The schedule of social events surrounding last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach read like a who’s who of art-world power players: the Rubell family’s barbecue, David Zwirner’s dinner at Casa Casuarina, Yvonne Force Villareal’s soirée at the Standard. But despite its somewhat out-of-the-way location, a fete thrown by a relative newcomer to the art circuit drew swarms. Hundreds of collectors, dealers and hangers-on showed up to kiss the ring of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, a 63-year-old collector-turned-patroness who, with stunning speed, has become one of the heaviest hitters on the Miami scene.
Although she married into one of Latin America's richest families, Fontanals-Cisneros had far too much energy to spend her days prepping for parties.
Fontanals-Cisneros didn’t start collecting in earnest until 1999, when, after years of devoting herself to philanthropy, she says, “I decided to do something for myself.” She began by buying up the work of predominantly Latin American artists including Jesús Rafael Soto and Rufino Tamayo. In 2002 she founded the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation to provide grants and arrange commissions for Latin American artists, some of whom are given a chance to display their work at the organization’s sleek exhibition space in Miami’s arts district. The following year she opened her own museum, Miami Art Central (MAC), which, though lacking a permanent collection, quickly became known for bringing impressive contemporary shows to town. And last December brought her most headline-making move yet: She announced that she was donating MAC’s resources, including its curatorial staff, to the city’s public Miami Art Museum, effectively moving MAC’s shows (such as the one on view now, “Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: The Killing Machine and Other Stories”) into the MAM building under the program name MAC@MAM. She also pledged several million dollars to the museum’s campaign to erect a new Herzog & de Meuron–designed building on Biscayne Bay. Thanks to Fontanals- Cisneros, Miami is now one big step closer to having the world-class museum it needs to become a serious art capital outside of the month of December.
Sounding like a no-nonsense businesswoman one minute and a slightly kooky motivational speaker the next, Fontanals-Cisneros has a gift for reinventing herself that rivals Madonna’s. A former member of the Cisneros clan that made its more than $6 billion fortune in Latin American media and Pepsi bottling—Ella was married to tycoon Oswaldo Cisneros for 33 years, until their 2001 divorce—she has a long history of making things happen across a head-spinningly diverse array of realms. “I remember locking myself in a closet during a fight with my mother when I was 12 or 13,” says Fontanals-Cisneros, sitting in her art-filled Coconut Grove living room, makeup-free and dressed in a taupe pantsuit. “While I was in that closet, I had this vision of what my life was going to be like. It was like watching a film. I got this confidence that I could do anything, that it would be easy for me.”