In various ways, Miami’s art leaders mobilized. In this most creative of industries, they put their creativity to work. They shifted their approaches. They embraced technology. Last fall, Ransom Everglades invited a few of the city’s artistic leaders to a virtual roundtable for the school’s 1903 Society. For more than an hour, they talked with Head of School Penny Townsend and Director of Advancement Melanie Hoffmann, trading stories, answering questions and sharing tips on how to overcome. The esteemed guests:
The panelists brought perspectives from various corners of the art world, and they bonded on one issue: In the heart of a pandemic, Miami needs art more than ever.
“What we have here is world class,” Rubell said. “Art really supports us as individuals. We need to cherish what we have here.”
It wasn’t always this way. Miami wasn’t always an art mecca.
Growing up in the visual arts
The panel recalled the days when the city’s midtown, downtown and Brickell areas shut down after 5 p.m., bereft of any sort of vibrant nightlife and social scene. It was then that Reed joined the push to bring Art Basel to Miami that was spearheaded by collector Norman Braman – who is a parent and grandparent of alumni and is memorialized at the middle school by the Braman Family Media Center. Reed’s work in the late 1990s with South Florida’s collectors, curators, museum directors, patrons and denizens helped create the now world-renowned art experience that debuted in 2002 and grew to draw more than 70,000 attendees annually. The festival in no small part served to elevate the reputation of Miami overall.
“What’s so exciting about the Miami Beach show is that it embraces the community,” Reed said.
As Art Basel grew in stature, so, too, did the Wynwood district. The Rubell family opened its collection to the public in an old Drug Enforcement Agency warehouse in 1993, moving into an area populated largely by abandoned buildings. They were soon joined by the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, which opened in 1999 with highly regarded art curator and gallery director Katherine Hinds ’75 at the helm. At about that time, Tony Goldman and his son and daughter, Jessica Goldman Srebnick (also an RE parent), invested in revitalizing the district and creating the now-famous Wynwood Walls.
Miami’s downtown underwent a simultaneous facelift. Greene recalled the 20-acre Bicentennial Park that predated today’s Maurice A. Ferré Park and PAMM; it was an overgrown, derelict space surrounded by grim fencing that went largely unvisited. She also remembered the excitement surrounding the land’s potential when a $75 million bond was issued to build an art museum there alongside a new science museum. Insisting upon a light-infused, “outside was inside” vibe, and that the facility function as a neighborhood town hall, she and fellow project leaders helped bring the signature waterfront museum to fruition in 2013 – seven years after the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts opened a few blocks north on Biscayne Boulevard.
“We wanted it to be … a community gathering place where people could come and enjoy the beauty of the center on the water,” Greene said.
Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz married in 1962, and began assembling a collection of contemporary art that would eventually outgrow their Key Biscayne residence. In 2009, the couple moved their art to a 30,000-square-foot space in the Design District, operating this new museum as an extension of their home. “We’ve always liked to share,” Rosa explained.
The collection helped elevate the burgeoning district, and soon became an Art Basel hotspot.
Handforth, who was born in Hong Kong, moved to Miami in 1993, and the sculptures he designed in Coconut Grove have been exhibited around the world. In 2020, former RE board chair Rudy Prio Touzet ’76 commissioned Handforth to create The Ringing Rock at Ransom Everglades.
“We have incredible institutions now,” Rubell said. “Whether it be private collections or public institutions. There’s so much world-class stuff that’s here. We all need to realize that it’s here, and it’s quite fragile. The pandemic really shook up the bedrock … the cultural bedrock.”
Surviving the pandemic
When Miami went into a lockdown last spring, collectors, artists and museum owners shifted from concern to panic. “How do we operate during a pandemic?” Greene asked. ‘The pandemic presents significant challenges for an institution like us.”
There was, however, a distinct positive: “It [was] also a time,” Greene said, “of great inspiration.”
The staff at the de la Cruz Collection went into quarantine together to ensure a quick reopening – and a safe one. When the collection opened its doors again, new rules required visitors to register, limited occupancy to no more than 30 people and mandated mask wearing and other safety measures. The collection was one of the first arts organizations to reopen its doors to the public, along with the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami, which was co-founded by Irma and Norman Braman.
“This has been a labor of love,” Rosa de la Cruz said, “And work.”
The next step for the de la Cruz Collection: reinstating its myriad education programs, which the de la Cruzes believe are central to the collection’s identity. The collection organizes lectures, offers scholarships to exceptional students of Design and Architecture Senior High School, funds educational travel to Europe for students from the New World School of the Arts and provides summer workshops for elementary school children; all of those were affected by the pandemic.
PAMM, which Greene noted takes pride in its “strong educational mission,” pivoted quickly to digital offerings to ensure a continuation of its storytime and other programs for teachers and parents. It also reopened with adapted hours, occupancy limits, advance registration and significant precautions.
Art Basel Miami Beach did not have the option of a partial or adaptive in-person opening; it was simply too large. Organizers shifted to online viewing rooms – OVRs, as they called them. The OVRs allowed Art Basel to virtually connect the world’s leading galleries with the show’s global network of collectors and art enthusiasts. The most recent edition, “OVR: Pioneers,” was dedicated to artists who broke new ground in the use of aesthetics, socio-political themes and use of mediums. It featured 100 galleries and ran from March 24–27, 2021.
Art Basel also studied the impact of COVID-19 on the gallery sector in a global art market report in September 2020. “It’s very important to us, to Art Basel, to support the art market any way we can,” Reed said.
Indeed, COVID-19 hit everyone hard – most notably artists. “The pandemic’s been very strange for artists,” Handforth said. “It’s been very hard to show anything … It’s been very good that the online platforms are working. And commissions like The Ringing Rock have been a lifeline for artists.”
Handforth also noted that local art lovers unwilling to travel can still see art in Miami. “If there’s going to be a blessing to this,” he said, “it’s going to be that it gives the local galleries a chance to really shine, really be seen.”
Rubell noted that the Rubell Museum shuttered in March 2020 just months after having moved to Allapattah to take up residence in a 100,000-square-foot facility – a former fruit and produce distribution center – after 25 years in Wynwood. The Rubell’s collection, started by Jason’s parents Mera and Don Rubell in the 1960s, has always sought to identify and feature emerging young artists who make art that engages with the present. Jason Rubell wanted to make sure he continued that mission.
By July, the museum reopened, protocols firmly in place. That was a relief, Rubell said, to working artists and many others: his family, the museum staff and the art community at large. And there was a significant – and surprising – upside to the otherwise burdensome COVID-19 precautions: Each visitor had a more personal and private viewing experience in the expansive gallery space.
Watching members of the public engage more intimately with the art touched Rubell and the museum’s entire staff. Their guests’ joy was infectious. The experience helped Rubell realize how much his museum – and art throughout the city – really mattered.
“It only made it so much sweeter when we reopened,” Rubell said. “The public engagement and public need for it – it’s almost through tragedy that comes some sort of amazing beauty for us. It was amazing.”