After overcoming significant delays and a fiscal crisis that nearly halted construction, the new Frost Museum of Science — one of the most complex buildings ever erected in South Florida — is finally set to open with a ribbon-cutting May 8.
The opening date, which the museum will formally announce Monday, will mark the full public unveiling of the $305 million facility in downtown Miami’s Museum Park and its extensive exhibits and features, which include both an aquarium and a cutting-edge planetarium. Some limited school and tour groups will get previews the week prior to the big opening.
The publicly backed museum’s supporters predict visitors will be dazzled.
“I think it’s going to be a surprise to both the public and to donors in terms of how really spectacular the museum is,” said Michael Spring, Miami-Dade’s cultural affairs director and senior adviser to Mayor Carlos Gimenez. “We shot as high as we could shoot.”
The announcement of an opening date is a long-awaited sign that the nonprofit museum, which required a bailout by Miami-Dade after it ran out of money last year to finish its new home, is now firmly back on track. Spring said Gimenez insisted on a hard opening date after the museum’s opening was postponed last fall to this spring. The museum board’s executive committee settled on the May date at a meeting this week.
“There was this promise to the public that the museum would be open in the first part of the year, and the museum and its board feel it’s an important promise to keep,” said Spring, a member of the museum board’s executive committee.
Frost Museum President Frank Steslow said Friday that the institution is now in a solid position not only to finish construction and pay its contractors, but to cover its operating bills after opening.
With $3 million in new gift pledges and expected revenue from ticket sales, events and grants, Steslow said, the Frost is confident it can cover its full $30 million operating budget for the first 12 months after opening.
The county, which had already provided the museum $165 million in bond proceeds, borrowed $49 million last year to help the Frost finish construction. But that last grant replaced a promised $4 million annual operating subsidy that the museum must now do without.
Meeting the Frost’s budgetary nut, though, will require that attendance meet a projection of 700,000 annual visitors. That’s about triple what the museum got at its cramped and antiquated facility on South Miami Avenue in Coconut Grove, Steslow said.
Museum backers plainly hope that public excitement over the new multistory facility, its futuristic design by prominent British architect Nicholas Grimshaw and the exposure provided by its conspicuous downtown location will generate big buzz and ticket sales. The museum is pushing ahead with additional fundraising and seeking naming sponsorships for its aquarium and other major exhibits, Steslow said.
“From a budget perspective and fundraising, we have enough to get us there and get us open,” he said. “That will complete the picture for us, and it will be great.”
The museum also unveiled ticket and membership prices. Admission for non-members has been set at $28 for adults and $20 for children aged 3 to 11. Younger children will be admitted free.
Annual membership prices were set at $65 for individuals and $145 to $195 for families. Advance tickets go on sale online Monday, though 15 percent discounts for Miami-Dade residents will be available at the museum ticket window.
Frost administrators had to push back the new building’s original opening date, set for last year, after construction delays and other complications led to a change in construction firms and a series of pending lawsuits. Architects on the job have called it the most complex ever attempted in Miami-Dade, in large part because of the life-support systems required for the aquarium and the exhibit-packed building’s tight contours.
Last year, after private fundraising fell significantly short of goals, the museum had to arrange a short-term loan and additional gifts from its name donors, Dr. Phillip Frost and his wife, Patricia, while it negotiated the terms of the bailout with the county. Most of the museum’s board members were asked to resign, with the Frosts remaining on a new executive committee headed by Cesar Alvarez, senior chairman at Greenberg Traurig.
To finish construction, the museum did have to cut some planned exhibits. But Steslow said visitors on opening day can expect a “full complement” of new science exhibits on every level of the museum, indoors and out, including the entry plaza, interior halls and open-air terraces.
The museum’s popular old planetarium will be replaced by a new one equipped with 3-D projection and a surround-sound system that exists in only 12 other such facilities around the world. The centerpiece of the new three-level aquarium is a tank with a 31-foot-wide clear oculus at the bottom that gives visitors a sea-bottom view of sharks and South Florida reef fish up through the water.
Some other new exhibits focus on the story of flight, the ecology of the Everglades and the physics of light as illustrated by an immersive laser show.
But some popular and familiar pieces of the museum’s longstanding collection will be shown in its new home, including a nearly 13-foot-long, 55-million-year-old fossilized fish, a Xiphactinus, which has been restored by paleontologists. So will an eclectic sampling of minerals and natural history items, Steslow said.