This past September, Hurricane Irma thrashed Miami with 100-mile-per-hour winds, biblical floods, and an accumulation of otherworldly force that leveled buildings far and wide. But the not-yet-opened Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami—the Magic City’s newest contemporary art hub and the first one ever built in the city proper—was spared.
“We were very blessed,” said Ellen Salpeter, the institute’s director. Like most of Miami’s more established arts institutions, the new glass-paneled citadel in the Design District proved fortunate in the face of a historic storm. In the case of the ICA, the stroke of luck allowed for the debut of a momentous addition to the city’s ascendant art scene.
The ICA’s inaugural offerings greet a visitor on the ground floor with Edward and Nancy Kienholz’s installation The Soup Course at the She-She Café (1982), a large work that evokes a cracked restaurant scene, re-created to scale, with a doll’s head floating ominously above. It was a gift from ICA board chair Irma Braman and her husband, Norman, who have also loaned a series of pictures by Robert Gober as well as one of his iconic drain works from 1993–94—all of which have rarely been exhibited. Elsewhere, the museum is showing commissioned large-scale paintings by Chris Ofili and an exhibition, “The Everywhere Studio,” that examines the societal implications of the act of art making.
Before the public could see the completed ICA in December, Miami engaged in one of its favorite pastimes: throwing parties in museums. One night in October, local collectors including Jorge Pérez, Martin Margulies, and Debra Scholl strolled through an accompanying sculpture garden and into the new building’s main atrium to attend a Cartier-sponsored gala in honor of the Bramans and Gober. Collectors Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz were in London for the Frieze art fair, but they bought a table anyway, which Salpeter filled with local artists.
Real estate developer Craig Robins was on hand to witness the latest addition to the neighborhood he helped envision and build from scratch. For the past three years, the ICA has operated out of temporary lodgings in the nearby Moore Building, which Robins owns.
“Going to the gala, honoring Irma and Norman, it was just amazing,” Robins said after the night was over. “Being in the space and realizing the impact it’s going to have on the Design District—and Miami—was mind-blowing.”
Alongside the ICA’s chief curator, Alex Gartenfeld, Salpeter is tasked with establishing not just an important addition to Miami’s cultural landscape but also a globally significant institution that can expect a spotlight on its programming once a year when the world’s foremost art collectors, curators, and dealers come to town for December’s Art Basel Miami Beach. From the Miami Beach Convention Center that houses the fair, it’s a 15-minute drive across a causeway to the ICA. But the origin story behind the institution is a four-year saga that traces back in a different direction, a half hour north on I-95, through Little Haiti, to the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. In 2013 the publicly funded MOCA—then the only contemporary art museum in Greater Miami, a global destination populated by 6 million people—was staring down an existential crisis. The residents of North Miami, one city among many that make up the Miami metropolitan area, had voted a year earlier against a proposal for a $15 million expansion plan, and uncertainty about MOCA’s future began to set in.
In 2013, MOCA director Bonnie Clearwater departed for a rival institution in Fort Lauderdale. Her replacement as interim
director was the museum’s chief curator, the 26-year-old Gartenfeld, who had only recently been hired away from a job as a writer and editor at Art in America magazine. Shortly thereafter, MOCA initiated talks with the Bass Museum of Art, located in an expanded 1930s Art Deco building in Miami Beach, about the prospect of merging or at least hosting work. But the talks ceased when the MOCA board sued North Miami for breach of contract, with charges that the city had failed to maintain its building or pay Gartenfeld’s salary. (This past October, the Bass reopened after a two-year, $12 million renovation that added 50 percent more exhibition and public space.) In a twist, public officials issued an injunction claiming MOCA’s board was out of line and appointed its own choice of director: Babacar M’Bow, a Senegal-born coordinator at the Broward County Libraries Division who later, in an interview with the New York Times, compared his experience with MOCA’s embattled board to his time as a child soldier on a different continent, “when as young Africans we stood weapons in hand to finish once for all colonialism in Africa.”
Throughout the ordeal, some local collectors with ties to the museum began to demand that MOCA sever ties with a city that claimed to want the institution to stay but offered no monetary support. Others bristled with resentment over potential changes of course they had not signed up for.
“My husband and I donated those works to the MOCA. M-O-C-A. Miami’s contemporary art museum,” Rosa de la Cruz told the Miami New-Times in December 2013, when she had come to believe the collection of MOCA might be moving to the Bass. “Why is it that Miami museums are becoming places just for parties?” she asked. “It’s embarrassing that in our city these things are happening.”
In August 2014, MOCA closed for what would be two months, and the board absconded with Gartenfeld and about a dozen staffers to start a new institution, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. After a settlement was reached three months later, the departed board members were granted permission to open a new museum, while the city of North Miami retained most of MOCA’s collection, naming rights, and $1 million in grant funds. Artworks in the collection that the settlement allowed the newly formed ICA to take were those that their original donors claimed to have given the institution—not the city—and among them were pieces by Dan Flavin, Ed Ruscha, and James Turrell.
“Any time that contemporary art has to interface with the dynamics of city finances and planning, it can be tricky,” said Nina Johnson-Milewski, director of the Miami gallery Nina Johnson. “Look at what happened in Detroit”—where, in 2014, the Detroit Institute of Arts had to raise $800 million—“just to make sure their masterpieces weren’t auctioned off.”
When asked about the circumstances from which ICA Miami emerged, Salpeter, who joined the museum in December 2015, said, “I haven’t had to address it because it was so addressed by the time I got here.” She followed the story from New York, where she had worked as deputy director of external affairs for the Jewish Museum. Gartenfeld, who stayed on as deputy director and chief curator after Salpeter was hired, declined to speak to the past, saying he would “prefer to look forward.”
The establishment of the ICA in its new Design District home amid a sea of boutiques and flagships for ritzy brands has been privately funded by some of the city’s wealthiest collectors, making it what some might see as an outgrowth of Art Basel Miami Beach. Like all of the city’s institutions, the rise of the ICA has tracked the shifting landscape of contemporary Miami—secure in the knowledge that the art world’s attention will lock in when everyone comes to town for the fair in December.
Craig Robins, the real-estate developer largely responsible for the Design District’s development over the past decade, is a major collector who owns work by John Baldessari, Marlene Dumas, Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, and others, and had followed the MOCA saga closely. In 2014, when the split was certain, he was more than happy to make his Moore Building a temporary host. He is friendly with the Bramans, and together, they began to hatch a plan for the ICA’s future.
“At first there was a little tension,” Robins said of the ICA–MOCA affair. “But one of the great things is that Norman Braman and I agreed we could go forward only if we could resolve any issues between the two.” After what qualified as legal resolution between the opposing institutions, Robins and Braman sat down for lunch, and by the end of it, Robins had persuaded Braman—who built a fortune through Miami–Dade car dealerships and is said by Forbes to be worth $2.5 billion—to fully fund the construction of a permanent home for ICA Miami. After calling on the board to assist in the effort, the embryonic museum had covered a $4 million annual budget for its first decade.
“When Norman and I have lunch together it can be dangerous, in a really good way,” Robins said. “What was most remarkable was that all the fund-raising took one lunch and one five-minute phone call. The board agreed to ten years of operating budget. I don’t know if there’s ever been an easier process to get a museum started.”
In tandem with the establishment of an operating budget, the board began to plan for a new building. With the intention of siting it on land donated by the Miami Design District Associates—which was founded in partnership with Robins’s real estate company, Dacra—the design firm Aranguren + Gallegos Arquitectos conceived a 37,500-square-foot rectangular structure with a jigsaw pattern of color-changing triangular glass panels on the main facade. A 15,000-square-foot sculpture garden was planned in front, and inside would be 20,000 square feet of exhibition space.
Miami’s Design District incorporates the surviving elements of the Buena Vista historic neighborhood, and in order for the plans to proceed, the ICA had to secure the approval of the Historic and Environmental Protection Board. Residents voiced concern that the museum would stand too close to their homes, so Braman offered to buy and demolish two town houses to establish a buffer between the ICA’s grounds and neighboring houses. Some activists then claimed the demolition would set a problematic precedent, but in June 2015 the plan passed on a 3–2 vote.
“We went from totally not supporting the project to being for it,” Buena Vista East President Jerome Schiller told the preservation board at the time. “We understand it is going to be a civic institute.”
On the opposite side of those demolished townhouses, the ICA’s neighbor is the de la Cruz Collection, which has presented public exhibitions and educational programs since 2009. Like several other similar institutions built by major collectors in Miami—Martin Margulies, the Rubell family, the Cisneroses—the de la Cruz shows privately held work in a fashion that both complements and, some would say, competes with conventional museums. Rosa de la Cruz declined to rehash the ICA/MOCA split. (“That was a decision that they made, I don’t know the details.”) But she readily gushed about the convenience of having the ICA and the de la Cruz in close proximity. “We’re thrilled that they’re next to us because, remember, people come to Miami to go to the beach, and they don’t have much time to see everything,” she said. “Now, people can . . . see both museums at the same time.” To that end, she added, “we even share a valet!”
ICA’s edgy programming is similar to that established by Gartenfeld when he first began putting together exhibitions alongside his day job as an editor. In the late 2000s, he established himself as an ambitious young curator best known for opening a fully functional gallery in his apartment, and transposed that approach to an institutional scale upon being hired by MOCA. The first show that Gartenfeld curated there, “Love of Technology,” in 2013, featured a commission by Ian Cheng and work by Anicka Yi, who was then still three years from winning the coveted Hugo Boss Prize.
“Since Alex has come to Miami, he’s brought a really important critical contemporary voice,” Johnson-Milewski said. “Giving that voice—the academically minded voice that he brings—a permanent space is really critical.”
For his part, Gartenfeld emphasized that “The curatorial team—and our community—benefit from the fact that our board and major donors respect the mission of this museum.” At the core of that mission, he said, is “the exchange of art ideas, and the autonomy and independence of our curators.”
The focus, he added, is on emerging artists who have yet to receive much institutional exposure or mid- to late career artists whose work is being discovered for the first time in America. “If we have succeeded, it is by championing these influential artists of merit who deserve renewed attention,” he concluded. Success has come by way of attention at home as well as from outside Miami: Gartenfeld was named a co-curator of the forthcoming 2018 New Museum Triennial in New York.
According to Salpeter, contemporary art has an important resonance in Miami. “It’s a relatively young city, and despite the ups and downs of the economy, it’s a city on the rise,” she said optimistically of the local art scene. “It’s a new city that is constantly reinventing itself, and many of the people who live here, their aesthetic vernacular is rooted in the contemporary.”
Before serving at the Jewish Museum, Salpeter was founding director of Heart of Brooklyn, a partnership among a wide variety of cultural institutions (the Brooklyn Museum plus a botanic garden, a library, a children’s museum, a park, and a small zoo). Prior to that, she ran Thread Waxing Space, an enterprise in SoHo that hosted artists in studio space and fostered the burgeoning riot grrrl and punk-rock scene through concerts by bands including Le Tigre and Guided by Voices. She has never lived in Miami.
“My family had lived here—it was a place I had visited for a long time—but seeing it as a resident is very different,” Salpeter said. “When people say, ‘Wow, do you like it?’ I say, ‘Ask me in 2018 when I actually get to do things like riding in boats or playing tennis.’ ”
Now that the ICA has a permanent home, it remains to be seen how the new institution will fit into Miami’s complex art ecosystem. “We think of ourselves as unique, but we look to the ICA London and the ICA Boston,” Salpeter said of fellow institutions of similar size that share the ethos of spotting emerging talent and spotlighting artists who are underappreciated. “But I don’t think there’s one institution where we say, ‘We want to be like them when we grow up.’ ”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 86 under the title “Design District Debut.”