Getting the Lay of the Land with New Miami Art Museum Director Thom Collins

Thom Collins is some sport. Naturally you’d expect the new director of the Miami Art Museum to be the sporting type, especially knowing he’s here to steer the museum’s monumental move to the wondrous Herzog & de Meuron headquarters in 2013. But I can’t picture one of his predecessors being sporting enough to risk a madcap afternoon with yours truly, let alone doing so with such grace and good humor.

It all began one very wet Wednesday a couple weeks back. Tropical Storm Nicole was out in the Atlantic blowing us the kinda sloppy kisses that could lead to something ugly, and the city had cast a collective wary eye in her direction. But of course no mere storm can shut down a town like Miami, and aside from an uptick in traffic accidents and the usual flooded neighborhoods, it was a day like any other day, only wetter. Hell, if anything, folks were more annoyed that Nicole never strengthened enough so they could ditch work and throw one of those infamous hurricane parties we all enjoy so much.

Nevertheless, Nicole was a deadly storm (just ask Kingston, Jamaica), and though Miamians aren’t the least bit impressed by winds clocking less than 50mph, the bitch could easily have turned face and wreaked a whole lotta havoc. So I was a little uncertain whether my appointment with Collins would go off as scheduled. I was even less certain that the recent transplant would still be game for the sit-down. Turns out my worries were for naught. Collins not only made it into work that dogged day, but he too was lamenting the fact that Nicole hadn’t delivered on her devastating promise.

“I was all set for my first hurricane party,” he told me the minute we met. “I’d stocked up on enough essentials to last for days!” And from the gleam in his eyes I was sure Thom Collins was the kinda cat that Miami would welcome with proverbial open arms.

Collins — who’s helmed institutions in Baltimore, Cincy and, most recently, Purchase (the Neuberger Museum of Art) — was then just three weeks into being a Miamian, yet he was already carrying himself like a native. And after we’d adjourned to his office for an interview, it was clear he’d come here to be just that. His questions were on point and of genuine interest, and our chat went swimmingly (no pun). In the end though, it was still just a couple of smart (ass) guys sitting around an office talking. The next day I decided to scrap the keen Q&A and call Collins on his desire to meet some of Miami’s art players. On Friday afternoon I found out it was no bluff.

Butter Gallery owner Paco de La Torre served as our guide. Yeah, I know people. But Paco’s one of the people who knows the people I don’t. Plus, he’s a cool cat — one of the coolest. And his gallery happens to have one of the best rosters in town. So when I told him I’d offered to take Collins around, Paco pledged to pave the way in his tricked-out ’66 Lincoln. And even a fool like me isn’t foolish enough to turn down an offer like that.

We snatched up Collins at Michael’s Genuine, where he’d been lunching with Miami Modern Luxury‘s Richard Martin, who’d apparently told Collins I had “more energy than God.” I don’t know God, but I’ll take the compliment. After Paco and I had the necessary fortifications (aka cocktails), we took Collins where even God won’t go.

First stop: Primary Flight‘s soon-to-open Dash Building HQ. PF co-chief Typoe was on hand to walk us through the what not, and it seems the international street art cabal that he and Blackbooks (actually the guy’s name) co-founded has finally found a place their collective can call home base. The build-out is just about done, and it’s a bet that by the time Basel rolls around in December, everybody and their kid sister will have been there with bell-bottoms on.

From there we made our way to Spinello Gallery, home to everyone from Typoe to head-losing Lee Materazzi. Chief Anthony was waylaid, so the three of us ducked into Locust Projects where Valerie Hegarty’s “Break-Through Miami” gave us the kinda “reverse archeology” which transcends our town’s mere 100+ years of existence. DotFiftyOne co-head Isaac Pereleman happened to be hanging out, so after a flurry of intros we decided to add his space to our equation.

Actually, since DotFiftyOne is one of the District’s originals (it opened in 2003), we’d planned on stopping by the space anyway. But Bernice Steinbaum goes back even further, so her gallery had to come first. And while the great lady wasn’t on hand to greet us, her chick-first legacy was, from Tatiana Parcero’s vivid “Memoirs of the Future” to Billie Grace Lynn’s creepy-cool kinetic rabbit.

Over to Dot we were all most struck by Michiyoshi Deguchi’s overgrown paperweights and Raquel Schwartz’s cassette tape drapes in partner Alfredo Gusman’s groovy green upstairs office. But when we descended the original 1935 wood-crafted staircase and adjourned to Dot’s in-house art boutique, I found something even more to my digging: a collection of boxed dioramas by Colombian artist Jairo Marin, which looked like something Cornell might have pulled off had he a deep affinity for pop culture. His work left me so struck that I nabbed a copy of his book Behind the Glass to bring home as a souvenir.

Down at Butter Gallery, Paco and I stepped outta the way and let neo-classicist Rick Falcon walk Collins through his unequivocally compelling “Living to Die; Dying to Live,” which I believe goes to great depths few visualists — Miami or otherwise — ever dare to go. Collins concurred, calling Falcon a “serious artist” and allotting him the kinda time that you don’t give to someone whose work you don’t dig. It was truly gratifying to see the new MAM director appreciate one of Miami’s most-promising art stars, and it was yet another glimpse into why Collins is the kinda guy we need running our town’s signature institution.

That gratification was compounded when we made a stop at Butter Gallery artist Tawnie Silva’s studio, and Collins took in the obscenely fun inflatables and poetically poignant carny banners in the madcap manner they were meant. Thom even took the time to sit with Tawnie through a video of his last show, “You Like Everything About Me, Except Me”, a move that showed respect on too many levels to contemplate.

We wrapped up the whirlwind afternoon at Mercadito Midtown, where we were joined by Waltman Ortega Gallery co-head Aliona Ortega, and where Collins expressedly expressed his joy at being given the lay of the land. I, in turn, commended the man on being such a good sport throughout our three-hour tour. I mean, few folks dare hit the town like I do; even fewer dare do so in my company. That Thom Collins dared both means we’ve got a real Miamian on our hands — already tried and absolutely true.

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