Collector profile: Norman Braman and the Indian Creek residence furnished with contemporary masterpieces

The car tycoon has put together one of the greatest private collections of classic American art. Where does it go now?


The question everyone is asking themselves in the world where such questions get asked is, what do Norman and Irma Braman intend to do with their collection? When I say that no museum in all Italy or all of Spain has such an array of great, classic modern American works, nor is likely to, you realise the why there is such interest in this question.

Just for starters, this is the best collection of Calders in the world. No less than seven of his “Critters” (1974) form a guard of honour as you enter the house, but then there is the huge mobile in the drawing room, the 16 pieces in the upstairs gallery (including the two very early mobiles of 1935), assorted other around the house and four outside in the garden.

The house is a low, 60s building on poor Indian Creek looking out on Biscayne Bay, with large, brightly coloured sculptures catching the eye among the greenery: two David Smiths, the two Calders, a Miró “Woman”of 1970, a huge Di Suvero and an Ellsworth Kelly—and that is just at the back.

Mrs Braman says that they were inspired to collect by the Fondation Maeght at Vence, in the South of France. They had a house nearby, and went there so often with their guests that in the 1970s they began to think of doing something similar, of surrounding their house with art. And then the interiors also filled up. A gallery, like the picture gallery of a stately home, was added on as the collection grew—and the size of the works. She says that they were lunching recently with the director of the Maeght and discussed foundations, but asked whether they imagined turning their house into an equivalent of the Maeght, I was told that it was out of the question as they live in a gated community and the neighbours would never put up with it.

The art is everywhere. In the kitchen, the chef, who comes from the Grand Hotel at Cap Ferrat and winters with the Bramans in Miami, said that he found the bugle-beaded lifesize figure of a falling man with a dove rising from his mouth, by Liza Lou, a little disconcerting. The Warhol “Rorschach” and Wesselman still life, by comparison, are quite tame. The dressing room has a Segal “Go-Go Dancer” of 1978, surrounded by Hollywood-style light bulbs, and a Richard Diebenkorn of 1978. The Den must be the grandest room of that name in the world, with its Peter Blake, its Miró, Arp, the Oldenburg “Typewriter eraser” of 1977 and “Diver” by Jasper Johns of 1962, for which Mr Braman paid $4.18 million in1988, and which is considered one of the finest in private hands.

If the collection is biased towards sculpture, this does not mean that the paintings are any less exceptional. In the gallery, there is a room of Anselm Kiefers the Tate would long for; a room of five De Koonings, including one of his “Woman” series, from 1942. There is a wonderful, glowing Rothko, “Black, Pink and Yellow over Orange” of 1951-52, and a huge, tapestry-like Sam Francis, “Tokyo Mural” (1957). One could go on, but it would read like a laundry list intended to inspire cupidity; I have written eough to give a sense of this collection, which is still growing (Jeffrey Deitch currently acts for Mr Braman).

The man who formed it, Norman Braman, is in his early 80s. His money derives mainly from his luxury car dealerships (Wards Auto ranks his business 20th in the country, with a turnover of close to a billion). He comes from Philadelphia, and for a while owned the football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, which he bought in 1985 for a reported $65 million and sold in1994 for $185 million.

He is a tall, white-haired man who looks so fit that there may be a good number of years before the succession question becomes urgent. In the recent elections, his money went to the Republicans, and indeed, he was considered for high office in the 80s by Ronald Reagan, but he withdrew for personal reasons. He is not easily pigeon-holed: in 2002, he joined the “No to discrimination” committee when there was a move to repeal Dade County’s prohibition of discrimation against gays and lesbians, so he is not illiberal, but his his politics are of the anti-authoritarian sort that in the US inspires the right wing; he is on the board of the James Madison Institute, which quotes Madison’s statement that there are “more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by the gradual and silent encroachment by those in powere than by violent and sudden usurpation”. The concomitant of this philosophy must, however, be a greater contribution by the citizen, and Norman Braman’s actions live up to it. He has given $5 million to a breast cancer clinic, and supports numerous other charities, Jewish ones, having been President of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Where the local art world is concerned, the Bramans are ever so slightly aloof. “Of course, we know each other”, says Mrs Braman, “and sit on the same charity committees, but we don’t all choose to dine together”. There was, however, concerted support, with the Rubells and Craig Robins, among others, of the idea of bringing the Basel Fair to Miami, as everyone could see the benefits it would bring the community.

The fact is that the Braman Collection is simply too grand for any existing Miami institution, and Mr and Mrs Braman have not lent more than token patronage to any of them, the Miami Art Museum included. The only museum to which Mr Braman has given works is the very small Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art of the University of Florida (a Ross Bleckner, a Fischl and a Tapies), but this is unlikely to be a pointer to the future. It may be that Mr Braman will remember his origins, in which case, it would be the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art, or even the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to benefit from his private passion.

On the other hand, he might go against the trend of setting up personal memorials in museums through bequest and gifts, and leave the lot to be sold for the benefit of some good cause, perhaps education, for education is the way ahead, he has said in the past. That would be in keeping with his reputation as a generous man, but one who goes his own way.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The King of poor Indian Creek'