Lessons from a Latin American Patron

“I wanted a place that was young, that was vibrant and where urban development hadn’t occurred.” For Jorge Pérez, that place was Miami—his home since 1968 fresh out of grad school.

“Miami offered an empty blackboard where I could write my own story.” That story includes a real estate empire, one of the world’s finest collections of Latin American and Cuban art in particular, and the first art museum to bear the name of a Latin American patron: The Pérez Art Museum Miami.

A Miró in college

Pérez began collecting art in college, purchasing three lithographs he still owns: by painter Joan Miró, photographer Man Ray and sculptor Marino Martini. “Whenever I had two cents to rub together, I would buy whatever I could.”

As a young boy, Pérez says, his mother introduced him to museums and galleries. “She ingrained this cultural experience that has followed me throughout my career,” he says. “As soon as I started to have some success, I began buying art, especially Latin American art, because I was making my new home in the United States and was afraid of losing my roots.”

Pérez was born to Cuban parents living in exile in Argentina, and he grew up there and in Colombia. He came to the United States to attend college, earning an undergraduate degree at C.W. Post in New York and a Master in Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.

Pérez became Miami’s head of economic and community development, and soon began a partnership with New York developer Stephen Ross, with whom Pérez co-founded the Related Group in 1979. In the 1980s, he and Ross built affordable housing in Florida and then high-end condos. By 2005, Pérez was one of the wealthiest individuals in America.

Enrique Martinez Celaya (Cuban, born 1964), Verano (Summer), 2007. Oil and wax on canvas.
Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Art by living artists

As Pérez’s wealth grew, so did his collection. He and his wife, Darlene, began annual trips to New York to visit auction houses and galleries, and to meet other Latin American collectors. “It was very important for me to maintain that attachment to my culture through the arts.”

Pérez developed relationships with several artists during studio visits. “Now I only buy art from living artists,” he says. “I can ask them about their creative process and discuss what the work means. I love that Latin American art speaks about our culture. That it talks about political oppression. That it talks about egalitarian societies. These expressions are very important to me.”

I need to love it

Pérez’s approach to business—and especially to art—is highly personal. “I don’t consider myself a scientific buyer,” he says. “Art for me is something that is very emotional. Business for me is very emotional. Even dining for me is very emotional. I respond to art first by the senses and by emotion, and then I study it.”

“There could be a million curators telling me this is going to be the greatest artist in the world, or that a piece of art will become important for all these objective reasons. The first thing that happens has got to come inside through the gut. I need to love it and want to see it every day in my house.”

Pérez also acquires art for the pure joy a piece gives him. “I like Latin American geometric expressionism, where there’s lots of colors and patterns,” he says. “I like them just for the sheer beauty of the art. So I buy for very different reasons, and I move in styles very freely.”

As a result, Pérez’s collection defies easy definition. “My collection is not a figurative collection. It’s not an abstract collection. It’s not just a video or photography or installation collection. I try to move in all those mediums and learn about them as much as I can.”

Gifts of millions and artworks

“Miami, being at the crossroads between the north and the south, should have the best Latin American collection in the United States,” says Pérez. “I see myself as a borrower of this art, and then it will go to the museum.”

Pérez joined the board of the Miami Art Museum in 2004. In 2011, after he donated $20 million to support construction of a building designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the board voted to rename the museum for him. He also donated $20 million in art from his collection.

In 2016, Pérez donated an additional $15 million gift: 200 works from his Cuban collection and $10 million in cash, half of it dedicated to acquiring Latin American art and half for the endowment. Even now, he says he has not finished contributing.

The museum bearing his name means a great deal to Pérez. “I want to be known as a person who really cared about the arts and tried to make Miami a culturally thriving community. But also very importantly, there had been no major institution named for a Latin American. There is the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Tate. It was very important for the Latino community to start having a major presence in these urban institutions.”

Yoan Capote (Cuban, born 1977), Island (see-escape), 2010. Oil, nails and fish hooks on jute on panel.
Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The joy of risk

Pérez advises starting collectors to follow his lead. “The first thing that I always say to a new collector, just like I say to someone starting in business: ‘Always do what you love to do, what you’re passionate about, or you’re never going to become either a great businessperson or a great collector.” Pérez has never sold a piece he has acquired.

And he encourages collectors to take risks. “You should research, so you’re paying the right price for the right artist—but take chances. Sometimes artists haven’t been discovered yet. This happened to me a lot. I take huge risks in what I buy. And it makes my life much more interesting to take those risks, as opposed to just buying what is already established.”

“My wife and I love to come to the museum when the schoolchildren are here, and to look at all these rooms filled with kids,” Pérez says. “You see their imaginations just exploding. So many studies show that children who have been exposed to the arts do much better academically, and much better in life. So I tell new collectors, collect for you, but also collect with a thought of sharing it, so others can enjoy the fruits of your collection.”

To learn more about how we can help you manage your collection as part of your overall wealth plan, we invite you to contact us, and a J.P. Morgan representative will be in touch with you.

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