Illuminate Coral Gables Lights Up the City

Let There Be Light

The idea of public art, and its importance for the civic life of Coral Gables, has become the new mantra for the city. And for good reason. In a slow decline over the past few decades, the Gables – once home to a stunning collection of art galleries – lost its patina as ground zero for fine art, as those galleries fled to cheaper spaces in Wynwood. Meanwhile, Miami Beach and the Design District ascended under the banner of Art Basel.

Coral Gables is, however, moving to restore the shine to its former crown as a center for fine art. Its Art in Public Places program, for starters, now requires that all developers set aside at least one percent of their gross budgets for public art, resulting in an array of new and planned sculptures and fountains, from a bronze statue at Villa Valencia to the fountains and monumental sculpture being installed at The Plaza Coral Gables.

Now that effort is reaching a tipping point with the advent of Illuminate Coral Gables, an ambitious project to plant the flag of Coral Gables on the national art map once again. While it has been scaled back due to Covid-19, Illuminate Coral Gables will debut Feb. 12 for a month-long run of dramatically lit buildings in and around the downtown.

“The art scene has been beaten up badly, and we wanted to make sure that art could continue and be relevant in such a period of malaise,” says Venny Torre, who, along with co-chair Patrick O’Connell, has spearheaded the project. “We wanted something that could take hold and be authentic to Coral Gables… The light shone upon us that this was the perfect project.”

Illuminate Coral Gables
Patrick O’Connell (left) and Venny Torre (right) spearheaded Illuminate Coral Gables.

That project now consists of an array of eight dramatic light displays, most of them projected on downtown buildings, and a fleet of pedicab “fireflies” to take people from one illumination to the next. Originally the idea had been for 22 installations, but many of those were designed as indoor light shows, something no longer sensible during the pandemic. The funds available also fell short, though between the city, the downtown Business Improvement District (BID) and private donations, some $600,000 ultimately went toward the project, including $200,000 for an installation of light constellations on Giralda Plaza.

“The funding is much smaller than what we originally wanted, but we had to scale back because of Covid,” says O’Connell. “We had to focus on projection work, rather than sculptural work where people tend to gather closely around.” Nonetheless, he says, “We have gotten great support from the local community, with [private] sponsorships and grants close to $200,000. That is pretty good during a pandemic.”

Two Heads Are Better Than One

The advent of Illuminate Coral Gables is literally an idea whose time had come. Torre says the idea first came to him when he saw a light show projected onto the flanks of the cathedral in Rouen, France, where he was visiting. So, in 2018, he approached then-City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark with the idea of “using our great architecture, streets and downtown as a canvas for projected light.” Torre, CEO of Torre Construction, was then-chairman of the BID, which pledged $100,000 in seed money “so the idea wouldn’t be taken lightly.”

At about the same time, O’Connell – the senior VP for business development at BHHS/EWM Realty – also thought of doing a projected-light project downtown. He approached Catherine Cathers, the city’s Art and Culture Specialist, and its Arts Advisory Council, with the idea. “What happened from there was that Catherine, the city’s Arts and Culture specialist, realized there were these two people in the city talking about the same thing. She suggested we put our heads together.” So, in the beginning of 2019, “we met and envisioned how we would make this happen.”

That meeting began a process that has taken a full two years to bear fruit. In many ways, however, the seeds for the Illuminate project had already been planted in a city searching for a way to project itself in the art world. “The mayor has been putting the arts at the forefront for years, and he was one of the early inspirations… This really started when the mayor talked about using lights as a significant feature in the arts of Coral Gables,” says Cathers. “When anything starts, it starts as a seed, but sometimes people forget where that seed came from, once the momentum gets going.”

Illuminate Coral Gables
Catherine Cathers, Art & Culture Specialist, City Of Coral Gables

Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli has indeed been a major proponent of public art since winning re-election in 2017, and has been a cheerleader for Illuminate – including endorsing an early request for $100,000 in seed money from the city. “We want to be known as a city of the arts,” he says. “But it is difficult with modern galleries requiring a lot more space than we have here.” The Illuminate project goes beyond the limitations of space by using the city itself as its canvas, “and the more attractions of light and art that we can have, the better it is for everybody,” he says.

Once in motion, the two founders of the Illuminate project realized “it had to be more than a couple of guys doing this,” says Torre, so they created a board that included, in addition to the city and the BID, the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce, the Coral Gables Museum and the Coral Gables Community Foundation, each doing its part.

“The Community Foundation has been involved since day one as the project’s fiscal sponsor,” says Mary Snow, executive director of the foundation. “We are the nonprofit umbrella working in the background as the project’s bank account.” Besides providing back office support for accounting, invoicing, etc., the foundation provided the project with its nonprofit status.

Calling the Community Foundation the umbrella for the Illuminate project is a knowing nod to the most successful art installation in the Gables to date, the 2018 Umbrella Sky project that covered Giralda Plaza with a canopy of brightly colored umbrellas and drew tens of thousands of spectators. Like that project, which was Snow’s idea, Illuminate needs to be “beautiful, Instagram-able and functional,” she says. 

Illuminate Coral Gables

What: A world-class art exhibition of light installations in downtown Coral Gables

When: February 12 To March 13

Where: Downtown Coral Gables

Co-founders/co-chairs: Patrick O’Connell and Venny Torre

Curators: Lance M. Fung, Catherine Cathers, Jennifer Easton, Rosie Gordon Wallace

Art Advisory Committee: David Y. Chang, Carol Damian, Jill Johnson Deupi

Sponsors: The City of Coral Gables; The Business Improvement District; The Knight Ft; The Knight Foundation; The Kirk Foundation; The Arthur B. McBride Sr. Family Foundation; The Ortega Foundation; Gables International Plaza; the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau; Art of Black; Greater Miami and the Beaches; Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs; BHHS/EWM Realty; Torre Companies; Terranova; Ocean Bank; FPL; Mercedes-Benz of Coral Gables; Gunster; Alberto Perez; MG Developer.

Bringing In The Pros

Even with help from community organizations, Illuminate needed input from someone who not only had a background in creating massive installations, but who also brought in national level art contacts. “We needed a curator who had the experience to lead the way,” says O’Connell. So in August 2019 they put out an RFP for a curator, which triggered more than 40 responses from individuals and companies across the U.S. and the world. “The board took two months to go through and vet these, and eventually agreed unanimously on the Fung Collaboratives,” says O’Connell.

Fung Collaboratives, led by chief curator Lance Fung, had experience conceptualizing, organizing and executing major public art installations around the world. Most recently, Fung curated “Fireflies” by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, a celebration of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia that used brightly decorated pedicabs to take viewers around lit up buildings in the city. Fung had also created important exhibitions in cities ranging from Venice, Italy and Seoul, Korea to Santa Fe, New Mexico and Siwa, Egypt. Just as importantly, Fung had worked, and had relationships, with a bevy of internationally renowned artists, such as Norman Foster, Tadao Ando, Yoko Ono and Kiki Smith.

“Illuminate in the early days did a lot of research on light-based exhibitions around the world,” says Cathers, who became part of the project’s curatorial team. “What they found was that many of those exhibitions promoted touring pieces, maybe done by a designer, or a company that specialized in lighting, but not necessarily by museum quality artists.” That became the goal of Illuminate Coral Gables: To create a light installation that incorporated the works of serious artists, both from South Florida and from around the world.

Illuminate Coral Gables
Chief Curator Lance Fung


One reason Fung Collaboratives was chosen was their immediate recognition of what Illuminate Coral Gables could become: A recognized event in the art world. “We recommended in the interview to move it away from a light festival and to a curated, proper public art installation that uses light,” says Chief Curator Lance Fung. 

“There are a number of light festivals around the world and the USA, [but] these are cities that will project pretty decorative elements onto big buildings to get people to come out to a beer booth. It’s not about the art quality.”

Fung set out not only to attract artists he was familiar with, but to also assemble a local curatorial team that could recommend South Florida artists as well. The challenge came, he said, when Covid curtailed everything, including funding: “The team felt my pain, that if we cut it back too much we would lose the impact.” In the end, says Fung, both he and the local curators were able to attract a coterie of artists who delivered stellar works for reduced fees. “This is a multi-million dollar show we are doing for less than a million,” he says. “I want people to understand how huge this show is and how vested every artist and staffer is, with everyone tightening their belts.”

While Fung is already working on a robust Illuminate 2022 program that will more closely match the original vision, he says, “I guarantee that Illuminate 2021 will be a solid, world-class art exhibit focusing on light and public space, and more relevant than ever because it is free and outdoor.”

“I have never worked on a project that is supposed to have this kind of bang with these kind of dollars,” says Rosie Gordon Wallace, a local curator with an expertise in Caribbean art who was asked to help. “In order to deliver the caliber of work this deserves, Lance had to be a magician… We needed blockbuster artists like Cai Guo-Qiang, Kiki Smith and Sandra Ramos, and we needed artists that reflected the community of Miami.”

That is where the local clout and knowledge of Wallace and Cathers brought in artists like Carlos Estevez, David Gumbs and Ruben Millares, not to mention Jonathan Perez and a team of young FIU artists. “Coral Gables will now have a global conversation with lights, and they will be mentioned now when any public projects [are executed] in this imaginary way. This looks easy, but it is not an easy project, it takes a lot of work,” says Wallace.

The result will leave a “halo” over the city, which will be seen as “inclusive, thoughtful and embracing,” says Wallace, who originally immigrated from Jamaica in 1978 to work at UM. “I think that particularly in the psycho-frenetic times we are in now, we can all benefit from a kaleidoscopic display of color. We haven’t had many magical moments lately, so this is a good time to say ‘Wow.’”

Illuminate Coral Gables
A map of where each artist’s installations will be located in the downtown.

The Artists & Their Installations

Fireflies By Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang is a Chinese artist with a huge international reputation. Known for dramatic works that include video, installation and performance, he was one of the first artists to receive the U.S. Department of State Medal of the Arts for contributions to international cultural exchange. He has had exhibitions at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Guggenheim Museum, Madrid’s Museo del Prado, Florence’s Uffizi Galleries and Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum. One of his recent projects was “Fireflies,” curated by Lance Fung, where 27 pedicabs festooned with 1,000 handmade Chinese lanterns paraded through the streets of downtown Philadelphia. That nighttime spectacular now comes to Coral Gables.

Si, No By Ruben Millares and Antonia Wright

A native of Miami, Ruben Millares is an artist with a formal education as a certified public accountant and financial planner. As such he searches for a fusion between practicality and imagination. His installation of glowing barricades throughout the downtown, called “Si, No,” illustrates this juxtaposition, using a symbol that is associated with both crowd safety for special events and crowd control for protesters. Millares created his installation with colleague Antonia Wright, another native Miami artist who specializes in photography and video. Both have enjoyed exhibitions at the Margulies Collection in Wynwood, along with museums in Washington, D.C.; Buenos Aires; Los Angeles; Basel, Switzerland; New York and many others.

Illuminate Coral Gables
“Si, No”

Urban Universes By Carlos Estevez

A native of Cuba who was educated at the Superior Institute of Art in Havana, Carlos Estevez left Cuba in 2003 and came to Miami in 2004. His works can be found in the collections of prestigious museums worldwide, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Perez Art Museum Miami. Estevez’s work is distinguished by its iconography, which includes hybrid creatures that are half human, half animal. His installation at Illuminate Coral Gables, called “Urban Universes,” will project light and moving images onto City Hall.

Echoes Of Souls/Echoes Of My Skin By David Gumbs

David Gumbs is an award-winning interdisciplinary Caribbean artist, born in Saint Martin and based in Martinique. His New Media digital works have been shown in cities worldwide, from Beijing and Paris to New York and Portland. His installations at Illuminate Coral Gables are twofold: “Echoes of Souls” will be projected on the side of the Ocean Bank building at Le Jeune Road and Valencia Avenue, while “Echoes of My Skin” will be projected on the wall of the Miracle Theatre on Salzedo Street. They consist of dramatic patterns of computer-generated animations and patterns triggered in real-time by vehicular and pedestrian movement. 

The Passage By Joseph Clayton Mills

A Chicago artist, Joseph Clayton Mills works in a variety of mediums, including sound. His text-based paintings, assemblages and sound installations of experimental music have been exhibited in the U.S. and Europe, including at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago. His installation for Illuminate, “The Passage,” will consist of ghostly figures that shift, dance and blur in storefront windows along Miracle Mile. The images are derived from archival footage from Coral Gables and the surrounding communities, projected through an array of rotating mirrors. 

Stories By Jonathan Perez and FIU Artists

Jonathan Perez is an assistant teaching professor of digital arts for the Art & Art History Department at FIU, and his installation – projections on the side of Coral Gables Museum – is the culmination of a course that uses art to realize an inclusive and historical look at the City of Coral Gables. The side of the museum will come alive with video mapping and sound elements that share stories about the past and present of the Gables. Seven students participated in creating the installation: Ari Temkin, Emily Silverio-Williams, Heather Kostrna, Jennifer Hudock, L’nique Noel, Maria Daniela Maldonado and Tara Remmen.

90 Miles: Living In The Vortex By Sandra Ramos

A native of Havana, Sandra Ramos graduated from Cuba’s Higher Institute of Arts in 1993 and now lives and works in Miami. She uses a wide range of materials, such as engraving, painting, video and installations, to bring attention to social realities in the contemporary world. Her works have been exhibited in numerous museums, including the American University Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Ramos’ installation, “90 Miles: Living in the Vortex,” consists of a 32-foot walkway of light boxes at the Colonnades on Miracle Mile. Together they form a symbolic bridge between Miami and Havana, glowing with aerial photos taken by Ramos.

Blue Night By Kiki Smith

German-born Kiki Smith is among the most important postmodern artists in America today. Working in sculpture, glassmaking, printmaking, watercolor, photography and textile, Smith (daughter of sculptor Tony Smith) has been the subject of over 25 solo museum exhibitions around the world since 1982, including at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and museums in Barcelona, Munich, Florence, Vienna and Paris. She has also been featured in hundreds of group exhibitions. The winner of numerous accolades, awards and honors, Time magazine recognized Smith in 2006 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Smith’s installation for Illuminate, “Blue Night,” consists of 42 animal constellations suspended over Giralda Plaza. Each animal constellation is made from transparent blue plexiglass, with artificial diamonds as stars. The artworks will also trigger an augmented reality feature (via cellphone) that will highlight every constellation.

One thought on “Illuminate Coral Gables Lights Up the City

  • March 5, 2021 at 9:43 am

    How does one learn the cost, availability and location of the “rickshaw with balloons” ride??? I’ve been dying to try it but THAT was never advertised.

Comments are closed.