAM is also strongly associated with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, bussing thousands of kids annually to give them tours of the exhibits and providing curriculum resource guides to all teachers who bring thier kids through the program and also to any other teacher who asks. A new museum can provide MAM with better facilities for children's and educational prgrams; right now, all they have is the Auditorium/Library.

MAM has done a great job of meeting their mission statement, as far as acquisitions for the permanent collection go. The permanent collection has historically important works (such as Boite en Valise, among others) which help the novice get a handle on the developments in Europe and NYC which set the stage for contemporary art. The permanent collection also has works which are geographically and culturally relevant to our location ( a lot of Cuban, and Latin American works)--and they have a good number of works by local artists in the permanent collection. MAM's collection illustrates both the history of art and the history of our region; MAM is the arts institution which best speaks to our entire community.

As a longtime volunteer MAM docent, I've had the opportunity to see MAM's effect on the non-arts community, and it tends to be profound. The community sees themselves in the collection, and the art-historical context which MAM's collection provides is invaluable to planting the seed of appreciation of contemporary art in those who previously were of the "my-kid-could-do-that" mentality.

The need for MAM to have a new space is greater than our local art community's need to feel relevant in the face of the greater art world and it is greater than the fractious side-lining arguments proffered by various local personalities.

I'm sorry this post is so long; I had a lot to say.

11.

oldpro

July 17, 2004, 1:04 AM

Kathleen: your comments are clearly hearttfelt and to the point, and I suppose the debate will go on. I don't know enough to comment at length. But when I go to the next page in this blog I see in the "Round up" a Street review of a show at MAM of decals and stickers by a Brazilian artist that is embarrassing to read - for the content, not the writing, for once. They've just got to do better than this.

12.

that guy in the back row

July 17, 2004, 4:57 AM

Yeah, if this is all Mam, expanding or otherwise, knows about art, I'd rather not have them touch my kids. The reason "outreach" programs are such a big deal for nonprofit types like MAM, is because they make their money that way. No not by charging the kiddies that would be like taking their lunch money. No (and please correct me if I'm wrong about this) outreach inflates attendance numbers which qualifies them for larger grant piles. It does not touch the kids as much as it cooks the books. And yes it looks like you have a heartfelt story their that tows the party line pretty good. As a docent you might not write or apply for grants but if you ask around a bit, you'll see.

13.

Jack

July 17, 2004, 10:14 PM

Kathleen, if the current MAM facility is so inadequate, it wasn't just poorly designed, it was a case of incompetence on the part of the architect(s) and, more significantly, the MAM staff. Why and how did that happen? Who's responsible? Is any responsible party still on the MAM staff, possibly among those actively soliciting for a new facility? The public has every right to know those things before considering giving MAM any new concession. When MAM answers those questions to my satisfaction, then I might be willing to reconsider my position. However, I'm not even remotely holding my breath.

As for the museum architecture show, regardless of when it was put on the schedule, I firmly believe the primary motive was to advance MAM's case for a new facility. That means it was still glorified PR, not a show done primarily to put the best possible art before the public, which is what MAM is supposed to be about. Yes, they can say it was a means to that end, ultimately, but what else can they say? We're still talking about a damn building, which to me is putting the cart before the horse.

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