When it comes to supporting the arts, few patrons have made as big a name for themselves as the Miami-based real-estate developer Jorge M Pérez. Founder of the Related Group, part of the property powerhouse behind ambitious urban development projects such as New York’s Hudson Yards, Pérez has not only played a huge part in shaping the modern Miami skyline, but also left his mark on its cultural landscape as well. In 2013, Pérez’s name became a talking point during the relocation of the Miami Art Museum to a swanky, waterfront home designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Along with its expanded, $220m building, the museum also unveiled a new name: the Pérez Art Museum Miami, an acknowledgement of the $40m donation from the billionaire. Although the naming was unorthodox, PAMM (as it’s affectionately known), has evolved from a municipal-level arts institution to a respected fixture in the international arts scene. Shows have included Ai Weiwei, Julio Le Parc, Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes and the New York-based Jamaican artist Nari Ward. Works donated by Pérez, largely by Latin American artists, are also on display.

Today, Pérez continues to acquire art with the view of boosting PAMM’s collection. ‘I believe Miami is destined to be one of the world’s great international cities, and one that is the capital of the Americas, where the north and south meet,’ he says. ‘Of course, Cuba is integrally a part of that, along with Argentina, Colombia and elsewhere, and promoting art and artists from Latin America is tremendously important to me.’

Truth be told, Pérez is not your average art collector. On a trip to the 12th Havana Biennial in 2015, Pérez, together with his wife Darlene and curatorial staff Patricia Garcia-Velez Hanna and Anelys Álvarez Muñoz, hit the ground running, scouring the city for acquisitions across all scales, media and ages. From studio visits with the art collective Los Carpinteros to a viewing at the contemporary art space Galería Habana, and weaving in and out of the vaults at the 16th-century hillside fortress known as La Cabaña, Pérez and his entourage zigzagged across the city each day.

‘While I know there are many fairs that are more important than the ones in Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Lima, I tend to go to the ones in Latin America because they give me most contact with the artists I’m involved with,’ he enthuses. ‘I’m doing everything I can so that Miami can have the best Latin American and Cuban collection of contemporary art of any city in the world.’

He also boasts personal relationships with the artists he favours, befriending masters like the Cuban-African Manuel Mendive, as well as becoming a sounding board for rising Latin American talents looking for representation in New York or Europe. ‘It is so important to me that when I buy a piece of art I talk to the artist and they can tell me themselves [what it’s about],’ he says. ‘My artists really vary. I go from figurative to abstract to photography to performance, and that has happened in the last 20 years. I was previously much more conservative in my choices. Today, I have two full-time curators who run around with me, looking and buying and teaching me about art.’

Pérez also currently champions an artist exchange programme called Dialogues in Cuban Art, which was conceived by the Cuban-born, Miami-based curator Elizabeth Cerejido and initiated in 2015. The programme arranges exchange visits between Miami and Havana for artists to tour museums, local artists’ studios and cultural venues, while meeting collectors, local curators and directors. The end goal? An exhibition of works by the participating artists, stemming from their new-found experiences and exposure to the opposite sides of the Straits of Florida.

Born in Argentina to Cuban parents, the 66-year-old tycoon’s ties with the island nation run deep. Pérez’s father was educated in the United States as a chemical engineer and became head of the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly in Argentina, before returning to Cuba to establish his own laboratories. Pérez’s parents were supporters of Fidel Castro until he declared himself a Communist and began nationalising industries in the country. Pérez was eight years old when the family fled.

‘I remember leaving the airport and a guard trying to take my mother’s jewellery out of her hand – her rings and her necklace on her neck,’ he recounts. ‘She was able to give them to my grandmother but I have no idea where the jewellery is now.’ From there, they joined other relations in Colombia, where Pérez’s parents rebuilt their careers. Pérez pursued his studies in the US, first in economics at CW Post College in New York, then obtained a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Michigan. He scored a job as a community development coordinator in Miami and got involved in low-income housing projects during the 1970s. After a meeting with Steve Ross, founder of Related Companies (and current owner of the Miami Dolphins), Pérez founded the Related Group in 1979, and began developing the luxury condominiums and mixed-use urban centres the company has become renowned for.

Today, the Related Group is responsible for championing new areas of downtown Miami, particularly the development of the last few waterfront properties between the Miami River and Biscayne Bay. There are also projects further afield in Mexico, Panama, the Caribbean, Uruguay and Argentina. In true Pérez form, art plays a crucial role in each project. There’s the 40ft sculpture Looking Into My Dreams, Awilda by the Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, which will appear in Miami’s Museum Park this autumn, before being placed in the Auberge Residences designed by Piero Lissoni. Then there’s a pair of paintings by the US- and Mexico-based artist Ray Smith that will grace the lobby of SLS Hotel and Residences in Brickell, designed by Philippe Starck and opening this year.

‘When we decide we’re going to do a new development, art is an integral part. We do not let the interior designers or architects pick the art. We give them choices, but it’s not something that is chosen so it matches the couch,’ explains Pérez. ‘The curators recommend pieces and we have heated, but nice, discussions about what ultimately goes in. We want the whole to make sense. ‘We also have to be aware of the public. I had a great photograph by Vanessa Beecroft, and it was a full nude, in your face, life-size, beautiful and I love it, but in the meetings everyone is going, “Yeah, we love it too, but half the condo buyers are going to say hey, we have children.” So I lost that one.’

With the thawing of Cuban-US relations and the increased interest in Cuban art, music and culture, Pérez, who returned to Havana during President Obama’s historic visit this year and has been involved in building diplomatic relations since the Clinton years, is even more motivated to give Cuban art the visibility it deserves, particularly in Miami.

‘Remember 70 per cent of Miami is Hispanic; Cubans compose about half of that. It’s a huge community that is so close to the country of origin, and the roots and communication are very much alive,’ he reiterates. ‘We have what I think is a very important Cuban collection – probably about 250 to 300 pieces from [established] artists to younger ones who are still not known to the outside world. It’s important for me to try to promote Cuban and Latin American art, to make it much more a part of the universal art [tradition]. It makes me feel good because I think I’m helping others and I’m growing as a person. That’s what makes me tick.’

Jorge Pérez is one of our 20 Game-Changers. Read about the other 19 here

As originally featured in the October 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*211)