by David Arthur Walters
Two cultural institutions presently inhabit Collins Park: Miami Beach Public Library, on Collins Avenue, and Bass Museum of Art, on Park Avenue. Collins Park is named after John S. Collins. Mr. Collins arrived in Miami in 1906. He detected the presence of water in Miami Beach and started farming avocados, fruits, and vegetables, commuting by boat between Miami and the beach. His Miami Beach property eventually included the area between 14th and 67th streets. In 1913, he deeded the nine acres between 21st and 22nd Streets, running back from the beach front to Park Avenue, for use as a park. The park was transferred to Miami Beach for $1 after the city was incorporated. The area between 21st and 23rd in and around Collins Park was officially designated "Collins Park Cultural Center" in 2001.
The current library building has in large part become a day center for the many homeless persons in the area. It is supposed to be razed once the collection is transferred to the recently completed, handsome building across 22nd Street. A self-styled advocate for homeless persons believes the current library building should be replaced with a new day center for the homeless, but that suggestion is incongruent with the plans of the city and the plans of the private developers of the $100-million Artécity condominium complex now in progress on Park Avenue behind Collins Park.
Bass Museum of Art used to be the John S. Collins Memorial Library and Art Center; it opened in 1934 with 18,000 volumes. The wonderful old structure is the finest example of Art Deco in the area. It housed the intellectual and artistic center for the Art Deco movement in the district. The flat, abstracted Classical structure was designed by Collins' grandson, Russell T. Pancoast. Mr. Pancoast attended Miami High School, took his degree at Cornell University, joined a Miami design firm for awhile, then went out on his own. The building is faced with slabs of coral from the Florida Keys. It does not have a pedimental portico or capitaled colonnade - its entrance has square columns. In 1937, sculptor Gustav Bohland provided three beautiful bass-relief friezes with native and national themes above the entrance and placed seagull-gargoyles on the corners. The whole affair has a Mayan appearance and has been classified by some experts as the best example of the 'Classical Moderne' style in Miami Beach - I believe the 'Moderne' appellation is inapt to the extent that experts used to consider 'Moderne' a term for the debasement of the finer, French Art Deco - French Art Deco eventually embraced all fine works of individual craftsmanship with a modern flair, usually in costly materials.
After the current library was completed, the old Library and Art Center was taken over by the Bass Museum of Art, which opened in 1964. A preposterous addition - two huge, ungainly flat-faced boxes set at an absurd angle - recently turned the front of Bass Museum, which faces the park, into its rear end. Homeless people now sleep on cardboard boxes in the original entrance. Courteous critics of the present Bass Museum frontage on Park Avenue have politely called the controversial addition, designed by Arata Isozaki, "not complementary."
The Bass Museum of Art was plagued by a scandal shortly after it opened. Northern art dealers claimed that the so-called "masterpieces", donated to the City-owned museum by John Bass, its self-educated chairman, director and curator, were outright fakes. Mr. Bass was a frustrated artist who turned to Wall Street in his youth and acquired a considerable fortune - a City of Miami Beach Planning document describes him as a sugar "magnet" (sic). Looking forward to full retirement, he and his good wife lived part of the year at Morton Towers on Miami Beach.
Mr. Bass could not get a good price for his masterpieces up north, and he had one hell of a time giving them away to the City of Miami Beach. The city council was more than willing, but Mrs. Max Dobrin on the Fine Arts Board kept harping about appraisals and about getting experts to sit on the Board.
Mr. Bass, who said he had donated the art works because Miami Beach "has everything but culture," refused to recognize what he called, because of his constitutional understanding, the "nonexistent" board of arts.
Joanna Bass, the donor's wife, observed that, "It's the most difficult thing in the world to give something away."
Mr. Bass certainly did not take kindly to the constructive suggestions made by one Ralph Colin, an officer of the non-profit Art Dealers Association of America, "a mischievous group", Mr. Bass curtly noted, that had already "besmirched" the Chrysler collection - the association was working for the U.S. government at the time.
The City of Miami Beach never really thought the Bass collection needed appraising. But Mr. Colin advised the city council to do so anyway, saying that people should at least know the nature of the museum's contents, and, if the art works were merely representative of the periods involved, so be it, for there was nothing wrong with that.
Mrs. Dobrin said the city council members considered the members of her Fine Arts Board to be "sub-citizens" because the board was critical of "the iron-clad contract with Mr. and Mrs. Bass." Furthermore, she said, "the financial value isn't the main point. The important thing is the truth. If the painting is signed 'Rembrandt' it ought to be a Rembrandt." Incidentally, she was wont to call the museum the "Bass Art Mausoleum", a phrase that seems to indicate that her judgment as to authenticity had been suspended, since real old things ordinarily reside in mausoleums.
One Fritz Neugass, a reputable art critic, put in his nickel's worth. Many items in the collection did not meet high standards, he said. He pointed out that Mr. Bass had been unable to rid himself of the collection up north, at prices far below the value original masterpieces would bring on the market. That failure to sell had in fact caused another auction to be cancelled. And, he observed, museums all over the world would be clamoring for the Bass collection if it had authentic masterpieces. Incidentally, the Vermeer self-portrait Mr. Bass had donated, if original, would have been worth well over a million dollars at the time, yet Mr. Bass could not unload it for a paltry hundred grand.
Doris Reno, Art Editor for the Miami Herald, had already weighed in for the market needs of the community on April 12, 1964, concluding that all was well with the collection because there was no proof of blatant fraud, no evidence of tampered documents was on hand, and the painting were obviously produced in the periods of the masters who had painted them.
As for Mr. Bass, he was not, he said, about to let the "children", whom he had collected from all over the world, be called "bastards." At one point he threatened to withdraw the portion of the collection he had not yet donated to the city; he eventually asked that the entire collection be transferred to another museum. However, Mr. Bass finally allowed art historians to examine the collection and conduct an investigation. Picasso, by the way, returned a photograph of his signature on one painting - he had scratched out the signature and wrote "faux" or 'fake.'
The art historians concluded that most of the 77 "masterpieces" were "outright fakes". The collection as a whole, said the Association of American Art Dealers, "comprises the most flagrant and pervasive mislabeling by a museum known to this association."
Mr. Bass demurred on constitutional grounds. Since the names of the art historians had been kept secret, he could not accept their opinion. We might sympathize with him on that point: after all, if his children were minors, one might think the father was entitled to confront their accusers. Furthermore, as numerous trials over the authenticity of masterpieces have shown, originality is not always scientifically ascertainable. The layman must have blind faith in "one who knows" but who cannot say exactly how he knows; namely the experts. But whom is one to believe when those with the same degree cannot agree?
This brings to mind again the famous fake Vermeer, The Adulteress. Han Van Meegeren said, in self-defense, that it was a fake after being accused of colloborating with the Nazis by selling the painting to Herman Goering for $1 million in 1945. Van Meegeren claimed he had painted it himself, over another painting on the canvas. An X-ray revealed confirmed the underlying painting. The defendant said that he had been angered by the criticism of his own work, and had produced a fake to get even with them; but after that fake Vermeer was sold, he produced another and another, plus two de Hooch's! He made millions on the deal, and comforted his guilty conscience with morphine. He offered to produce an "original" (not a copy) in Vermeer's style as further proof of his innocence of the collaboration charge, if only the police would provide him with morphine and Vermeer's pigments. He was finally acquitted on the collaboration charge, but was held accountable for fraud.
A well known expert still maintained that Van Meegeren was guilty, that The Adulteress was an original Vermeer. On his death bed, Van Meegeren told his son that there was another great faked masterpiece out there somewhere, one that he had painted. I do not think it was one of John Bass' collection. Perhaps Mr. Bass had been duped, but the experts "who are in the know" seemed to know that most of his masterpieces was fakes; otherwise they would have sold them to other collectors or to museums. In fine, the experts with degrees were apparently unanimous.
As for the general public, they could have cared less about the authenticity of the collection. The Bass Museum of Art was very popular back then. Mr. Bass had even dropped the fifty-cent admission fee. As one local resident put it to me: "The paintings looked like masterpieces and were cheap. We loved them."
The museum was eventually closed;the curators sorted out the collection. Some labels were changed from "by" to "attributed to." The museum was reopened three months later and was a huge success. Art critics today are not supposed to worry about the collection. All is well at the Bass Museum of Art. The Bass Museum of Art is a bona fide, accredited art museum.
copyright 2005 David Arthur Walters