BY HOWARD COHEN, hcohen@MiamiHerald.com
At art museums the world over, the rule for visitors is simple: Please Don’t Touch.
One Miami artist not only ignored that warning, he picked up, threw down, and thoroughly smashed a piece of art work at the city’s gleaming new art museum on the bay.
Maximo Caminero said he did it to protest the type of artists showcased at Pérez Art Museum Miami. A security guard saw him hoist the pottery worth $1 million to the museum on Sunday and asked him to put the piece down, according to a Miami police report. Instead, he tossed it down.
The brazen act, which he characterized as a protest to police, shocked the museum and the art world. The smashed vase was one of 16 in a display by celebrated Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.
Caminero, a Dominican Republic-born artist whose Caribbean-inspired paintings have been exhibited locally and abroad, was arrested and charged with criminal mischief.
The incident is the first to rattle Miami’s mega-museum, a $131 million complex with 200,000-square-feet of display space at its new building that opened in December near AmericanAirlines Arena.
“The museum is working with the authorities in their investigation,” the museum’s deputy director for external affairs, Leann Standish, said Monday in a statement. She said the artwork was insured.
The museum, and the exhibit, its first traveling solo retrospective, remains open.
Ai Weiwei: According To What? focuses on works by Ai Weiwei and depicts Chinese culture and history. The politically charged exhibit’s ties to Miami and its large refugee community, many of whom lost homes because of shoddy construction in South Miami-Dade during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, is reflected in the Beijing-born artist’s display of rebar culled from buildings that were destroyed in the 2008 earthquake in Szechuan. Some of the rebar comes from schools where more than 5,000 Chinese children died.
Another tie to South Florida is less incendiary. Inside the vast exhibit on the museum’s second floor are photographs of the construction of the Beijing Olympic stadium for which Ai Weiwei consulted with the architects of Herzog & de Meuron — the same Swiss firm that designed PAMM.
According to the police report, Caminero, 51, picked up one of the vases on display and was ordered to put the vase down by museum security staffer Ciara Foster. Instead, Caminero “threw and broke the vase on the floor.” Caminero told the arresting officer that he broke the artwork in protest of the museum on behalf of local artists. He said he felt that locals were slighted in favor of international artists at the high-profile PAMM.
“The argument does not support the act,” Ai Weiwei told the New York Times from China. Nevertheless, “A work is a work. It’s a physical thing. What can you do? It’s already over.”
By Monday afternoon, Caminero, who could face up to five years in prison, was released. He told the Miami Herald he was planning to talk more about it on Tuesday afternoon at his small art studio in Miami at 598 NE 77th St.
“My lawyer said to say nothing today,” Caminero said, adding that he was awaiting the services of another lawyer to represent him.
Caminero was quoted in a Miami New Times blog: “I did it for all the local artists in Miami that have never been shown in museums here. They have spent so many millions now on international artists. It’s the same political situation over and over again. I’ve been here for 30 years and it’s always the same.”
Caminero, whose own works have been displayed over the years locally at Babacar M’Bow’s Multitudes Contemporary Art Gallery in Little Haiti, Miami Dade College, JF Gallery in West Palm Beach and Giovanni Rossi Art Gallery in Fort Lauderdale, said he didn’t realize the green Ai Weiwei vase he destroyed was so valuable.
Ai Weiwei, a sculptor, designer and documentarian is known for his political activism. His fervent criticism of the Chinese government and what he saw as its corrupt practices in construction and inspection after the Szechuan earthquake, led to his arrest in 2011. His art is allowed to leave China but he is not free to travel and was not at the exhibit’s opening in December.
One component of According to What? features a series of three black-and-white photos of the artist, in protest mode, as he holds a Chinese vase and lets it drop to the ground where it smashes to bits.
A 1995 Ai Weiwei exhibit at Philadelphia’s Arcadia University Art Gallery was titled, Dropping the Urn. The show drew its name from one of his iconic works, a triptych of large black-and-white photographs in which he impassively is depicted dropping a century’s-old Han-Dynasty urn.
PAMM has featured local artists both at its current location and its previous incarnation as the Miami Art Museum. PAMM has major upcoming exhibitions from Haitian-born Miami artist Edouard Duval-Carrié who will showcase Imagined Landscapes, his latest large-scale paintings and scultpures, in March. Adler Guerrier will open a multimedia display of works, many of which depict Miami, in October.
Sunday’s destruction could have repercussions for the Miami art museum.
“It’s possible this could have some effect on them,” said Steve Keller, museum security consultant for the Ormond Beach-based Museum Association Security Committee. The organization consults more than 850 museums nationwide on security measures. PAMM is not one of these museums. Incidents in which art is purposely damaged by patrons are rare but not unheard of, Keller said. When they do happen, museums or exhibitors can be leery about showcasing major installations in the future.
“Very often museums will then impose additional requirements for additional guards or electronics in the space,” Keller said. “It’s hard to say but I can see where it could have some impact.”
PAMM declined to comment Monday on its security measures. “The details of our security are, for obvious reasons, confidential,” Standish said.
Museums commonly protect art in various ways, including alarms and enclosed cases.
But ultimately, there’s only so much a museum can do to prevent harm to its works.
“Should we hide the originals away and only put out the reproductions? If you’re going to allow people to get up close and personal then you are taking a risk but that’s what art is all about, a calculated risk,” said Keller, the museum industry security consultant. “This is one that didn’t go the right way.”
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