The Sunshine Economy: The Basel Bump for Art Museums

Dec 11, 2017

Another year of Art Basel and Art Week is history, but will the growing number of art museums in South Florida experience a Basel bump?


Some may think the art museum market is getting crowded with private and public institutions vying for time, attention and donations. There are more than a dozen art museums and family collections spanning South Florida. Two of them have opened in the past four years in new superstar buildings. Some use public funds, others are entirely private financed. But they all think art is important for the local economy.

WLRN spoke with the leaders of three regional art museums.

• Hope Alswang, Norton Museum of Art

• Bonnie Clearwater, NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale

• Ellen Salpeter, Institute of Contemporary Art Miami

These three art museums represent several millions of dollars of spending and a few dozen full-time workers -- an industry that has been growing with public art museums like the Perez Art Museum Miami, private family collections opening to the public and privately funded museums.

Norton Museum of Art Director Hope Alswang signs the steel beam topping off the museum's new wing on June 27, 2017.
Credit courtesy: Norton Museum of Art

Is there a Basel bump at your museum?

"Oh, definitely," said Bonnie Clearwater, director of NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale. "It's one of the biggest drivers of memberships."

Hope Alswang, director of the Norton Museum of Art, said, "There's a huge Basel bump." She said the annual art fair in Miami Beach marks the beginning of the traditional season in Palm Beach County for many of her patrons.

For the ICA Miami and director Ellen Salpeter, time will tell if there is a bump from Basel. The museum just opened it's new building this month

The ICA Miami represents the continued growth of the art museum market in South Florida. It is the second such museum to open in a new superstar building in the past four years. (Pérez Art Museum Miami opened in 2013). A third museum, the Bass, reopened in time for Art Basel 2017 after a two-year, $12 million renovation. 

Bonnie Clearwater is the director of the NSU Art Museum Ft. Lauderdale.
Credit courtesy: Gary James

Is the art museum market getting too crowded?

"We are a young community," said Salpeter. "Miami is  not London. It's not New York or even Los Angeles. We're just over a century old, and in the last 20 years with the advent of Basel and all of the satellite fairs there's a hunger for arts programming for communities that are here the rest of the year."

Alswang from the Norton called the prevalence of art museums and collections in Miami-Dade County an "embarrasement of riches. I don't think you can say that about Palm Beach County yet."

Clearwater from the NSU Art Museum dismissed any concerns about a crowded art museum market. "I don't think there's ever such a thing as too much."

Ellen Salpeter is the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami.
Credit courtesy: Rolando Diaz

So, how's business?

"Business at the museum is great," said the Norton's Alswang. The museum's annual operating budget is $9 million and it is raising $100 million as it builds a new wing to the museum in West Palm Beach. Alswang said they're 80 percent to their goal.

The ICA Miami set a $75 million goal three years ago to build a new museum and fill it with contemporary art. The new building opened Dec. 1 with no admission charge. "People want to invest in something they actually think has impact. It's not a vanity project," said Salpeter. The ICA Miami expects to spend $6 million a year to keep the museum running. And it's committed to doing so without charging admission. "Art has become part of the currency of Miami."

Revenues are up at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, according Clearwater.  To make her point about the nonprofit arts business in Broward County, she mentioned a new report from Americans for the Arts finding the county's arts and culture industry contributed $414 million in economic impact in 2015.