The Miami Way Thom Collins


Taking on a position of director at an established regional museum is somewhat like choosing to father a family of artworks and exhibitions and to learn intimately their attendant quirks and charms. Pennsylvania-born Thom Collins has recently been named Director at the Miami Art Museum, thereby becoming patriarch not just to that museum’s collection and history, but also to the myriad expectations put forth by the many who now view Miami as a burgeoning art utopia. The museum will relocate in 2013 to an expanded new building on Biscayne Bay (the groundbreaking is tomorrow, Tuesday) designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. Both the appointment of Collins and the new building itself, which cost a reported 200 million dollars, are auspicious representations of Miami’s art world as having become a strong cultural leader in its own right, and not simply a seasonal outpost.
Previous to his appointment, Collins was director at the Neuberger Museum of Art at State University of New York at Purchase. A trained art historian who studied at Swarthmore and Northwestern, Collins intended to become a tenure-track academic before a fellowship at MoMA shifted his interest from academia to museum practice, intent on bringing art education to a broader public realm. Collins’ focus in his curation has increasingly been on the social implications of art. “The most important exhibitions I’ve done have tied the experience of visual art to a progressive social catalysis,” says the Director. His 2003 exhibition, “Somewhere Better Than This Place: Alternative Social Experience in the Spaces of Contemporary Art at the
Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati (where Collins held the position of Chief Curator from 2000-2003), examined the role of the museum as a kind of heterotopia, a concept defined originally by Michel Foucault as literally a place of otherness. Collins’ exhibition posited the museum as a “place that exists in the fabric of the community to offer new experiences that will influence the visitors after they leave-as an alternative to what’s going on outside the dominant culture.” This show, which featured work by artists including Janet Cardiff, Vanessa Beecroft and Santiago Sierra, engaged the public and implemented a vanguard institutional critique by featuring work grounded in defying the confinement and social behaviors of the museum construct. LEFT: THOM COLLINS

This expansive framework will likely carry into Collins’ ethos for his new position in Miami, where larger-scale public exhibitions by the city’s many private collectors-notably The Rubell Family Collection and the Rosa & Carlos de la Cruz Collection-have often bested public institutions in exhibiting extreme originality and a clear love of art. “The way that the private collectors here have opened their collections to the public and started educational programs-they’re not followers, they’re leaders,” says Collins, which has, in some regard, left the public museums to play catch up. “The community of Miami-Dade is one of the most interesting and diverse in the United States,” says Collins. “Miami [could be considered] a city of the future, in terms of its diversity and rich cultural activity that occurs at least in part because of that diversity.” To this end, Collins seems invigorated by a strong desire for the museum’s rebirth to mirror the needs of the community itself. “When I came down here, my mandate was not just to grow the facility, but to grow the whole institution in the service of this community,” says the Director.

Miami’s art world has grown exponentially in the past decade, beyond Miami Basel to a wellspring of up-and-coming young galleries and artists (“Young artists can have studio spaces here, and not have to work to support their practice,” says Collins). Ergo, creating a museum that reflects, reframes and challenges the city’s community seems in order. “I am thinking about how a museum can serve each different sub-population, as well as the community as a whole, in a really modern and nuanced way,” says Collins. “[If we are successful], I think we can model a new museum practice that could be increasingly relevant for many cities in this hemisphere.”