The Ambassadors

Listen to commentaries by Marilyn Holifield and Barron Channer


These Miami professionals are leading the drive for PAMM’s African-American Art fund.

by George Fishman

Before his family moved to Miami in 1985, entrepreneurial real estate investor Barron Channer spent his boyhood in Jamaica. Those memories inspired his first art purchase: “a stereotypical beach landscape with a palm tree and countryside shack,” Channer says. “It reminded me of the home my maternal grandmother and grandfather built and raised a fairly large family in.”

Now, after worldwide travels as a technology consultant and an MBA from Wharton, he’s again made Miami home. Passionate about Miami’s cultural future, he has joined the board of the Pérez Art Museum Miami and is co-chairing one of its newest initiatives.

“We’ve created an affiliate organization, the PAMM Ambassadors for African-American Art — individuals who, by their involvement, are making two statements: They embrace the museum’s mission in general, and they are particularly excited and encouraging of our desire to collect and showcase African-American art for the appreciation of the collective community,” Channer explains. The Knight Foundation and developer/philanthropist Jorge Pérez have established a $1 million fund for museum acquisition of works by African-American artists.

Ambassador memberships support the fund and its educational programs, offering a variety of opportunities and perks. To date, the fund has acquired works by Al Loving, Faith Ringgold and Xaviera Simmons.

Marilyn Holifield is co-chair. She grew up in Tallahassee, “in back of A&M University,” but has long made Miami her home — physically and culturally. “As a child I took art lessons, dance and piano. In fact, I thought I was going to be a concert pianist when I was growing up.”

Instead, she attended law school at Harvard and became a partner at Holland & Knight. “I’m a child of the ’60s, and I can’t remember when I haven’t been involved in equal rights.” Hired by the NAACP Legal Defense fund in New York, she litigated civil-rights cases throughout the South. And, “from when I acquired my first collage, I was focused on African-American artists and artists of the African Diaspora.”

She still is. “Historically speaking,” Holifield says, “museums have not embraced minority — and specifically African-American minority communities in staff or offerings.”

Rather than complain, she got involved. For sculptor Martin Puryear’s exhibition at Miami Art Museum (PAMM’s predecessor), she brought the artist to town and hosted a dinner for several hundred people. “I thought it was important that we give visibility to a leading African-American artist.” She did the same for Yinka Shonibare and for Faith Ringgold, and loaned a Jacob Lawrence portrait of Toussaint Louverture to a recent exhibition.

The new collecting initiative hits home. “The fund has an advisory committee that is made up of highly regarded persons in the art world. That committee will be advising the museum on artists from Miami as well as the world that the museum should consider in its collection,” Holifield says. “And it’s not just about raising funds. “As we move forward, we’re developing ways to tell the story of the Pérez Art Museum to collectors of African-American art, so they will think of us and embrace us.”

Channer sees the museum, along with the city, in a Renaissance phase. PAMM represents Miami’s visual culture, “projecting to the world the things we consider important.” Both are
glad to see local artists like Adler Guerrier and Edouard Duval-Carrie (recently given solo shows) “on the radar and in the museum.”

Says PAMM director Thom Collins, “We believe that individuals need to see themselves and the cultural traditions from which they emerge in the cultural offerings of the institutions they seek out.” With Ambassadors like Channer and Holifield, that shared ambition has strong legs.