She’s certainly trying. In addition to her parties and her vast personal collection (her Miami apartment is brimming with works by Vik Muniz, John Baldessari, Olafur Eliasson and others), her donations to the Miami Art Museum guarantee her a starring role in an institution that will probably outlast her. “I realized that my museum was reliant on my own efforts, but the public museum will sustain itself throughout my life and for years beyond,” she says.
The elephant in the room—one lost on few in the art world—is that there’s already a very well-known Cisneros on the scene: Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, the wife of Oswaldo’s cousin Gustavo, who has dedicated decades to collecting and supporting Latin artists. Whispers about tension between the two women abound, though Ella declines to say much about her former cousin-in-law, leaving it at “Yes, she has a big collection also of Latin American art.” But even the most cynical gossips wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Fontanals-Cisneros’s recent donations have been fueled by one-upmanship. “She clearly wants to put something back into the system,” says Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, where Fontanals-Cisneros is a trustee of the American Patrons for Tate. “It’s very unusual. Most people concentrate only on making a great private collection, and maybe down the line they think about how to make it public. Ella was concerned about the public—about who will see the art—from the onset. She’s very public-spirited, and she doesn’t do anything halfheartedly.”
The real question: How long will this wholehearted passion last? Echoing the concern of many on the Miami scene, one art macher muses, “I just hope she’s still here in three years.” Fontanals-Cisneros, of course, insists that unlike retail, the export business, real estate and technology, art will hold her interest. “I’ve always cared about art,” she says. “I’ve just had to drop it on and off, on and off, while I was busy doing other things.”