Miami Rising: Two of the Funders Behind the City's Emergence an International Arts Hot Spot

Pérez Art Museum Miami. photo: Felix Mizioznikov/shutterstock

Pérez Art Museum Miami. photo: Felix Mizioznikov/shutterstock

Two recent developments underscore Miami’s emergence as a force to be reckoned with in the cash-flush world of modern arts philanthropy.

First, the region’s preeminent funder, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, announced a $37 million investment in Miami’s growing arts ecosystem. And second, Miami’s most prominent arts patron, billionaire real estate developer Jorge M. Pérez, announced the creation of two major annual art awards.

Knight ramped up its arts giving in the city in 2005—three years after the launch of Art Basel Miami Beach—while a year later, Pérez joined the board of the Miami Art Museum, now known as the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). Knight has invested $165 million in the arts and cultural life in Miami during this time, while Pérez, as we’ll soon see, played a huge role in positioning the city as a destination for contemporary art. PAMM is also a big recipient of Knight funding.

Mid-tier cities aiming to ramp up their cultural profile in short order will find inspiration in Miami’s emergence as an arts hot spot. And regional foundations that aspire to catalyze such efforts can learn a lot by taking a closer look at the Knight Foundation’s collaborative leadership here.

A “Transformative” Effect

According to the Miami Herald’s Andres Viglucci, Knight’s 14-year investment has paid off handsomely. Thanks to Knight, the roster of “local groups and the number of arts jobs have exploded, art production and attendance at exhibits and performances are both up dramatically, and the arts have become part and parcel of Miami’s identity at home and abroad.”

Knight's recent decision to expand local arts funding was complemented by the release of a report commissioned by the foundation and prepared by research firm TDC. It concluded that Knight’s investments have had a “transformative” effect on Miami, boosting local artistic activity and participation significantly, recasting the city’s reputation and shifting the way residents see their hometown.

The report found that local arts attendance rose 27 percent in the 10 years since Knight starting making grants in the city, outpacing population growth. Local employment in arts industries rose 21 percent from 2011-15, reaching 203,649 jobs in 2016. And there was a 265 percent increase in foundation giving from 2004–15, driven by Knight.

The report came roughly a year after Bloomberg Philanthropies, upon announcing its 2018 Public Art Challenge, claimed that its initiative has thus far generated $13 million for local economies, employed 820 individuals, and created 490 programs and activities like tours, workshops and lectures. Both reports are the latest entries in an ever-growing body of research pointing to the measurable benefits of arts-related investments in U.S. cities.

Two-Tiered Funding Strategy

Knight’s $37 million in new funding complements and expands the two-tier funding strategy that Knight has used to support the growth of the arts in South Florida for more than a decade. Roughly two-thirds of Knight’s investments were in anchor arts institutions, often to help them engage the public, and the rest brought 384 arts ideas to life through the Knight Arts Challenge.

We called attention to Knight’s approach to cultivating the arts in Miami a few years back. Rather than sound the alarm about the sector’s problems or come to the rescue of yesterday’s institutions with emergency grants, it opted to support cool new things that could thrive with an assist from philanthropy. As Knight President Alberto Ibargüen once said, “I don’t do need, I do opportunity.”

As for Knight’s recent infusion, Ibargüen reiterated a guiding idea behind the foundation’s arts funding: “Why in the first place are we doing this? Because art binds. Our research, our experience, our intuition tells us art and culture are among the most effective ways to bind people and communities together.”

The TDC report also identified some areas for improvement. For example, while the city’s arts organizations remain indebted to Knight’s work, the foundation’s dominance has created a top-heavy funding ecosystem where “arts activities” rely on a small number of funders. In addition, the percentage of arts organizations with less than 2.5 months of unrestricted net assets increased from 42 percent in 2005 to 50 percent in 2015.

For an example of Miami’s tight-knit arts community in action, consider the fact that Knight Foundation officials announced the news of its new funding at a ceremony at the Pérez Art Museum, which netted $3 million in Knight funding.

From Condos to Philanthropy

The Pérez Art Museum is named after the Argentine-born “Miami Condo King” and Giving Pledge signee Jorge M. Pérez. He is the chairman and CEO of the Related Group and, as recently as October 2017, was ranked 264th on the Forbes 400 list with a net worth of $3 billion as of October 2017. He’s currently ranked at 791st on Forbes’ “The World’s Billionaires” list.

In December 2011, Pérez donated $35 million to the museum to support the construction of the institution’s building. The gift included $15 million in support to the institution’s Capital Campaign, on top of his original $5 million pledge at the campaign’s outset. As a result, the museum was renamed PAMM.

Former Miami Art Museum president Mary Frank resigned from the board over the renaming and took out a large ad in the Miami Herald arguing that Miami taxpayers have donated nearly three times what Pérez had promised. Frank wrote: “Does the board understand that MAM runs the risk of losing the respect of the international art world by making the unprecedented decision to sell its name to a private investor?”

Frank, however, was in the minority. Of the 35 board members present, only four voted against the renaming (with one abstention). Nonetheless, Pérez pushed back. In an interview with the Herald, he cited examples of other non-Hispanic donors receiving name rights to public institutions in exchange for similar gifts. The Miami Science Museum, for example, was renamed to the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science after the Frosts pledged $35 million.

“Perhaps stupidly, I thought people would say, ‘This is amazing,’” Pérez said. The controversy eventually dissipated, and in July of 2016, Pérez announced he would be stepping away from real estate to turn his attention toward collecting and philanthropy.

Spotlighting Miami Artists

In November of 2016, Pérez gave $10 million in cash and a collection of more than 200 works by Cuban artists valued at some $5 million to the PAMM. The gift stipulated that $5 million went to the museum’s endowment, $1 million toward Cuban art, and $4 million to Latin-American art generally.

Pérez made his broader intentions clear at the time. Miami, which is sort of the capital of the Americas, should have a great Latin American art collection. “It was important to me for a Hispanic person to assume a lead role in philanthropy and have their name associated with a great museum like the Tate or the Guggenheim,” he said.

Looking ahead, Pérez said, “This is just peanuts compared to what I’ll be giving to the museum.”

Pérez’s efforts instantly positioned the PAMM as one of the world’s foremost holders of Latin-American and Cuban art. But more was required to put working artists on the international arts map. All of which brings us to the two new Pérez-funded art prizes.

The first, the Jorge M. Pérez Award, provides $25,000 to a visual arts alumnus of Miami’s National YoungArts Foundation. Dedicated to Latinx artists, the inaugural award recognized Miami natives Chat Travieso, a Brooklyn­-based multidisciplinary artist working with architecture and public space, and Kathia St. Hilaire, a painter and printmaker whose work investigates her Caribbean and black cultural heritage. 

The inaugural winner of the second prize, the $50,000 Jorge and Darlene Pérez Prize, will be announced in March at the PAMM Art of the Party gala. 

Commenting on the new prizes, Patti Hannah, Pérez’s lead curator and art director for the Related Group, said, “There’s a lot of well-known awards that a lot of artists strive for, whether it be the Turner Prize or the Hugo Boss Prize—we really want Miami and PAMM to be part of that conversation.”