A Rocky Ride: The Chaos and Donation Shortfalls Behind a New Science Museum

The frost museum of science under construction last year

The frost museum of science under construction last year

The new Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science opened for business this month, and the reviews are in—it’s a stunner. Coverage surrounding the opening has lauded its 250-seat planetarium, 500,000-gallon aquarium tank, and four-acre site amid a cluster of cultural institutions. 

Miami-Dade County has become a hotbed of museums and other attractions, fueled in part by philanthropic dollars, and the Frost Museum may be its crown jewel.

But it wasn’t a small accomplishment. Budget shortfalls, fundraising struggles, lawsuits, mass firings and bailouts highlight the kinds of tension that can emerge from these perhaps too ambitious plans, reshaping cities with blends of philanthropic and government funds.  

In the case of the Frost Museum, the largest private funding came from South Florida billionaires Phillip and Patricia Frost. The couple’s $3.3 billion in wealth derives from pharmaceuticals and investments, and they’ve been significant donors in the region, including a recent $100 million STEM gift to the University of Miami. 

The Frosts secured naming rights to the science museum with a $35 million gift way back in 2011. Other large private donations include the Knight Foundation’s $10 million, and $7 million from former (more on that later) museum trustees Daniel and Trish Bell. The NSF, NIH, NOAA and U.S. Department of Education also kicked in seven-figure donations. Most of the funds came from public coffers, with Miami-Dade County spending roughly $160 million. 

That fell short, however, as the project ran dry in early 2016. The museum spent the cash from the county, and the private funds that donors had pledged to the project were insufficient to convince lenders to provide cash needed to pay construction crews. When donors make large pledges, they often don’t materialize as cash until much later.

There were other troubles, like budget overruns and the firing of a contractor and resulting lawsuit. But ultimately, as reported doggedly by the Miami Herald, it seems the problem was an overly optimistic funding plan, and work proceeding without enough money pledged or cash in hand. Even the Frosts’ original pledge was less than halfway paid the summer before the financial chaos emerged. 

But that didn’t stop the couple from exerting enormous influence over the project as it struggled. Again, the Herald reports that the Frosts offered to close the gap on the condition that the entire 40-trustee board be fired in favor of a new board of their choosing—including Patricia and Phillip Frost. The Frosts’ donations to the project ended up totaling $45 million, only about 15 percent of the $305 million price tag.

Even with help from the couple, the project still needed saving with a county government bailout. Phillip Frost himself joined the plea before the Miami-Dade commissioners for $49 million to finish the project (shifted from what was going to be a 20-year operating subsidy), and with no other choice, the county approved it. An inspector general report would later find the county didn’t have enough oversight and was too lax in spending public funds when private funds failed to keep up.

With so many grand city projects cobbling together budgets from multiple public and private funding sources—including museums, parks, and even transit projects—it’s important to watch stories like this one. The Frost Museum is an example, albeit an extreme one, of not only how the government can get stuck with the bill if donations don’t materialize, but also the stunning influence private donors can and will exercise. 

On the upside, it sounds like the final product is a truly remarkable science museum. There’s important public benefit in a state so vulnerable to the impacts of climate change that is nonetheless led by a governor who has denies its existence. Efforts to engage the public in science are more crucial than ever. Let’s hope the museum serves the area successfully—if for no other reason than attendance high enough to keep the doors open.