4.4 / Miami

Miami and the Architecture of Display

By Renny Pritikin November 15, 2012

Image: Ernesto Neto. É, ô Bicho!, 2001; lycra tulle, polyamide tubes, hooks, turmeric, black pepper, and cloves; dimensions variable; installation view, the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, Miami. Courtesy of the Martin Z. Margulies Collection, Miami. Exterior, the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, Miami.

Conventional wisdom is that America is the place where people came to reinvent themselves and live out their fantasies. California became the consummate version of that phenomenon, with Hollywood in the south and bohemianism in the Bay Area to the north. Miami is the East Coast's California. Its art ecology has the usual range of institutions, from alternative venues, such as the lively Locust Projects, to small museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (MOCA) and the Bass Museum of Art, to growing major museums, most notably the Miami Art Museum (MAM). But in addition, it has an unusual array of private museums as well as popular and odd tourist sites. While the phenomenon of Art Basel Miami Beach and its concurrent art fairs has brought enormous and unanticipated attention to contemporary art in South Florida, there is an equally interesting regional history that offers insight into American traditions of independent collections and the architecture of display.

Well known in contemporary art circles is something often referred to as the "Miami model," which refers to private museums founded and run by extremely wealthy individuals to exhibit their own collections. In Miami, these places perform many of the functions that traditional museums usually do: they hold lecture series, host school-group tours, lend work to other museums, organize exhibitions, and even commission artists to make work. The key difference is that the private museums accomplish all this activity without the level of professional infrastructure deemed essential by most standard museums. Such infrastructure includes registrars, collection managers, security, publicists, education departments, development departments, et al. In this way, they can be understood as fantastically well-endowed alternative spaces, which are long known for doing more with less.

What the Miami private museums lack in personnel, they make up for in square footage. The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse and the Rubell Family Collection/Contemporary Arts Foundation each have forty-five thousand square feet of exhibition space. Both buildings have almost no natural light, as opposed to the sunlight-drenched de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space, with its new three-story, thirty-thousand-square-foot facility. The Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) has a relatively modest remodeled warehouse of some ten thousand square feet of galleries. For comparison, the New Museum, in New York, has thirteen thousand square feet of galleries; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco, has ten thousand square feet, and the UC Berkeley Art Museum has thirty-one thousand square feet of exhibition space. With the exception of the Rubell Family Collection and the Margulies Collection, these museums offer free admission to the public. Their street facades are not quite as public; the collections are housed largely in anonymous, out-of-the-way warehouses with little or no signage.

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Once entered, they are standard, impeccably installed contemporary art museums, where visitors are free to have self-guided, wall-labeled viewing experiences. The Margulies Collection in particular is housed in a kind of improvised, Winchester Mystery House series of warehouse additions, where doorways and turns take you to unexpected discoveries of vast spaces and dramatically installed work. This visitor stumbled on what must surely be the largest Ernesto Neto sculpture ever made, as well as the permanently installed work by Michael Heizer, elevated surface depressed (1968–81). This sculpture consists of three huge boulders, displayed in a line, on identically sized rectangle surfaces, one below ground, one on the ground, one slightly elevated; very few museums could accommodate such a project. Margulies's collection of 4,500 objects, worth many hundreds of millions of dollars, is intended to emphasize seminal works by seminal artists of our time. Margulies is a leading American entrepreneur, and his collection reflects a desire to have a concomitantly elite selection of art.

The Wolfsonian-FIU is located in a former storage warehouse in Miami Beach. In fact, it was the warehouse in which Mitchell Wolfson Jr. kept his vast design collection of 120,000 objects of material culture made between 1885 and 1945. In 1986, when it was decided that the collection would be donated to Florida International University and a public museum would be created, seven additional years were needed to merely organize the objects. The warehouse was a 1927 Mediterranean Revival building, itself worthy of the collection, and it was deemed simpler and easier to buy the storage facility and convert it than to move the collection. The Wolfsonian opened in 1995.

Entering the huge, dark building from the bright sunshine, you experience a certain heaviness in the built structure, as though you can sense the out-of-scale, multistory concreteness of the thing. In front of you, down a narrow entranceway, is a modest and slightly jarring indoor fountain in Art Deco style. The elevator to the galleries, also redone in transparent plastic retro style, is a hoot. Two floors of displays feature dozens of memorable objects, including an ornate Art Nouveau pillar from the Independent Subway System (IND) in New York and a silvered, skyscraper-inspired public scale with "Step On It" printed on the footpad.

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Joseph Sinel. Height and Weight Meter, circa 1927; metal, chrome plate, paint, glass, rubber, iron; 72.5 x 18 x 5.5 ft. Courtesy of the Wolfsonian Museum - Florida International University, Miami.

One whole floor is dedicated to American electioneering, including a video compilation of selected campaign commercials from the inception of the television age, supported in a side gallery by cases of print materials from the first half of the twentieth century. None of the election material brings credit to itself by way of truthfulness. This last point is essential to the Wolfsonian's approach.

The museum not only celebrates the design from 1885 to 1945—the height of the Industrial Age, to the end of World War II—it also makes the argument that design participates in the ideological tempests of its day, and not just through acquisitive materialism. Design not only reflects political and cultural change but also acculturates the general public to governmental and corporate propaganda. The various elements that come together to form this museum mirror and subtly change the strategies of other regional colleagues. Like the Margulies and Rubell facilities, the Wolfsonian's building is a remodeled industrial one; like all the institutions discussed here, the museum is the product of one person's visionary passion to fashion a statement about what is important in the built world. It is open to the public, but the Wolfsonian, like the Rubell Family Collection, has an admission charge. Like the other museums, it is also an excessively dense visual experience. I asked their young assistant curator, Matthew Abess, how he sees the Wolfsonian in the context of the Miami community. He replied, in part,

As the Wolfsonian does hold a significant collection of rather exceptional (if often outré) fine art, it should not be set entirely apart from that facet of South Florida's cultural environment. Nevertheless, it is more of a kind in spirit with places...[that] bear witness to a range of subjectivities that somehow landed in this barely habitable region and through the means at their disposal...sought to bring some dream or vision to bear on the actual lived environment.... The Wolfsonian stands as a reminder that these feats of reform and persuasion are always and everywhere around us.... The collection is something of a meeting place for diverse cultural legacies and forms, whether artistic, artifactual, sociopolitical, or otherwise. If the region is still very much a frontier, the Wolfsonian maintains an expeditionary attitude towards the substance of the world in which each of us lives.

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Ed Leedskalnin. Coral Castle, 1923-1951 (detail); coral rock; installation view, Homestead, FL. Courtesy of the Coral Castle Museum, Homestead, FL.

Sometime just following World War I, Latvian immigrant Ed Leedskalnin bought an acre of land in Florida City near Miami for twelve dollars. After an unhappy love affair he had come to America and drifted around, from Canada to California to Texas and finally to Miami. In Florida City, he began work on what became his life's project, what he called Rock Gate Park, now known as the Coral Castle Museum. Leedskalnin remained in Florida City until 1936, when encroaching development forced this very private man to relocate ten miles south to a more rural site, where he was able to purchase ten acres this time. The remarkable fact is that Leedskalnin—all five feet and one hundred pounds of him—moved hundreds of tons of coral sculpture to the new site in Homestead. He built walls, a two-story house, movable gates, and numerous sculptural elements all from the same porous white stone. Leedskalnin's style suggests Masonic iconography crossed with nostalgia for a domestic family life he never achieved. It's apparent that he had a good working knowledge of mechanics and leverage in order to place these immense blocks. There are still remnants of Model T and other automobile parts that were cleverly used as axles and hidden aids to smooth operation of his surprising turnstile-like walls, rocking chairs, and tables.

The Coral Castle is reached by a long drive from the freeway exit south on Old Dixie Highway, a dreary stretch of urban sprawl that must have been remote and unspoiled seventy-five years ago. The work is roadside-attraction modern; right off the street is a small parking lot from which visitors enter via an admission window inside a modest gift shop and café. Beyond that contemporary building is the Castle. The psychological mindset that it projects is the security of compounds, bunkers, or forts: a high thick wall surrounds a living area and a range of recreational and work sites that span an area comparable to a decent-size miniature golf course. It manifests a mildly paranoid intention to clear a space apart from the chaos and threat of the world, to isolate a quiet, controlled opportunity for the artist's eccentric noodling around. Because the walls are of the same material as the sculptures, the architecture is not a vessel for them so much as it is inseparable from them. While the same scale as the surrounding neighborhood of one-story white stores and homes, the Castle also wholly holds the outside world at arm's length.

No wandering is allowed through this outdoor site: an obligatory tour with a uniformed, megaphoned guide takes visitors through the museum. He or she describes an official narrative: Leedskalnin's biography and the backstory of the various objects on view. There is a free, eight-page photocopied brochure as well. The tour takes you to the twenty-five-foot-tall astronomical instrument that is focused on the North Star; a highly accurate sundial that offers the seasons as well as the hour; a sunbathing deck; and a range of massive towers, obelisks, baths, and the like, all carved from the same quarry still visible outside the wall and weighing as much as thirty tons each. Admission during Leedskalnin's lifetime ranged from a dime to a quarter, depending on whether he chose to answer the door and give a tour. His life savings of $3,500 in one hundred dollar bills was found hidden in his effects after he died in 1951. Willed to a nephew, the Castle was sold to an outside family in 1953. This early private family museum has been continuously open to the public ever since.

Leedskalnin's construction is one of a set of uniquely American oddball sites where visionary loners manifested their desire to make a mark on the land and leave something of themselves for posterity. These sites were mostly a phenomenon of the first half of the twentieth century, made by impoverished immigrants or native-born transient people who purchased small pieces of land in out-of-the-way places and worked them alone for decades. Small-scale tourism during their lifetimes resulted from the public's attraction to the strange architecture. In California, we have the Watts Towers, in Los Angeles, by Simon Rodia (born in Italy 1879 and died in 1965); Bottle Village, in Simi Valley, by Grandma Prisbrey (born in Minnesota in 1896 and died in 1988); and in Fresno, the Underground Gardens of Baldassare Forestiere (born in Sicily in 1879, died in 1946).

These places, like the Coral Castle, exist at one end of a spectrum of museum practice that is usually thought of as lesser or merely Americana. The way they have institutionalized is not exactly elite but is close in so many ways. They both mimic and mock Miami's private museums; they stand like Ozymandias, warning of the lesser fate that can ultimately undermine the ambitions and pretensions of either a visionary artist or a collector. For this visitor, the Wolfsonian is the place in town where one collector recognized that a focused historical pursuit of the profound, the beautiful and the banal could cumulatively form a portrait of not only a vanishing time but also of his soon-to-fade self. He possessed an inherent understanding that the evolution of museum practice is ongoing and its understanding and function can be a hall of mirrors.

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