The Visual Arts in the Gables 

Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder – the action verb here being – to behold.

When it comes to the visual arts – painting and sculpture in particular – there is nothing like seeing the art itself up close and in person. You can look at paintings and sculptures in books or pixelated on a screen. But there is a magic to being in front of the real thing, absorbing all the detail, color, and textural complexity. For that, you need a muse- um or a gallery. So, here is a look at the city’s two museums and their directors, and three of our private galleries and their owners, plus a guide to the rest. All open to the public. Read and then go. 

Hometown Masterpiece

The historical Coral Gables Museum leans in the direction of fine art.

There was a time when, if you were on the wrong side of the law, the Coral Gables Museum was the last place you’d want to be. “The museum operates out of a historical building which was originally the jailhouse and the police station for the city of Coral Gables,” says Jose Valdés-Fauli, the museum’s chairman. Located at 285 Aragon Avenue, and now comprising the old police and fire station built by the WPA (Works Project Administration) in 1939, the museum’s mission has been to celebrate the history, culture, and architecture of Coral Gables. 

That mission is now evolving. Having just completed a major retrospective exhibit of renowned Cuban painter and sculptor Julio Larraz, the museum recently hired a new executive director with a strong background as a curator of art museums. “I am very much looking forward to catering to a community that is very invested in the arts,” says Elvis Fuentes, whose last stint was curatorial fellow at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. An art critic for ArtNexus, Fuentes was previously the art curator for El Museo del Barrio in New York, and before that for the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and the Fundacion Ludwig in his native Cuba. 

“I think what makes this museum great is that it’s in the heart of an art loving community. So, it’s not just about the history of Coral Gables, but how that history intertwines with the interests of architecture and public art,” says Fuentes. 

Fuentes is already planning for future art exhibitions – the museum itself has no permanent art collection – while the building itself remains a historic attraction. The old fire station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and features three bays as well as sculptures of firefighters on its coral rock exterior. Visitors can still view the old courtroom and jail cells; newer elements of the site include a courtyard, public plaza, and the museum’s Carole A. Fewell Gallery, all added after an expansion and restoration project that began in 2008. 

While the focus on art lies ahead, the museum’s historic exhibit “Creating the Dream: George E. Merrick and His Vision for Coral Gables” remains a constant record of the city’s past and its urban blueprint. “It’s what I call the City Beautiful movement of the future,” says Fuentes, who also intends to bring back programs decimated by the pandemic. “At some point our education and public programs were reduced to practically zero and they laid off employees. But now the public is coming back, and we need to start growing in that direction,” says Fuentes. 

Modernizing the museum’s outreach is also a priority. “One of the things that we learned from Covid is that we need to develop more of a digital infrastructure,” he says. Part of that online presence will be to offer the option of viewing shows virtually – such as the just completed “Julio Larraz: The Kingdom We Carry Inside” exhibit, which took a broad look at the 60-year career of one of Latin America’s most influential artists. 

Other art events are also in the works. The canvasses of Cuban born artist Jefreid Lotti will be showcased in “The Caribbee Club: Recent Paintings by Jefreid Lotti” from May 6 through August 23. The museum will also feature the work of Miami-based artist Zammy Migdal in an exhibit titled “In Internal Knot: The Work of Zammy Migdal” that runs from May 13 to July 20. 

visual arts in the Gables
The museum itself has no permanent art collection and is a historic attraction, which was once a police station and jailhouse

Even with its new tilt toward the arts, “We are a big participant in the Coral Gables community,” says Valdés-Fauli, with past events such as their Wine Zooming appreciation course, their annual Doggie Halloween Costume Contest, and their Kids Camp, with guest speakers, field trips, arts & crafts, and other activities that teach an art-based curriculum including architecture, urban design, and historical preservation. Twilight Fridays at the Museum will continue to offer free admission for visitors the first Friday of each month, and through their Artist-In-Residence program, the museum will continue to offer a way for artists and cultural organizations to interact through public events, workshops, and school partnerships. 

“The Coral Gables Museum has found its place in the muse- um world and has been able to operate as a boutique and become a player in a short period of time,’’ says Valdés-Fauli. “It’s a beautiful architectural space that lends itself to special exhibitions. It’s just a very intimate space and beautifully done.” 

Casting a Vast Collection

The Lowe Art Museum at UM is a community treasure.

It’s a not so hidden gem in the middle of Miami. The Lowe Art Museum, located at 1301 Stanford Drive, sits on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus, boasting a long tradition with an impressive collection. Inaugurated in 1950, it was once called the University of Miami Art Gallery but was later renamed, after Joe and Emily Lowe under- wrote the construction of a new facility. In recognition, the gallery formally changed its name in 1968 to the Lowe Art Museum and has been a home for the arts ever since. Today, the museum boasts over 40,000 square feet and includes the Myrna and Sheldon Palley Pavilion for Contemporary Glass and Studio Arts. There, a $3.5 million glass collection is housed in a 4,000 square foot gallery with over 100 items. The museum’s collection also extends to an outdoor sculpture park, with other pieces scattered throughout the University of Miami’s campus. 

visual arts in the Gables

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that we’re actually the first art museum in Miami and in Miami-Dade County,” says Jill Deupi, the museum’s director and chief curator. “Because we were the only museum in town for such a long time, we actually had about a quarter of a century head start on building collections.” Those collections of memorabilia, artifacts, and other items found within the museum’s walls are staggering. “We have 19,322 objects in our permanent collection, which spans 5,000 years of human creativity on every inhabited continent,” says Deupi. “There’s really something for everyone.” 

The permanent collection focuses on a variety of different areas, including glass and ceramics, European Renaissance and Baroque art, and Native American, Asian, and African art. New exhibitions are also a part of the museum’s regular schedule. The latest is a show devoted to Cuban American art from the 1980s called “Radical Conventions.” 

The museum’s goal of spotlighting artists within the community is another of its missions. In 1952, Beaux Arts was founded to support the Lowe and consists of volunteers who seek ways to bridge local artists with the public. Their original Clothesline Sale has since evolved into an annual Festival of Art, now a major attraction with participants from all over the nation. aux Arts has also recognized the importance of cultivating the next generation of budding artists and sponsors classes, scholar- ships, and a summer camp to meet their needs. Their annual Beaux Arts Costume Ball and their cookbook are fundraisers to support programming and maintain ties to the community. 

“The University of Miami is, of course, our parent organization. So the students, faculty, and staff of UM are our primary audience,” explains Deupi, who also serves as Beaux Arts Director. “But we really do pride ourselves on serving the whole community and in a very real sense, prioritizing K through 12 students, teachers and their caregivers.” 

visual arts in the Gables
The Lowe Museum at um, is the first Art Museum in Miami and in Miami Dade County

Like other cultural institutions that rely on visitors, the Lowe was impacted by the pandemic. “We have had a contraction of resources, financial or budgetary and staffing based, and we’re not quite back to normal yet,” says Deupi. “We’re only open to the public Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm… but we’re getting there little by little.” The silver lining, she says, has been digital expansion. “We’ve built out the digital engagement portion of our website as well as associated programming. Those programs are, for the most part, stable and archived so people can check out our website to see the digital programs that exist permanently. And we also have a YouTube channel where we are archiving our Lowe Connects program.” 

As for the future, Deupi is continuing to plan world-class exhibits. Among them is an important show of contemporary Japanese ceramics featuring 50 works from the Kondo family that will subsequently go to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Crocker Museum in San Diego. “The work is really beautiful. And I think, again, it’s something you won’t find anywhere else in our city” says Deupi. The museum is also looking to expand its physical space, she says. In the meantime, she says, visitors are always encouraged. “I think it’s really important for people to take an hour and come see the Lowe. The reality is very different from preconceived notions of what the Lowe might be. I think they will be favorably impressed and surprised at how high the quality of the art on view is as well as how large the museum is.” 

*Photos by Jonathan Dann