Where art thou? Public artworks missing in Miami-Dade

Sep. 9--No one knows whatever became of artist Romare Bearden's etching The Train, last reported to be in Miami-Dade County's Family Health Care Center sometime before 1999.

Ditto for George Tice's photograph Petit's Mobil Station, Robert Rauschenberg's lithograph Unit (Buffalo) and dozens of other artworks that have gone missing from Miami-Dade's Art in Public Places program.

Miami-Dade has spent three decades -- and more than $33 million -- building one of the largest and richest art collections in Florida, destined to enhance courthouses, libraries, transit stations, the airport and the seaport.

But the collection of more than 700 artworks, praised by many as among the finest in the field, is in disarray:

--A county audit of the program is under way to determine, among other things, why dozens of artworks have been lost or stolen.

--Signature works by seminal artists have deteriorated, with no money and no plans to restore them, while others sit in storage, belying the notion of art in public places.

--At least 20 works that together cost more than $800,000 have been dropped from the collection inventory because they are either damaged or missing.

--Program administrators still rely on an inconsistent, incomplete inventory to track and manage the collection.

At the center of the chaos is the tax-supported program that is supposed to oversee these works. Supporters of public art say the program has strayed from its beginnings as a collection intended to beautify community spaces and educate residents about the value of art.

"Disappearance and neglect was never a part of the vision of the program," says Ruth Shack, a former county commissioner and member of the first Art in Public Places selection committee, established in 1973.

County officials say, in turn, that Art in Public Places has been hindered by inadequate funding, hurricanes, computer failures and insufficient staff -- and they do not foresee improvements soon.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez has proposed cutting the program's six-member staff to three and folding it into the Department of Cultural Affairs as a cost-saving measure.

"It needs general funds, which is not about to happen now," says Ivan Rodriguez, director of Art in Public Places, who has overseen the program since December 2000 and expects to retire this year. "That will make all the difference in the world. And everything falls in line with that."

SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

The program is funded through a 1973 ordinance that sets aside 1.5 percent of public-building construction costs to underwrite art. It received $5 million last year and is projected to receive $1.5 million this year.

That money pays for the commissioning of new artworks, administrative salaries and the conservation of an extensive and aging collection whose most visible pieces are often outdoors in a punishing climate.

Over the years, however, program administrators have lost track of more than 10 percent of the collection -- at least 87 pieces. And although the missing art initially cost about $95,000 in total, comparable works are fetching much more in today's exuberant art market.

Experts in managing public art say Miami-Dade's inability to account for works is almost unheard of.

"It's really the rare case when [artwork] disappears," says Liesel Fenner, public art manager of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit arts advocacy group.

"I'm not aware of any [missing works in Broward]," says Earl Bosworth, assistant director of Broward County's Cultural Affairs Division, which maintains a collection of 205 public artworks.

Jill Manton, San Francisco's public art director and chair of the Public Art Network, a subgroup of Americans for the Arts, says missing art has never been a topic of discussion at PAN conferences and other meetings.

"Either it's not being talked about or it's not a common problem," she says.

HOW ART GOT LOST

It is unclear under whose watch Miami-Dade's program began to lose track of the Art in Public Places collection.

Cesar Trasobares, director of the program from 1985 to 1991, cannot remember art ever missing from the collection.

"The inventory system was established and computerized . . . in the early 1980s," he says. "The idea was to not only keep track physically of the object itself but of its condition. It also had fields for schedules of maintenance, for recording problems there may have been with it. It was both to track and to manage.

"By the time I left, which was early 1991, all of that had been kept up."

Trasobares' tenure ended with the program nearly bankrupt as various county departments refused to pass along the assessment for public art -- as much as $5.8 million in 1990.

Struggling with debt and intransigent county department heads, Trasobares says, subsequent program directors may have had higher priorities than keeping an accurate inventory.

Vivian Donnell Rodriguez, public art director from 1991 to 2000 and Ivan Rodriguez's wife, says the electronic database that Trasobares created was incomplete and likely crashed some time before Hurricane Andrew struck in the summer of 1992.

"We did inherit an inventory that was on some sort of a disc," she says. "We found that it was inadequate and then the whole thing crashed. We lost everything."

Donnell Rodriguez, who was recently asked by Mayor Carlos Alvarez to resign from her job as acting Miami-Dade parks director, says she tried to re-create the inventory from paper lists but was thwarted again. "By then, I think, is when we had Hurricane Andrew, which just wreaked havoc," she says. "I know we lost a lot of little things."

The priority even for the Art in Public Places staff then became hurricane relief.

"[We were] assigned to coordinate a volunteer effort to hand out water and food, all these other sort of critical needs," Donnell Rodriguez says. "The last thing in any of our minds was finding little, small photographs and things."

Donnell Rodriguez believes that this is when many of the 87 works, mostly framed paintings, lithographs, photos and other portable works, went missing.

"These things haven't been walking away or what have you," she says. "More than likely, and I don't know all the pieces because I'm not up to date on these things, but you're talking about things that were potentially lost in the hurricane.

"I don't think anything has been missing in many, many, many years because things have been monitored much better."

Cindi Nash, chair of the independent Public Art Trust, which approves artwork and expenditures, says she is satisfied that missing art is no longer a problem for the program.

"We have it under control now," she says. "Whatever is missing was missing a long time ago, and things haven't gone missing in a lot of years."

County Manager George Burgess, who is ultimately responsible for the program's administration, did not return telephone calls from The Miami Herald.

FEW CLUES

It's impossible to know exactly when or how art disappeared from the collection, Ivan Rodriguez says.

"It could be that someone walked away with them, but not necessarily," he says. "It could be that pieces were damaged during a storm. It could be that someone had something up on a wall, they came to a new office, didn't like what was up, didn't know it was part of any collection and disposed of it. I don't know. It might have been thrown away."

County officials became aware of the problem in late 1999 or early 2000 after Donnell Rodriguez hired an art-collection specialist to build the inventory that Ivan Rodriguez uses to track the collection today.

The computerized database shows that 48 of the 87 missing artworks have been reported to police as lost or stolen. Thirty-nine others are listed as missing; those, too, will be reported to police if they don't turn up, Ivan Rodriguez says. The agency is continuing to try to reconcile its database with the works that are displayed. That process may discover new missing works -- or find some of those identified previously as missing.

Program officials last reported lost or stolen artwork to police in May 2001 -- four pieces that cost about $1,200. The 39 missing artworks have yet to be reported to police.

Missing works are eventually removed from the collection inventory, Rodriguez says.

To date, the Public Art Trust has approved the removal of at least 20 artworks. Not all were missing. Some deteriorated, others were damaged by storms and still more were destroyed to make way for new construction, such as at Miami International Airport.

Taken together, the 20 works represent an investment of $861,000 for the county -- money it will never recoup because the Art in Public Places collection is insured by the county itself.

UNRELIABLE RECORDS

Still other artworks listed in the database raise questions about the reliability of the county's record-keeping.

One piece on the list is by the artist Christo. It is titled Wrapped Island XX/100, suggesting that it was one in a set of 100 prints.

Wrapped Island was last located on the 29th floor of Government Center in the county manager's office, according to the database, which notes that it was accounted for in 1999 and 2000 but not in 2001.

The only clue to its whereabouts is an entry under a column for miscellaneous remarks that reads: "Gift to County Manager -- He took with him when he left."

Rodriguez says he can only guess that Wrapped Island was mistakenly entered into the database, although he cannot say by whom. Nor could he say when the piece was purchased or what it cost.

"I haven't been able to find anything on it," he says. "I'm not even sure why it's in the inventory."

Neither is the former county manager who is still in possession of Wrapped Island, Merrett Stierheim. Contacted by The Miami Herald, Stierheim said the framed print, which is signed by Christo, hangs in a hall at his downtown Miami office.

Stierheim, who served as county manager from 1976 to 1986 and again from 1998 to 2001, says the print was likely entered into the Art in Public Places inventory by mistake when county staff began to rebuild the database in late 1999.

The print hung in Stierheim's office when he was president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau from 1990 to 1998, he says. It is marked No. 29 of 1,000 and has no inventory number on the back or any mark indicating that it is part of the county's collection.

"It's been in my possession for 25 years. If I had to guess, I think it was a gift from Christo, but I can't swear to that. I just don't know."

Stierheim says he now plans to donate the work to the Merrett R. Stierheim Urban Affairs Collection of the Miami-Dade Public Library System.

AUDIT REQUESTED

The missing art has raised the suspicions of County Commissioner Sally Heyman, who in April requested an audit of the program.

Heyman's request came after the county's Office of the Inspector General in February issued a scathing report on a sculpture, John Henry's Paciencia, which was removed from the South Miami Metrorail station by the developer of the proposed Hometown Station office complex, which has since been scuttled.

Paciencia, which cost the county $32,055 when it was installed in 1982, was removed without county approval in January 2005. County investigators found the sculpture in pieces at a Medley construction yard earlier this year.

Inspector General Christopher Mazzella's report faulted Ivan Rodriguez's office, saying the sculpture was "all but forgotten" until his investigators found the pieces.

Rodriguez told The Miami Herald in February that his office knew where the sculpture was but did not try to retrieve the artwork for eight months last year.

When Heyman began to ask questions of county staff members about other works in the program, she says, 'the response was not 'Let me look into it,' or 'Let me find out,' or 'I'll get that to you.' It was 'Why are you asking?' and that type of thing. Or 'You shouldn't be asking,' or 'Nobody's asked before,' . . . and that just raised a red flag for me."

Missing art, she says, "is going to cause people to not have confidence" in the multimillion-dollar program.

County commissioners already have expressed their doubts about the program. At a May meeting of the county's Recreation and Cultural Affairs Committee, Commissioner Javier Souto surmised that the missing works were stolen.

"Maybe they're in South America or in Europe," he said.

Said Commissioner Katy Sorenson: "They're just now part of the art in private places department."

POOR UPKEEP

It's not just missing public art that worries Shack, the former county commissioner. She is also bothered that artworks have been allowed to deteriorate and then put into storage.

"We have to have some absolutely marvelous pieces throughout this county that we don't know about," she says. "That they're falling into disrepair, or that they're warehoused, is really a disgrace."

Among the warehoused works no longer considered part of the collection are Nam June Paik's Miami and Wing -- multimedia installations made of TV sets, neon lights, propellers and other items -- which are stored at Miami's Bakehouse Art Complex.

Paik, who died in Miami Beach in January 2006, is hailed as the inventor of video art and created the works at the height of his career, says Trasobares, the former program director.

The county paid $70,000 for Miami and $95,000 for Wing in 1989. The works were installed at the airport but were damaged by vandals and thieves, a fire that started inside one of the installations, and water damage from an airport bar situated above one of the works.

While the county retains the rights to the works, Rodriguez estimates that it would cost more than $100,000 to rebuild them, and he has no plans to do so.

"It's not meant to be precious museum quality that should be around for hundreds of years," he says.


Loading