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.
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.”
And to hear her tell it, achieving her ambitions has indeed been a walk in the park. Her first foray into business came as a teenager. At 16, she fled Cuba for Venezuela with her father, a musician, and her mother. Her father died soon after the move, and Fontanals-Cisneros took a job teaching English. She decided to supplement her income by offering her students water ballet lessons, and soon, she says, “I was making more money on the side than in my actual job. It was my first entrepreneurial thing.”
A sultry beauty whose photo often appeared in local magazines, Ella attracted the eye of Oswaldo Cisneros when she was barely out of her teens. She already had a failed marriage behind her and a toddler, but, she says, that didn’t keep the suitors away. “Fourteen people would call me to go out each night, and I’d say yes to them all, and then at seven o’clock I’d decide on one of them,” she recalls. “Oswaldo would call every day, and I kept telling him no. But then one night my date canceled, and I said, ‘Okay, I’m free tonight, only tonight.’” Despite her reservations—“Everyone was telling me he dresses horrible”—she was won over and the two married in 1968.
Still, although she had married into one of Latin America’s richest families, Fontanals-Cisneros had far too much energy to spend her days prepping for parties and sunning by the pool. She decided she wanted to be a boutique owner and, in 1966, wrangled capital from New York’s trendsetting Paraphernalia to open a branch of the store in Caracas. Soon after, she opened the country’s first Oscar de la Renta boutique next door. “No one knew him at the time,” she says proudly.
But within three years, she grew tired of fashion and sold both shops to open an art gallery, where she sold the work of Latin American artists. That, too, quickly grew old, and she traded selling art for selling books, opening a chain of stores. But within five years, she had given up on retail altogether. Shopkeeper’s hours weren’t sustainable for a woman who now had three children (one from her previous marriage, one from Oswaldo’s previous marriage whom Ella adopted and one that they had together), not to mention a workaholic husband. To spend more time with him, she began tagging along to meetings and was soon involved in the family business, running an export company in Miami that sold raw materials to other Cisneros-owned companies. “I moved myself and my kids here and did a man’s job,” she says. “In one year I saved him a million dollars and made nearly a million dollars of my own. The freedom of making your own money, to be a success not because you married a rich guy—for me, that was important.”
And yet, the same refrain: “Then I felt I needed to do something else.” With her marriage foundering, she decided to make a fresh start in Manhattan, where at the time, she says, “apartments cost nothing!” She bought a prime Fifth Avenue duplex for under $250,000 and spent $1 million redoing it and wiring it with sensors that automatically modulated everything from the lighting to the music to the coffeepot. “I look at Bill Gates today with his ‘smart house,’” she boasts, “and I think: I had that in the Seventies!”
Overstatement aside, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Fontanals-Cisneros’s exuberance or impressed by her triumphs. After she finished renovating the Manhattan apartment, a buyer offered $4 million for it. “The most expensive home on Fifth Avenue at that time was well under a million,” she claims. “My sale was all over the papers. I said to myself, My God, I did something that people like, and I wanted to do it again. So I started a business in New York, buying apartments and turning them into the future!”
The house-flipping phase lasted for five years before she returned to Caracas to be with Oswaldo and devote herself to philanthropy. After the director of a charity she founded ran off with the organization’s money, she embarked on what she describes as a spiritual quest with a guru. “One day, in 1989, I heard in my meditation that I should travel to Jackson Hole,” she says. “I didn’t know where it was, but I heard that people would be waiting there to help me start a foundation. So I took my plane and just went.” In Wyoming she met with local officials and set up the Together Foundation, an international conflict-resolution center that relied heavily on new computer technologies, which led her to get involved with a software company. “I started trying to build the Internet!” she says, sounding like a Latina Al Gore on uppers. “But then AOL came out first.”
Meanwhile, she and Oswaldo began drifting apart again, and in 2001 the couple finally divorced. Afterward, she says, Oswaldo, with whom she remains on good terms, remarried and adopted four children from Romania.
Fontanals-Cisneros has also found someone new—an Italian banker and abstract photographer named Guido Albi Marini who rarely spends a night away from her, whether she’s at her Coconut Grove condo or her homes in Gstaad, Madrid, and Naples, Italy. (She flies between them on her red and white private jet.) And she has achieved, on Miami’s art circuit, the sort of recognition one assumes she had hoped for in all of her previous endeavors. “She’s a visionary, and she’s lived a very intense life,” says her friend and fellow Miami art patron Solita Mishaan. “She leaves her mark.”
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.”