B illionaire real estate developer and philanthropist Jorge M Pérez has erected gleaming towers in cities throughout the world, and his name is attached to the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), the flagship contemporary art museum in his adopted hometown. But at the moment, his pride and joy is a squat two-storey warehouse building called El Espacio 23, in a little-known industrial area of the city.
An experimental arts center inaugurated in December, it is the culmination of a great American success story – one which began overseas.
Pérez’s immigration odyssey spanned much of Latin America. Born in Argentina to Cuban parents, he moved to Havana at the age of eight, when his family repatriated. But just six months later, the Cuban Revolution forced them into exile, in Bogotá, Colombia. After finishing high school there, Pérez came to the US in 1968 to continue his education, first at Miami-Dade College, later at Berkeley University and the University of Michigan, where he earned his master’s in urban planning.
“We are probably the city where public, quasi-public, or private collections interact most with each other”
The Related Group, the company he launched in 1979, of which he is chairman and chief executive, has built more than 100,000 condominium and apartment residences, many of them in collaboration with such leading architects and designers as Philippe Starck, David Rockwell, Rem Koolhaas, César Pelli and Arquitectonica.
Pérez’s career as an art collector was born out of a desire to stay connected to his homeland. “After I finished school, when I decided to stay in the US, I had a lot of nostalgia for Latin America and was looking for my roots,” he says.
“I felt disconnected, and collecting Latin American art was a way for me to reconnect. In the beginning, when I had no money, I bought lithographs. They were all I could afford.
“So, for my first 20 or so years as a collector, I focused almost exclusively on Latin American art,” he continues. “In the beginning, in the 1980s, I learned a lot from the Latin American weeks at Sotheby’s. There were these wonderful dinners and events where I was able to meet other Latin American collectors. We discussed not just art but politics and business.”
As his collection grew – apace with his success in business – he looked to make a larger contribution to his adopted city. “I wanted to make Miami the capital of Latin America. I thought, we can make it much more than a fun, sunny, second-home place for many people. It could be a cultural capital.”
Pérez helped provide a lynchpin towards that goal when the board of the Miami Art Museum approached him as they were making plans to build a new home. In exchange for a lead gift, the museum was renamed in his honour in 2013. Over the years, he has sustained his support of the institution through various gifts, both in cash and art, with total contributions exceeding $60 million.
The Herzog & de Meuron-designed PAMM building, located on Biscayne Bay, immediately enlivened Miami’s cultural life. “The Museum’s previous building, downtown, designed by Philip Johnson, was fantastic, but it was built as a fortress,” he says.
“We are probably the city where public, quasi-public, or private collections interact most with each other”“We are probably the city where public, quasi-public, or private collections interact most with each other”“We are probably the city where public, quasi-public, or private collections interact most with each other”
With the news of Pérez’s plan to open El Espacio 23, some in Miami were concerned that his commitment to PAMM might be diminishing. “Far from it,” he says. “We are still committed to PAMM, 110 percent.”
It was Pérez’s gift of his entire collection of Latin American art to PAMM that led to El Espacio 23. “It gave me a freedom to grow in different directions. I had been pretty rigorous in the area that I collected. Now, I started collecting a very diverse range of artists, from Kenneth Noland and Alex Katz to Sol LeWitt and John Chamberlain. This had nothing to do with my previous collection.”
His new collection grew to such an extent that he needed significant storage space – which initially led him to purchase this 28,000 sq ft warehouse building in an area called Allapattah, not far from Miami International Airport.
“A couple of years ago, no one had heard of this neighbourhood, and it was much cheaper than it is now,” he recounts. “But as soon as we wiped the building clean and saw the bones and proportions, we saw its potential. It was actually our curator [Patricia Hanna], who said to me, ‘This could really be a place to show art.’ So, we decided to turn it into an exhibition space, which could be experimental and personal.”
Pérez brought another of his interests to the development. “Since I have always been interested in residencies, I said, ‘Why don’t we build three apartments and studio space?’” Artists and curators will thus be offered a series of eight-week residencies.
The centre’s inaugural exhibition, entitled Time for Change: Art and Social Unrest in the Jorge M. Pérez Collection, uses art to explore conflicts and contradictions in contemporary society. It features works by 80 artists, including Michelangelo Pistoletto, Doris Salcedo, Kara Walker, William Kentridge and Ai Weiwei. “We wanted the first exhibit here to talk about art as a social-change agent,” says Pérez.
Meanwhile, Allapattah is on the verge of becoming Miami’s hot new neighbourhood. Mera and Don Rubell just relocated their mega-collection from Wynwood to an impressive new 100,000 sq ft space designed by Annabelle Selldorf, just a few blocks from El Espacio 23.
“Miami was barren when I arrived here. I have watched it grow and progress,” says Pérez with a smile. In addition to his museum patronage, he has supported a wide variety of organisations in areas including economic development, education, health, culture and the environment. “Jorge is making a tangible and significant impact in Miami,” says Sarah Arison, chair of National YoungArts Foundation, one of his beneficiaries. “His passion for giving is inspired and rooted in a desire to make a difference for individuals and communities alike. I feel honoured to be able to work with him.”
Miami’s unique cultural ecosystem includes a number of other major private art collections that are open to the public, including Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz’s de la Cruz Collection and Martin Margulies’s Margulies Collection at the Warehouse. “We are probably the city where public, quasi-public, or private collections interact most with each other,” says Pérez.
With such a concentration of significant art collectors, sparks can sometimes fly. “Let me be diplomatic – I would say there is a healthy degree of competitiveness between us,” says Pérez. “But my hope is that we can eventually work in conjunction with each other; complement each other. There is no reason for us not to cooperate. I talk to the Rubells all the time and congratulate them on what they are doing. Their new space is fantastic.”
But what singles out Jorge M Pérez in a sometimes crowded field? “I can tell you there are better collectors in the world… but there’s nobody more passionate about art,” he says, with a touch of well-deserved pride.
Time for Change: Art and Social Unrest in the Jorge M. Pérez Collection, El Espacio 23, Miami, through 1 May