MIAMI (AP) -- Model yachts, rustic fishing boats and wooden rafts dangle above visitors as they step into the new Perez Art Museum Miami. The colorful display is both a playful nod to South Florida's maritime culture and a somber reference to the perilous journeys many make to get here. It is the perfect entry to a museum that channels the city around it: whimsical, vibrant, brimming with culture from across the Americas - and yes, a work in progress.
The museum, which opened in December, still lacks a permanent blockbuster, but its retrospective of Chinese master and political dissident Ai Weiwei, on display through mid-March, should temporarily satisfy. And the museum's eclectic and provocative collection, coupled with its bay front location, has quickly turned the PAMM - as locals already call it - into a must-see destination for tourists and natives.
"Our biggest competition down here isn't the other cultural institutions. It's the beach, the water," Museum director Thom Collins said. "So, rather than compete, the museum embraces its surroundings."
As in the rest of Miami's booming downtown, visitors to the Perez Museum are immediately greeted by construction along the museum's front plaza and at the site of a neighboring science museum, set to open in 2015. Once under the PAMM's shaded deck, though, Ai Weiwei's mammoth bronze animal Zodiac Heads welcome guests, and the call of gulls and ocean breezes take over.
The Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architect firm Herzog & de Meuron took pains to design an airy and hurricane resistant building, with a wide, shaded deck that can serve as the rare outdoor communal space in a city with scorching temperatures and no central park. Beneath the deck's three-story slatted roof, shrubbery-covered columns hang like an abstract enchanted forest, pumping recaptured rainwater through hidden pipes to further cool the deck.
Inside, strategically placed windows offer views of the beaches and downtown skyline and provide natural light, while an open floor plan ensures future exhibits can be shaped around new acquisitions. No space is wasted: the museum's center staircase doubles as a theater that can be divided into two auditoriums.
Ai's retrospective, which includes symbolic crab piles, buckets of pearls, a maze of hundreds of bicycle wheels and an exploration of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, will be followed by a retrospective of Caribbean art and an exhibit by Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes, whose psychedelic color bursts have earned her fame throughout Latin America and Europe.
Collins says that contemporary Latin American artists like Milhazes are sometimes overlooked by major U.S. museums.
"Her work is so baroque and sexual, and often in the U.S. we are somewhat puritanical," he said, "but it will be well received here."
The desire to tap into Miami sensibilities, culture and history is what drew Collins and chief curator Tobias Ostrander to the boat installation entitled, "For Those In Peril on the Sea." The work by Guyana-raised artist Hew Locke originally hung in a British church but could have easily been commissioned for Miami.
Most of the museum's art comes from the post-World War II period, reflecting the rise of Miami as a metropolis. The museum's strong suit is its Latin American collection, a sizeable portion of which came from Colombian-born developer Jorge Perez, who donated a combined $40 million in cash and art to earn naming rights. Perez, the son of Cuban exiles, has been a major force behind Miami's urban redevelopment. He says it's only natural that the museum would have such a strong Latin American and Latino influence.
"It's a museum that tries to capture Miami, and in capturing Miami, you have to understand what America - all of the Americas - are about," he said.
Perez began collecting Latin American art while in graduate school in New York. Like many immigrants, he yearned for his homeland even as he prepared to leave it behind. Art was a way to maintain the connection.
The museum's semi-permanent exhibit is entitled Americana and divided into themes rather than chronology: myth and identity, landscapes and desire, pop art and traditional crafts. Perez's collection includes some works by Latin American powerhouses like Colombian Fernando Botero, Mexico's Diego Rivera and Cuban artist Wifredo Lam. But many of the museum's most interesting pieces are by less well-known artists such as El Paso native Adrian Esparza, who literally deconstructs the cliche Mexican serape and repurposes it into a vast, complex, geometric weaving.
Collins and Ostrander were adamant they wanted to make the institution's work accessible to a wide range of art enthusiasts. Thus bilingual placards - Spanish and English - placed next to each work provide far more context than the usual name and title.
"You want to encourage people to look and get a lot just from what they are seeing, but labels helps them look longer and opens up new ways to view the art," Ostrander said.
Passions tend to run high in Miami when it comes to politics, but Collins and Ostrander aren't shying away from meatier topics. The museum dedicates several installations to institutional violence throughout the Americas and beyond, including a giant, mixed media collage by Sue Coe, depicting the 1973 imprisonment and torture of Chileans under Gen. Augusto Pinochet, replete with a symbol of U.S. corporate interests - a Pepsi machine - in the foreground.
One of the most popular initial exhibits is that of the late Cuban Avant-garde painter Amelia Peláez, revered in Miami's Cuban exile community. Collins and Ostrander say they'd also like to produce a show by current Cuban artists - a bold move in a town where many still believe such attention would only benefit the island's aging communist government, but also one that like the museum itself, reflects the complex and evolving nature of Miami in the 21st century.
If You Go...
PEREZ ART MUSEUM MIAMI: 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; http://www.pamm.org or 305-375-3000. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Thursdays until 9 p.m. Adults, $12; seniors, students and children 7-18, $8.
Follow Laura Wides-Munoz on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lwmunoz