Collectors who transform Miami’s art scene

Don and Mera Rubell

Go to any art fair, auction or art event and the chances are you will bump into Miami collectors Don and Mera Rubell. Don, a tall and cheerful retired gynaecologist, and his diminutive wife Mera are indefatigable collectors for their Rubell Family Collection. The collection – one of the most prominent of post-1980s art in the US – is displayed in a former contraband warehouse in the Wynwood district of Miami, and its opening in 1993 did much to stimulate and transform the Miami art scene.

“Family collection” is apt as the Rubells – whose fortune derives from the hotel business – are all involved in art. Daughter Jennifer is making a splash as a “food artist” creating large-scale projects that involve food and performance (a ton of beef ribs with honey dripping on them from the ceiling, for example). For Art Basel Miami Beach, she is creating “an interactive food installation”. Son Jason is also a collector, and a survey of his collecting – from age 13 – will be on show in Wynwood during the Miami Beach fair. And the Rubells aren’t standing still: they recently paid $6.5m for a historic school building in Washington and are intending to turn it into a museum, hotel and residential complex. More details will be given next year.

Norman and Irma Braman

Certainly the most discreet collectors in the often blingy Miami scene are Norman and Irma Braman. Norman, who is chairman of the Art Basel Miami Beach Host Committee, was number 326 on Forbes’s Richest Americans list last year, with $1.2bn. He derives his fortune from car dealerships and also cashed in on his 1985-94 ownership of the Philadelphia Eagles football team. He is a generous donor to health and Jewish causes but what sets him apart is his stellar collection of classic American art. His 1960s home overlooking Biscayne Bay is studded with extraordinary acquisitions: for a start, he has the best collection of Calders in private hands, including two very early mobiles as well as another 15 pieces. He has a Jasper Johns 1962 “Diver” and a 1951-52 Rothko as well as works by Warhol, David Smith, Miró and Ellsworth Kelly.

Martin Margulies

In 1999 billionaire property developer Martin Margulies set up a space in Miami to show his holdings of contemporary and vintage photography, video, sculpture and installation work. The cavernous “Margulies Collection at the Warehouse” was extended in 2004 and now offers over 45,000 sq ft of exhibition space, and is open to the public in the Wynwood district. The holdings are among the best in the city, and outdo those of the local museums. Among the stand-outs are sculptures by the likes of de Kooning, Eliasson, Gormley, Judd and LeWitt; there is also Margulies’ other great passion, photography. And this year, to coincide with Art Basel Miami Beach, the space will be showing both African artists and non-African artists who work in Africa: Seydou Keita, Zwelethu Mthethwa, George Osodi, Peter Friedl and Tim Hetherington among others (until the end of April 2011).

This summer Margulies pledged $5m to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a move that underlines his very public opposition to plans to redevelop the local Miami Art Museum (MAM). MAM has struggled to raise funds for its $200m, Herzog & de Meuron-designed new building, which is slated to open to the public in 2013. In the past, Margulies even took full-page advertisements in local papers to contest the project. While MAM has yet to find the full sum, it did receive a $100m bond this year and work has begun: the ground-breaking ceremony takes place on November 30.

Ella Fontanals-Cisneros

Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, born in Cuba and raised in Venezuela, is behind the CIFO, the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation. Housed in a former warehouse designed in a distinctive style with coloured glass tiles to look like a bamboo jungle, it is a stand-out in the drab environs of north Miami.

Cisneros was for many years married to Oswaldo Cisneros, and part of one of Latin America’s richest families, whose fortune derives from media and Pepsi bottling. She came to art rather late – CIFO was founded in 2002 – but she has thrown her considerable energy into the field, particularly supporting emerging and mid-career Latin-American artists. CIFO draws on her collection – which is stored in her former exhibition space, Miami Art Central – for its exhibitions. To coincide with Art Basel Miami Beach, Simon Baker and Tanya Barson from Tate Modern have curated a show of photographs from her holdings, entitled Inside Out: Photography After Form.

And food definitely being on the Miami agenda, the centre is also hosting a performance by Kreëmart, described as “a creative enterprise that gives opportunities to artists to explore dessert as a medium”. Art cakes are “shared with public at art happenings”, according to the foundation.

Cisneros is another Miami collector who does not see eye-to-eye with the Miami Art Museum: she resigned as trustee earlier this year. This was in sharp contrast to an earlier agreement when she was going to fund exhibitions and programmes in collaboration with MAM, and even thought of merging the two spaces. She declines to comment on her change of heart.

Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz

Cuban-born Rosa de la Cruz and her husband Carlos left Havana during the revolution. Once settled in the US, they made their fortune in drinks and bottling. Initially they only collected Latin-American art, putting it on display in their Key Biscayne home, but then they moved into contemporary art. The house is open to the public: “It’s a new way of living; anyone can email us and we make an appointment,” says Rosa de la Cruz. She receives about 5,000 visitors a year and they can wander past a giant painting by Arturo Herrera, admire Félix Gonzáles-Torres’s conceptual candy spill or a pile of sheets printed with “Somewhere better than this place”. Over the dining table is a quilted, appliquéd skull head by Christian Holstad, with tentacles clutching champagne glasses: on an upper floor is a sprawling installation by assume vivid astro focus, the artist group.

Last year Rosa and Carlos opened a new 30,000 sq ft space in the Wynwood district: “We consider it to be an extension of our home,” says Rosa, “but it has opening hours like a regular museum and admission is free.” On view, over three floors, are Allora and Calzadilla, Meese, Polke, Sterling Ruby and Rondinone among others, in a show opening to coincide with Art Basel Miami Beach.

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