If I were to indulge in a criticism of south Florida’s status as a major world tourist destination it would be its lacking of a major world art museum.
Intellectually, I understand that Boston has been around for a very long time and that early European colonists brought their Rembrandts and their Hieronymus Boschs with them. Therefore, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is able to rival most anything Europe has to offer, and the art scene of Miami does not.
But what the Treasure Coast lacks in history, it compensates for with huge sums of money, so I was positively enamored when I heard of plans to move the disastrously located Miami Art Museum into a $131 million dollar building designed by the legendary Swiss architecture powerhouse Herzog & de Meuron. I have been salivating for years during its controversial construction, and for months since its opening, for an opportunity to visit.
The day did not start off well.
My friend was three hours late because he had run a marathon the night before and was understandably more sleepy than his alarm clock was wakeful.
When we got there, we were bamboozled into parking about a half mile away from the building on the south side of the vast and empty Museum Park.
Since we were late we scuttled plans to have lunch at the very nearby and wondrously international Bayside Marketplace food court, instead opting for what we knew was going to be an ambitiously priced museum cafe. Indeed, the proletariat must never find out how much a sandwich costs here as they may respond by burning down the building.
At any art museum cafe there is a certain level of pretension to be expected from the menu, and in this respect, the menu at “Verde” does not disappoint.
(Actually, since the cafe is encased with glass and concrete and offers views of an overpass and the half-demolished Miami Herald building, each obscuring a view of Biscayne Bay, the only association with “green” I could make with the cafe is the vast amounts of it disappearing from patrons’ wallets.)
If you are committed to eating at the restaurant I have two key pieces of advice.
One, make sure someone else, preferably a government or evil international consortium, is paying the bill.
Two, and I cannot be too clear on this point–buy the bottled water.
When they ask you if you want bottled water, treat it with the respect you’d give a mobster asking if your bar wants to participate in their anti-violence campaign. If you say, “no,” all manner of hijinks may occur.
After waiting 15 minutes for a table (there were several free, but they asked if they could “text” us when they were more conceptually prepared to host customers) we were seated and asked the fateful question:
“Would you gentleman care to buy a bottled water?”
“No, thank you, we’ll drink what you have from the tap.”
He gave me the look of a kidnapper asking me if I wanted to see my son alive again, then promptly disappeared for forty-five minutes–presumably looking for our car so he could cut the breaks. Suddenly, we felt fortunate that we had been tricked into parking in an adjacent county.
This gave us plenty of time to download French dictionaries to try to translate the menu and file the needed paperwork to take out the loans necessary to cover the meal. After traipsing around outside in the 100 degree humid south Florida weather (and this has apparently never happened there before) I had the audacity to be thirsty. My entreaties for non-bottled water went ignored through three service staff before I finally brought my glass to the Maitre d’. Within a few days a half-cup of water was presented garnished with a lonely single ice-cube.
We were not alone in feeling neglected, others resorted to flash-bangs and flare guns to get their servers’ attention. When unaccountably posh servers did reluctantly present themselves, questions about menu items were greeted with a vacillation of exasperated anger, sarcasm, and outright condescending disdain:
I asked about the serving size of the ceviche listed in the “lighter fare” section.
“‘Lighter fare’ means appetizer; so it’s the size of an appetizer,” one eye expressed concern that I might have a developmental cognitive disability while the other promised that he was still looking for our car.
“Are the pizzas big enough to share?”
“The pizzas are appropriately sized for personal consumption to the individual ordering it,” he bellowed cryptically with an enigmatic arrogance.
Even by Miami’s apathetic to antagonistic customer service standards–this was a very special place.
We both ordered a pizza involving prosciutto and arugula. Each turned out to be the size of Texas, and were objectively very good–they don’t skimp on the fancy ingredients and the food is presented with a fulgent exuberance. It was ironically salty, however, and there was no more water forthcoming absent a trip to the bathroom sink.
The patrons surrounding us got steaks and fresh fish and in every case the portions appeared generous and gorgeously exhibited.
We were way to angry to enjoy it. I am usually as docile as a Hindu cow content to block traffic in Agra, and my friend successfully offered to pay the bill to quell my rather noticeable frustration.
Attitude reset, we toured the museum’s collection.
The building is one of the finest in the world.
The collection, meanwhile, is underwhelming.
It’s not bad, it’s not mediocre, it’s just underwhelming.
Previous perceptions of the universe are not shattered. Personal philosophy is not challenged. There are no emotional experiences to be had. One’s life struggles are not prompted to be rethought by canvas, photograph, video, or sound.
Being billed as a contemporary art museum, I had been hoping for a pitch black room where audio of a woman screaming would be replayed until an abrupt lighting scheme transformed the room alight with pink–as a reminder of breast cancer awareness–but the strange and the uncomfortable were not even available.
But there was some fun and idiosyncratic displays and the admission charge ($16) is well earned by simply entering the building itself.
The first exhibit that engaged me was appropriate to the curator’s decision to relate most of the collection to the uniqueness of Miami–it is called “cocaine paraphernalia.”
My favorite piece was a photograph of a lone man standing in an abandoned suburb of post-Katrina New Orleans holding a sign with the words “A Country Road – a Tree – Evening” which are the opening austere stage directions from Act One of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” In the play, Godot, who represents God, keeps sending a messenger to a pessimistic pair who keep waiting for him day after day while they vaguely know he will never come because he does not exist. Presumably, the photographer was giving his opinion of when FEMA aid would come to this particular New Orleans neighborhood. Creative, brilliant, funny.
I also enjoyed several Thai-protest sketches from Rirkrit Tiravanija which mostly reminded me of my time in Thailand during the recent political instability.
Less intrinsically personal, but curiously engaging works, also abound.
I also liked, but failed to understand, other pieces.
Then there were some sculpture installations. I think everyone who toured the museum took special interest in this space module shaped backyard shed.
This more critical piece seemed largely ignored.
Equally subtle was this artist/sculptor’s opinion of Miami politics:
The museum’s premiere exhibit was Leonor Antunes’ “a [sic] secluded and pleasant land. in [sic] this land I wish to dwell.”
I will try to return to The Perez when they schedule some performance art in its uniquely designed two-tiered stage theater which separates the first and second floor galleries.
But I may wait a while.
In 2016 the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science will open adjacent to the Perez and promises to be one of the great and elaborate science museums of the world. It is intended to rival the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Deutsches Museum in Munich.
When that opens the adjacent-bayside should fulfill its promised epithet of “Front Porch of south Florida.”
Let’s also maybe get some food trucks and street performers out there.
In the meantime, if you are a foreign tourist only visiting for three days, your time might be more enjoyably spent strolling and swimming on South Beach, shopping at the nearby Bayside Marketplace, partying in Coral Gables, treating yourself to high tea at the Biltmore, vaporizing into Collins Avenue, or looking at lawfully naked beautiful people at Haulover Park.
Miami will eventually be one of the world’s cultural epicenters, but it isn’t there yet. It is still, however, one of the most agreeable travel destinations in the Americas.
Perez Art Museum Miami
Museum Park at 1103 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami, FL 33132
Closed Mondays, 10AM – 6PM Tuesday-Sunday; open until 9PM on Thursday.
Discounted admission $12
Active duty military and children under 6 are admitted free.
The museum can be easily reached by public transport, take the metromover to “Museum Park” station. Have lunch one stop further at Bayside Marketplace. If the food court doesn’t appeal to you, consider the spectacular Argentine steakhouse buffet at the provocatively titled “The Knife.”
Allow two hours for a thorough viewing of the collection, or six hours, if you wish to eat at the museum.
In either case, bring money.