BY ANDRES VIGLUCCI
With one of the biggest gifts ever pledged to a South Florida cultural institution, a prominent Miami philanthropic couple has given a rocket boost to the slow-moving effort to build the Miami Science Museum a new high-tech home.
The $35 million pledge from medical entrepreneur Phillip Frost and his wife, Patricia, means the long-planned, $275 million museum will break ground later this year in what is now Bicentennial Park in downtown Miami, with completion expected by the end of 2014, administrators said.
Combined with other pledges totaling $25 million, the Frosts’ gift gets the museum more than halfway to meeting its $100 million goal for private funding, and provides the campaign with the credibility and momentum needed to close the remaining gap rapidly, said museum director Gillian Thomas.
“It’s amazingly generous, and it means the museum is full-steam ahead,’’ Thomas said.
The gift, announced Saturday evening at the museum’s annual gala, comes seven years after Miami-Dade County voters approved a massive bond issue that will fund $175 million of the science museum’s cost.
The 250,000-square-foot facility, which will feature an aquarium and a series of interactive exhibits focused on technology and the environment, will be known as the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science. It will be the third prominent local institution to bear the couple’s name, joining the art museum at Florida International University and the music school at the University of Miami.
The science museum pledge exceeds their $33 million gift to UM’s music school in 2003, and surpasses businesswoman Adrienne Arsht’s $30 million gift to the downtown performing arts center that bears her name. The only known larger gift on the local cultural landscape is an anonymous $90 million donation to the New World Symphony’s new Miami Beach home.
Gillian said the science museum proved a perfect fit for Frost, a physician who made his fortune in medical technology and pharmaceuticals, and his wife, an educator who was longtime principal of West Lab Elementary, a public school on the University of Miami campus.
“Of all the people you could think of, they are the closest to what we are trying to do,’’ Thomas said.
Dr. Frost said he and his wife hope the new museum will help propel Miami’s prospects as a center of science, in particular in the growing field of bio-tech, by encouraging local kids’ interest in the subject.
“I would like to see Miami develop a better and broader science base,’’ he said in an interview. “I think of leading biotech centers – Boston, San Francisco, San Diego – and I would like to see us up there. We’re living in a technological age. And Miami seems to be more of a low-tech city.
“I would like to see a place in which youngsters could get interested, excited and inspired by science at a young age.’’
The new museum is designed to do exactly that, Thomas said. The Miami commission last year approved a sleek contemporary design for a five-level, environmentally friendly building by the firm of renowned British architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw. The building is meant to function as a demonstration of sustainable design, and will use energy from sun, wind and water to power exhibits. It also incorporates a new 3-D planetarium, animal exhibits and – new for the museum – a multi-level aquarium.
The science museum will share eight acres of Bicentennial Park, which is to be rebaptized as Museum Park, with a new $220 million home for the Miami Art Museum, which is about a year ahead of its sibling.
While the art museum will be on Biscayne Bay, the science museum will enjoy what is arguably a more prominent position on Biscayne Boulevard.
The county has approved the release of $100 million in bond money and preliminary construction work has begun on the art museum, by the star Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, with completion scheduled for next year.
MAM has not announced any individual gifts, but says it has privately raised cash and pledges totaling $51 million to date.
The science museum benefited from a 30-year friendship between the Frosts and its longtime co-chairs, Trish and Dan Bell.
“It wasn’t like we had to plead with them,’’ Dan Bell said. “They saw this project as something extremely good for Miami.’’
Trish Bell added: “What an incredible icon this is going to be. It’s a plum location, a great place to have your name.’’