MAM’s Thom Collins: The telos is not entirely clear

Ever wonder what would happen if you stuck a pair of smart, creative, seemingly outspoken thinkers in a room together — one as interviewer and the other as interviewee? Well if you’re dying to know how this scenario plays out, then look no further. Ocean Drive magazine’s Brett Sokol sat down with Miami Art Museum director Thom Collins back in September and the result was a journalistic expedition that touched on predictable topics ranging from the modern museum and Miami’s enlivening arts scene, to colorful ones like heroin abuse in Miami’s Bicentennial park and whether or not the whole notion of Santa Claus is a farce.

The story is out just in time for Art Basel Miami Beach, so read on. This one doesn’t require much more of an intro. Alas, we have come to our telos.

The New Miami Art Museum Rises

The interview has hit a wall. “You’re not a heroin addict, are you?” Thomas Collins asks me, only half joking. Why else, he implores, would anyone oppose turning downtown Miami’s ramshackle Bicentennial Park—or as Collins dubs it, “Needle Park”—into the home of the new Miami Art Museum? “It is no longer credible to try to undermine this project,” he continues sternly. “This museum is happening.”

For almost an hour, Collins, the Miami Art Museum’s newly hired director, has been waxing poetic about his institution’s future building—the $200 million, 200,000-square-foot waterfront facility designed by famed Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, set to open in 2013. With a classical symphony playing softly from a radio in the corner of his office—which is virtually bare beyond a large color sketch of the future structure—Collins has been trying to share his enthusiasm over all the wondrous things that will unfold once Bicentennial Park is transformed into Museum Park.

He says Miami offers up a “dynamic matrix,” unlike the wealthy but colorless neighborhoods  that surround Westchester County, New York’s Neuberger Museum of Art, where Collins was previously the director. As he envisions  it, come 2013, the new MAM will not only “invite interesting human interactions,” but it also will “catalyze” and “contextualize” them.

And forget about traditional art institutions with their oh-so-staid floor plans leading visitors directly from point A to point B. Thanks to Herzog & de Meuron, inside the new MAM, “the telos is not entirely clear.”        

Excuse me, the “telos”?

“The exit point.”

With my own vision of museumgoers wandering confusedly through a mazelike building, consulting maps to make sure they hadn’t accidentally bypassed half the exhibitions—or just in a desperate search for the exit—I interrupt Collins. What about us fuddy-duddies who believe museums should occasionally allow for something as old-fashioned as, say, looking at a painting?

“I would deny that the principal value of works of art is a private, transcendental, liminal experience,” he scolds. Then, taking in my surprised reaction, as if he’d just informed a child that not only was Santa Claus a fake, but a capitalist tool to boot, he gently backtracks. “It’s an important part of it… I don’t discount it,” he offers. Still, “in addition to being a library or a repository for significant art objects, more and more it’s incumbent on a museum— particularly in modern or contemporary art—to think of itself  as a social forum.”        

The Major Project

Collins begins gathering theoretical steam again, but the more he’s drawn to pondering “telos points,” the more I keep reminding him of the thorny specifics facing him.

Indeed, this past year has been anything but placid for the museum. Its previous director, Terry Riley, hired in 2006 to shepherd the new MAM into place, suddenly resigned—on the eve of the international attention focused on Miami by Art Basel, no less. Then came the election of a mayor who questioned the museum’s entire feasibility. “It is very difficult to predict whether the city will have the money to do whatever was planned for Museum Park,” Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado breezily told Miami Today last fall. “If the museums are not able to come up with the money, the land reverts to the city.”

Within the local art community itself, many prominent figures have been less than zealous in rushing to MAM’s defense. Über-collector Marty Margulies, a longtime critic of the museum’s somewhat meager art holdings, warned that taxpayers would eventually foot far more than they were being told: half of the projected $200 million total. As for MAM’s other half of that $200 million, he further doubted whether all of its $45 million in private pledges would actually pan out in the face of the lingering recession.

Twisting the knife, Margulies then announced his own donation of $5 million to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—which he contrasted as a “quality” institution. This on the heels of the reported departure of MAM trustee Ella Fontanals-Cisneros and her own $5 million pledge. It’s also telling that fellow marquee collectors Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz and Mera and Don Rubell—though not openly hostile—have yet to break out their checkbooks, preferring instead to concentrate on their own private museums.

After years of fundraising, it’s hard to imagine there’s still an untapped pool of wealthy philanthropists. Accordingly, I tell Collins that many folks remain dubious of MAM and Museum Park ever being built. Which brings us back to Collins staring across his desk at me, dumbfounded, asking about heroin use.

“I have extraordinary confidence in this project or I wouldn’t have given up a job I love to move to this city,” Collins bristles. Though he’s fully confident in the museum’s ongoing capital campaign, he says the money is already there to open the front door in 2013. Of the projected $200 million total, the building and park construction itself costs $131 million. Add the county’s already earmarked $100 million in bond money to MAM’s previously raised $45 million, and the museum is over its needed amount. The outstanding sum, Collins says, goes toward operating funds and the endowment.

That breakdown certainly won’t quiet skeptics such as Margulies, who’ve wondered just what art will actually fill this brand-new building. But Collins says that even people who never plan to set foot inside the museum have good reason to cheer it on. He points to his architectural sketch’s lush canopy of encircling greenery: “It’s a place where people can be comfortable to just be. Whether you come to the exhibitions or not, it’s a public park with incredible views of the bay and beyond.”

The dreamy musings are all gone now. Collins leans forward, speaking forcefully: “We’re the only major city in the United States that doesn’t have a major art museum. That’s the short version of it. And this city deserves one. It needs one, especially given the extent to which the economy rests on tourism.