Miami’s Historical Vizcaya Museum & Gardens Now Hosts Contemporary Art

Earlier this year I had a delightful lunch at Vizcaya with my artcentric friends Flaminia, Susan, and Holly who work there. I think I mentioned the time I thought I had actually seen a "mass quince" happening there, to my utter astonishment, when Eric and I had been boating on the bay near Vizcaya!

During that lunch, we all talked about Vizcaya's exciting Contemporary Arts Project, and what's planned there for 2011 through 2012.

Right now you can see "Archetype Vizcaya" by Ernesto Oroza, who received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2007 for his remarkable skills merging the visual arts, design, and architecture. ("Archetype Vizcaya" is also featured in my April Critic's Choice for A native of Cuba, he now lives in Miami. I recalled from an earlier chat with Ernesto in his Wynwood studio that I had actually seen a work of design that he helped create when I went to Cuba for The Miami Herald.

Now that I can check my own personal archive of all my work for the Herald, I see that I wrote about that work in my January 2001 story, "A New Picture," an account of my trip to Havana published in the Sunday paper. Discussing an example of the ingenious variety of materials artists worked with in Cuba, I noted, "the Havana design team known as Cabinete Ordo Amoris has sculpted a baroque pink lamp from tubes used to inseminate cows." Ernesto once worked with that design team.

It's quite exciting that Miami can now benefit from his talents and insights. He's agreed to take part in our upcoming April panel discussion on art and design for ArtTable members and guests. This is an impressive panel that artist and designer Michelle Weinberg has assembled, and I am very much looking forward to it!

Vizcaya's highly promising Contemporary Arts Project will also showcase artworks and performances by Naomi Fisher (whose work can now be seen at the Rubell Family Collection in Wynwood) later this year, and in 2012 work by Francesco Simeti and Josiah McElheny. Sponsors include the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, as well as the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Council.

Our lunch took me back to the time I wrote for The Miami Herald about this exciting project at Vizcaya in its pilot phase, so I decided to blog about that this week. Here's my story, with a few updates added, about Anna Gaskell at Vizcaya in March 2007.


Anna Gaskell's three-minute film loop, set in Vizcaya, is brief but beautiful. Birds chirp on a fall day as the viewer seems to stroll through the historic gardens, with surprising new details emerging as the film loops again and again.

You find it by walking into a darkened, second-story room in the Vizcaya mansion. "Still Life" is installed with three screens to show differing views of three women walking around a spiraling patch of formal greenery, up and down stairs, past a jewel-like reflecting pool in the lush Renaissance-styled French and Italian gardens of Vizcaya. Sometimes the women, nearly always seen from the back, almost meet themselves going and coming.

The multiple views take on an unexpected, topsy-turvy perspective--on one screen straight forward, on another sideways and on a third, upside down. Just as the film ends, for the briefest of seconds, the three women appear to merge into one long-haired, nameless heroine.

The dark-haired women are shown from the back, or from the side. You never see a full view of a face. Although it would have been physically impossible to make the film with a single woman, the eerie effect is that you watch one woman contemplating various episodes or selves in a single life.

A story begins to emerge, a relatively plotless meditation on discovering more about one's identity and surroundings through memory. Gaskell likes the way the visual arts can be shaped to tell a story. She takes inspiration from the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, the classic children's book A Wrinkle in Time, and memories of her own backyard in Iowa when she was growing up. It had an openness, she recalls, free "of the restrictions you have every day as a child."

In "Still Life," you see the story of how one woman, perhaps in her late 20s or mid-30s, carves out time to ruminate and reflect. The garden paths become a fertile metaphor for the labyrinthine cycles of memory.

"I've always liked this phrase, 'a turn in the garden.' I think the lonely escape of walking in the garden is pretty decadent," the New York-based Gaskell says. "You're rarely doing that these days." Gaskell came to Miami in November with a film crew that shot "Still Life" in two days.

"Still Life" is the first of three contemporary visual art projects planned for Vizcaya through early 2008. (The first work in Vizcaya's contemporary art program was "Organic Pipes," an installation by sound artist Gustavo Matomoros that opened in November.) Future contemporary art projects will feature Miami-based Cristina Lei Rodriguez [you can also see an example of her current work at the Art & Culture Center of Hollywood in my April Critic's Choice at] and Catherine Sullivan, who lives and works in Chicago.

Focused on art of the day, these projects may seem to clash with the historic setting. Showing contemporary art at Vizcaya is an idea that goes back to when the Renaissance-styled estate was built by industrialist James Deering from 1914 to 1916.

"The primary purpose is to re-establish Vizcaya as a place of creative exchange harkening back to its origins," says Joel M. Hoffman, executive director of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Artists and artisans from the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean came to help carve Vizcaya from mangrove swamps. Some were associated with a classical tradition. Others were considered avant-garde at the time.

Showing contemporary art at Vizcaya is a new way to attract visitors, especially those who think they've already seen all there is at the museum and gardens. It's a strategy adopted by other historic museums. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston shows works by contemporary artists in residence. It also offers online exhibits.

Says Hoffman, "We are not alone at looking at ways to juxtapose the historic and contemporary. In a community that's so evolving and contemporary, in the context of Art Basel, it seems to make sense."

Artists chosen to create work for Vizcaya are recommended by an advisory committee of five local and national art professionals. They are Westen Charles of Locust Projects, Hoffman, Mary Luft of Tigertail Productions, Mercedes Quiroga of New World School of the Arts, and Hamza Walker of the Renaissance Society in Chicago.

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