Thomas Collins Rallies the Cultural Troops
BY BRETT SOKOL
The interview has hit a wall. “You’re not a heroin addict, are you?” Thomas Collins asks me, only halfjoking. 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.”
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.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT FIGUEROA; COURTESY OF MIAMI ART MUSEUM (RENDERING); ESTATE OF ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG/LICENSED BY VAGA, NEW YORK, NY (RAUSCHENBERG)