4.4 / Miami

Your Name Here: Private Collections in Public Places

By Patricia Maloney November 14, 2012

Image: Glenn Ligon. America, 2008; neon sign and paint; ed. AP; 24 x 168 in. Collection of the Rubell Family. Courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Miami is a porous city across every imaginable boundary—cultural, ethnic, political, historical, even geographic. Its tropical climate and fusion of Latin, Caribbean, and European cultures make it feel like another country, a perception supported by the city’s frequent nickname as the “capital of Latin America.” The most evident boundaries are the water and the crisscross of freeways, including the causeways across Biscayne Bay that separate Miami Beach from the mainland. In the city of Miami, the divisions between neighborhoods are nebulous and architecturally inconsistent. The downtown area alone incorporates a spectrum of businesses and residences of such diverse scope and scale to thwart any sense of coherent identity: recent luxury high-rises along the bay stand adjacent to warehouse spaces that house nightclubs, studios, and art venues; the AmericanAirlines Arena, a venue for sports and entertainment, is near the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County; the Freedom Tower, the processing point for the Cuban refugees who arrived during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, anchors a decrepit shopping district. Its clearest boundary is to the west, where the railroad tracks separate downtown from the Overtown neighborhood, a historic district decimated when the I-95 overpass cleaved it. People now sleep under the overpass, and on several occasions I saw a man distributing food from pots placed in the back of his pickup truck. Roosters and chickens freely roam here.

My attempt to grasp the city’s cohesion was complicated by the distinction between the city proper and its fluidity with Miami-Dade County—frequently referred to by locals as either “Miami-Dade” or “The County.” The County includes numerous unincorporated areas, regions not governed by one municipality or another, and it was hard to wrap my head around the concept that some places don’t belong to anywhere in particular. This idea accentuated my prevailing sense that, despite the constraints of roads and water, it is impossible to hold a singular image of Miami. A psychological sense of wilderness still exists at the southern end of Florida, despite the dense population, as does the perception that one is better off staking one’s own territory than adopting a civic identity.1

The manifestations of this colonizing attitude are quickly evident. The performing arts center previously mentioned is but one example of how cultural institutions in Miami herald the munificence of a single individual by wrapping their identities in that of a donor’s. One attends the Arsht Center or the John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall for performances, and starting in 2013, one can visit the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County, formerly the Miami Art Museum (MAM), to view art.

Perhaps the most visible claims by individuals in Miami, at least for those who associate the city with its contemporary art offerings, are those of the private visual arts museums. The city is home to four: the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO), the de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space, the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, and the Rubell Family Collection/Contemporary Arts Foundation. In addition to these venues, Dennis and Deborah Scholl feature a rotation of their collection, including new commissions, at their exhibition space, World Class Boxing; Craig Robins features his collection at the offices for his real estate development company, the Dacra Corporation; and the collectors Dan and Kathryn Mikesell run the Fountainhead artist residency program and studios.

While many would argue that annual art fair Art Basel Miami Beach is the most significant catalyst in generating a contemporary art scene in the Miami area, it is these collections’ persistent presence and activities that publicly shape the region’s cultural climate for the visual arts. They exert an influence that the local, fledging museum institutions aspire to have; Dennis Scholl was only the first to mention to me that the collections are the more-established institutions, while the museums are trying to catch up. This is certainly true in terms of some collections’ scope and the scale of the buildings in which they are housed. (As Renny Pritikin notes in his article, the Margulies Collection, with over 4,500 works, and the Rubell Family Collection, with over 6,400 works, each occupy more than forty-five thousand square feet of exhibition space; their collections predate the Miami Art Museum’s.) The Miami art scene inverts conventional expectations of the hierarchy of players within the art world, or at least in major urban centers with numerous cultural institutions. Instead of collectors seeking validation from museums for their holdings, the public venues in Miami aspire to match the depth and scope of the private collections. One could infer that the recent controversial move on the part of MAM to rename the institution to honor a single donor, even in the face of $100 million in funding from the city, as confirmation of this aspiration. On the other hand, Miami-based museums are emerging or expanding during an era in which public art institutions are perceived to be democratic spaces of engagement and significant attention is being given to the concurrent educational initiatives that accompany their missions.

Anselm Kiefer-Sprache_der_Vogel

Anselm Kiefer. Sprache der vögel (Language of the Birds), 1989; lead, steel, wood, oil, plaster, resin, and acrylic; approx. 114 x 194 x 67 in. Collection of Martin Z. Margulies. Courtesy of White Cube, London

What this inversion prompts is an examination that seeks to correlate these private museums along the lines of that mission and ask to what extent they are required to emulate or fulfill it. In other words, what obligations do private museums have to be democratic spaces of engagement? A private collection in private hands viewed by invitation only is entirely subject to the whims of its owner and can be displayed in any arrangement or conditions the collector chooses, barring an artist’s instructions. How and why do those obligations change when an audience is created for the work? What contract do the collectors create with their audience, and are they obliged to perpetuate that contract beyond their own lifespans? Consider that, except for those collections for which nonprofit foundations have been created, the collectors can wholly withdraw the work from public view at any time. Further, they are not obliged to define the limits of the collection beyond their practice of collecting; unlike public institutions, these private museums are not required to produce scholarly research or to construct a holistic narrative that includes the aesthetic, cultural, historical, and economic frameworks or political ideologies that inform the work.

Although unfettered by institutional mandates, each of the private museums nevertheless emulates contemporary museological practices with limited infrastructure, resulting in hybrid experiences that veer between convention and eclecticism. With exceptions, they produce exhibitions that include wall labels and catalogues but have small curatorial staffs; tours are given but not by educators; there are large-scale, site-specific works but no full-time conservators; there are libraries but no archivists or librarians. Without critical curators operating as advocates for the artwork and educators working as advocates for the visitors, who or what do these institutions serve?

That last question gains traction when gauging the responses of local artists, presumably the most frequent audience of the private museums. Contrary to this assumption, few artists with whom I spoke admitted to spending any considerable time at these venues, an observation confirmed by one of the collections’ curators, who wished to remain anonymous. She noted that “the artists don’t see themselves—their work or their community—represented in the collections; they don’t feel embraced [by the collectors].” While Katherine Hinds, curator of the Margulies Collection, noted that local artist Antonia White received prominent placement in the collection’s 2011 installation, and the Scholls commissioned Miami-based artist (and LegalArt resident) Jillian Mayer to produce a video installation for World Class Boxing the same year, it was evident that Miami-based artists have a limited presence in these museums. What was occasionally intimated in responses to the question about collecting local artists was the extent to which their merit was gauged by their record of exhibiting elsewhere. One collector confided to me that part of their aspiration was to facilitate the development of local practices to be on par with the caliber of work in their collection.

As a result, I found resistance to and even resentment of the private museums on the part of local artists. Their comments were even caustic at times, dismissing the collections as unoriginal, characterized by attitudes such as “one-of-each, please” or “chasing the next flavor-of-the-month artist.” As with any conventional wisdom, one could find a kernel of truth in these statements. During my stay, a midcareer retrospective of the African American artist Rashid Johnson was on view at the Miami Art Museum; scorched wood and wax wall-based works by the artist were simultaneously on view at the de la Cruz and Rubell collections. And both of these collectors also each own work by the contemporary artists Mark Bradford, Aaron Curry, Mark Grotjahn, Glenn Ligon, and Sterling Ruby, among others.

Scratch below the surface of these observations, though, and a different story begins to emerge. Despite their overlap of artists, the collections possess singular identities, each reflective of and responding to the personal tastes of the owners, and radically different approaches to presenting their collections to the public.

One ascends from the clamorous, almost combative site-specific installations on the second floor of the de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space to the much more meditative installation on the third. This floor, whose arrangement rarely changes, includes comprehensive bodies of work by Gabriel Orozco, Felix Gonzales-Torres, César Trasobares, Jim Hodges, and Ana Mendieta. The last is separated from the other artists in the room by a small gallery containing photos, sculptures, and videos, including Untitled (Creek #2) San Felipe, Mexico (1974), in which the artist’s nude body floats in the water; the space feels like a small chapel. The installation points to the personal relationships between the artists and between the artists and the collectors; I lingered over a vitrine that includes snapshots, postcards, letters, and toys from Gonzales-Torres to Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz. Tucked in the far left corner are paired objects by Gonzales-Torres, Hodges, Trasobares, and Orozco that collectively pay homage to the de la Cruzes’ marriage.

I had first seen this installation on my visit during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2011, and it stuck in my mind, enough that I eagerly anticipated my return visit. On the Saturday afternoon I went back, I was the last visitor of the day and shared the


Ana Mendieta. Untitled (Creek #2), San Felipe, Mexico, 1974 (still); video. Collection of Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York and Alison Jacques Gallery, London.

room only with a young docent, who echoed my preference for this floor. Stopping by the offices on my way out, I was introduced to Rosa de la Cruz; our conversation quickly evolved into an impassioned one about repetition as a formal constraint in Torres’s work, which led to an exploration of ritual, performance, the Catholic concept of transfiguration, community, and even Gordon-Matta Clark’s Food restaurant. It was clear that her zeal for the work fueled a deep commitment to and investigation of the artists, a characterization that recurred through several of my conversations with the collectors.

On the morning I visited with Scholl at the Miami Beach condo he shares with his wife Debra, photographers were shooting the final works to be included in a catalogue for an upcoming loan exhibition of their collection. Our conversation was occasionally interrupted as Scholl gave instructions to the photographers or approved an image. The pauses gave me the opportunity to look around the living room at the work on view. Many of the artists were familiar, but not all; Scholl was pleased that I identified a tautly balanced concrete, wood, and thread sculpture prominently placed in the center of the room as one by Mitzi Pederson. The most mesmerizing works were some of their recent acquisitions: Australian Aboriginal dreaming paintings that could readily fit into a Western visual language of formalist abstraction but are deeply tied to the exercise of spiritual beliefs that create a continuum of time and space between the individual, one’s ancestors, and the land. There are many reasons to collect, and in hearing Scholl describe his obsessive process of researching, understanding, and finally acquiring these works, collecting for him was inextricable from absorbing the narrative and knowledge embedded in each work of art.

At the end of each year, just before Art Basel Miami, the Scholls invite an established curator to curate a selection from their collection of over one thousand artworks to install in their home. The Scholls do not consult on the selection or the installation, and the agreement is that they will live with the work for the entire following year. Dennis Scholl noted that the impetus for this annual intervention into their collection came about in part to avoid what he described as a “trophy hang”—giving pride of place to the most recent acquisition—and the myopic perspective that such a practice engenders. By inviting an outsider to contextualize their collection, to shift the juxtapositions and thematic arrangements away from the timeline of their acquisitions, the Scholls essentially become an audience of their collection, invited to read and live with a narrative someone else has produced.


Jimmy Donegan. Papa Tjukurpa, 2008; acrylic on canvas; 180 x 200 cm. Collection of Dennis and Debra Scholl. Courtesy of the University of Florida Harn Museum of Art, Gainesville, FL.

That process, in which the Scholls emulate both the role of collector and audience, is difficult to scale out to forty-five thousand square feet of exhibition space, but the objective that visitors might see their experience of the art aligned with that of the collectors is an obvious one for creating public access to these collections. This alignment requires much more than simply putting the work on view, and it seems to fail when the installations emanate from the collectors’ intuitive responses to the work.

This intuition was cited in conversations with Hinds at the Margulies and with Juan Roselione-Valadez at the Rubell collection, and to a lesser extent, with Tiffany Chestler, curator at the Robins collection. Hinds noted that, after working closely with Margulies for thirty years, she had come to anticipate the ideas that would follow from the frequent comment, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if….” By prioritizing individual taste in the presentation of the work they own, these collectors inadvertently underscore a sense of social inequity between themselves and their audience. The research, patience, and deep knowledge that shape the assemblage of works recedes in the face of perpetuating the myth that, à la Bourdieu, one can have an innate grasp of the work independent of the influence of economic, social, or cultural capital (wealth, connections, or knowledge) and that “merely by having access to art, those with this special gift are enabled to manifest this capacity.”2 Despite collectors’ generosity in sharing their collections with the public, the absence of a defined context or dialogue through which visitors may participate and respond suggests that the collectors “arrogate to themselves the right to withhold their discourses from those outside.”3

Essential to this dynamic is an understanding of what demographic the collector perceives as their audience. Installations and exhibitions coincide with Art Basel Miami, when up to fifty thousand people descend on Miami Beach for the art fair.4 These mostly out-of-town visitors constitute the majority of the annual audience for these museums, and it can be assumed that most of this population is composed of arts professionals and art-interested individuals: fellow collectors, dealers, curators, museum directors, and artists. This demographic only slightly skews the notion that the collections run the risk of alienating their audience. If anything, this population is hyperconscious of the cultural capital these collections represent and, in the absence of a critical contextualization, would be the most cognizant of how economic capital factors into the work’s presentation.

This is not to suggest that the collectors need to abdicate their voice in the public presentation of work they own. The suggestion is to recognize that offering the work to the public invites a discourse about the work and that the act of making the work public carries the responsibility to grant the audience access to the parameters and terms of that discourse. Wall labels are insufficient to build the sense that the museums are invested in building their audience in a manner similar to their investment in building their collection. As Pontus Hultén once noted, “A museum director’s first task is to create a public—not just to do great shows but to create an audience that trusts the institution.”5

The collectors recognize this responsibility and respond to it in varying degrees. The Rubell Family Collection, a nonprofit foundation that charges admission, frequently loans works from and exhibitions of their collection to institutions throughout the United States. School and university groups are recognized as a valuable portion of the audience for the Margulies Collection, which is operated through a nonprofit foundation and also charges admission; either Hinds or Margulies conducts all the tours. Margulies has also loaned major works to Florida International University’s sculpture garden. The de la Cruz Collection, which operates entirely as a private enterprise, has extensive educational programming, and both Rosa de la Cruz and its director, Ibett Yanez, cite educational opportunities to be a major focus of their activities. They house a library, run artist-led workshops, commission Miami-based artists to produce a project space next to the collection’s offices, and generously fund travel to New York and Europe annually for every graduating student of the New World School of the Arts in Miami.

Like the de la Cruzes, Robins intertwines collecting with support for artists. He is the force not only behind the revitalization of the Design District but also behind the international design show Design Miami/ and Design Miami/ Basel. His collection includes significant works by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kai Althoff, among others; both a sense of social consciousness and humor pervade his collection and its presentation. Over the past decade, he has enabled artists to occupy large-scale spaces he owns for little or no rent or in exchange for building maintenance. That relationship engenders a culture of either symbiosis or dependence, depending on how one perceives it. Dimensions Variable and the Bas Fisher Invitational, alternative art spaces highly valued by the community of artists in Miami, were founded in Robins-owned spaces. But as Nina Johnson-Milewski, owner of Gallery Diet, observed, free space robs artists of the incentive to make investments in real estate themselves and therefore claim their own territory, a potential that exists in a city with a depressed housing market. However, the larger benefit may be a fostering of nexus points where artists find engagement with a larger community, however temporary and peripatetic those intersections may be.

Through their Fountainhead residency program, Dan and Kathryn Mikesells have provided housing and studio space across the street from their home for up to two months at a time to over 160 artists since 2008. They also offer subsidized studio space for thirty local artists in a renovated building nearby. The Mikesells coordinate studio visits for residents with local curators, dealers, artists, and collectors, and they collaborate with local institutions, such as the Bass Museum and the alternative venues Locust Projects or Bas Fisher Invitational, to provide housing for visiting artists so those organizations may realize more ambitious projects. Like the de la Cruz Collection, the Fountainhead residency operates entirely on private funding, and while the Mikesells ardently welcome and integrate the residents into the day-to-day life of their family, their motivation also stems from their mission to foster more extensive dialogue between Miami artists and an international community.


Tomas Maldonado. Trayectoria de una anécdota, 1949; oil on canvas; 39.25 x 28.50 inches. Collection of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros. © Tomas Maldonado. Photo: Peter Harholdt.

With different resources and focus but similar intentions, CIFO, which houses the collection of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros and has significant holdings of contemporary Latin American art, instituted a Grants and Commission program in 2010. It funds the production of projects by artists from Latin America and seeks to insert them into a dialogue with an international contemporary culture. CIFO is the nonprofit foundation whose infrastructure of staff and programming coincides most closely with that of a public institution. Its new director, Jesus Fuenmayer, was previously the director of the Periferico Caracas/Arte Contemporaneo in Venezuela, where he curated over thirty exhibitions, and he brings to the organization a scholarly rigor that was apparent in the 2011 exhibition Frames and Documents: Conceptualist Practices, curated with Philippe Pirotte. The exhibition explored the overlapping investigations into the construction of memory and the rupture of prevailing frameworks that absorbed conceptual artists located across Northern and Southern latitudes through the 1970s and ’80s and included seminal work from both hemispheres. The exhibition paired such familiar names as Vito Acconci and Sophie Calle with those potentially less familiar to the Basel audience but no less resonant, including Anna Maria Maiolino, Marta Minujín, and Regina Silveira. It was one of the smartest exhibitions I had seen anywhere that year, and its appearance at CIFO was not accidental. Each year, the Foundation invites a guest curator to produce the exhibition that premieres with Art Basel. One outcome of this process is that the curator will make recommendations for acquisitions that strengthen the context elucidated in the exhibition. This continual reexamination of the collection has bolstered the collection’s holdings of architectural photography, geometric abstraction, video art, and work by women artists.

Ultimately, what CIFO produces is an argument for the role of the private museum in the larger ecosystem of the visual arts culture: a tightly focused collection with particular emphases and personal tastes that lays out its evolution as one that undergoes continual re-examination. This scrutiny is applied not only by the collector but is extended to an audience invited to participate in the process. In a city that blurs many lines, one cannot rely upon the traditional distinctions such as scale, longevity, incorporation, or even names to demarcate private from public cultural institutions. In Miami, the distinctions lie with the extent to which audiences recognize their stake within these venues and find that their participation is perceived as compounding an institutional mission rather than their mere presence fulfilling it. By this measure, public access has very little correlation to public good; the activities of educating, expanding community, and even self-identifying as audience presents the private collections as spheres of influence far beyond the visibility of the works of art.



1. The 2011 estimated population of Miami-Dade County is 2,544,766, based upon the 2010 U.S. Census.

2. Vera L. Zolberg, “An Elite Experience for Everyone,” Museum Culture, ed. Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1994), 55.

3. Ibid.

4. Hannah Sampson, "Art Basel draws a crowd, and hotels are selling out,” The Miami Herald, December 1, 2010, accessed November 3, 2012.

5. Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Interview with Pontus Hultén,” A Brief History of Curating (Zurich: JRP | Ringier, 2008), 37.

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