A Day in the Life of Miami Art Museum Director Thom Collins
By Bill Kearney
Collins at the construction site of the new Pérez Art Museum Miami
6 AM — Peak Physique & Performance Gym
“I thought I was having a heart attack,” says 43-year-old Thom Collins, referring to the early morning just before Art Basel Miami Beach when he was startled from sleep by sharp pain running down his left arm. Turns out he had two herniated cervical disks. He works his way through set after meticulous set of moves designed to align and strengthen his neck and back. Collins, a native of Media, Pennsylvania, moved here two years ago from New York to take the reins as director of the Miami Art Museum (MAM) as it planned to move the collection into a new Herzog & de Meuron-designed building on Biscayne Bay, and become, possibly, one of the most important public art spaces in the country. (The museum will be renamed the Pérez Art Museum Miami, or PAMM, once the move is made.) After a set of lunges, he mocks his own vanity. “Really, I’m here so I can have a cocktail and not get fat.” Collins is, in fact, out six or seven nights a week as the face of MAM, forging relationships for its capital campaign. He’s part art history professor, part construction consultant, part bon vivant for a cause, and gets by—thrives, really—on four to five hours of sleep. A 5 am wake-up is followed by reading the news and meditation. “I’m a terrible meditator. I have monkey-mind. It runs all over the place.” And even though he loves Meredith Vieira, he has no time for television. “When I found myself watching the Bethenny Frankel spin-off and kind of enjoying it, that’s when I knew it was time to get rid of the TV.” Between sets, he’s inquisitive, earnestly interviewing Lyen Wong, his Cuban-born trainer, for her perspective on why Cubans in Miami are excited about the pope visiting the island if they think the island should be boycotted.
11 AM — Collins’s office at MAM
Collins and his curatorial staff—Tobias Ostrander, Emily Mello, and René Morales—gather around a scale model of the unfinished MAM/PAMM building and gang-tackle a daunting question: how to best curate, tell a story, and arrange the more-than-1,000- piece permanent collection in the 200,000 square feet of programmable space. A round-robin of questions and ideas ensues: What will they do with the sources of the self and the myth ritual?
“If we do a section on formalist modernism, then it’s incumbent upon us to do the politics of craft,” says Collins. “Are there places where one idea can slide into another?” asks Mello. “I think that’s what Herzog & de Meuron had in mind—the possibility for slippage from space to space,” says Collins.
They rally around a non-linear approach, something that encourages more complex storytelling, which Collins thinks is appropriate for Miami’s stew of mixed histories.
1 PM — Pérez Art Museum Miami construction site
As we drive to the construction site at the southern base of the MacArthur Causeway—some of the finest real estate in the state—I ask why the new MAM (PAMM) is such a big deal. “Miami is the future of American cities and is still a community of communities. So we have a responsibility to set a precedent. With the way they raise issues, museums can be places where a fractionalized community can start to build a collective identity.” We pull into the site. The rebar-and-concrete skeleton of the building is in place, and in December 2013, the building will open to the public. Collins explains that the architectural vision was based on Stiltsville, the group of rustic houses suspended on stilts above the shallows of Biscayne Bay. The museum will stand on pillars 22 feet above sea level. A veranda will wrap around the structure, with 70-foot plantcovered tendrils dropping from the overhanging roof. Before we leave, Collins takes a microphone and plays host for a series of video blogs for MAM’s website. After flubbing a take, he blurts out, “I’m no Meredith Vieira.”
6:30 PM — Fredric Snitzer Gallery
The gallery has invited collectors and art fans to view a live demonstration of artist Zhivago Duncan’s Maschine, a wooden machine wielding spray paint cans maneuvered via remote-control dictation. As the machine “paints” upon a massive canvas, artist Carlos Betancourt and collectors Mera and Don Rubell show up. “This night is going to be trouble, I can already smell it,” says Betancourt as fumes from the spray paint waft over us. “It’s not the fumes; it’s my cologne,” says Collins before he and Mera Rubell commiserate over the complexity of owning video art. Then, outside in the Wynwood dusk, Collins and Betancourt invite the Rubells to Magnum Restaurant/Lounge, our next destination. Mera’s game, but Don weighs the options of watching the Sony Ericsson Open or listening to these guys sing show tunes. Tennis it is.
9 PM — Magnum Restaurant/Lounge
A shadowy ’70s lounge reality envelops the group as a copper-toned pianist tickles the keys into something smooth. “‘Satin Doll,’” says Collins, “Duke Ellington.” Conversation turns back to Vieira, how she marries heady intellect and gravitas with a salt-of-the-earth decency and connectedness—a duality to which Collins aspires. We leap again to the pope and Cuba, Miami’s lack of cognitive dissonance. “Miami is the future, a town where you subject yourself to the opposite of yourself and learn and negotiate that,” he says. A woman belts out a tune at the piano, establishing herself as a vocal rival to Collins, who’s grown boastful about his own singing. “Maybe I should have gone with an off-the-shoulder number,” he quips. After the meal, he takes the mic and runs through a battery of songs, including “On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)” and, in what he calls a moment of weakness, “(The Sun Will Come Out) Tomorrow.” Surely it will, and Collins will be awake before it does, reading the news.
photographs by bill kearney
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