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Irvin Lippman has helped change the landmark museum

Only a year or so ago, the Museum of Art (MoA) in Fort Lauderdale seemed a lost cause. With dwindling revenues, a leadership crisis, and increasingly lackluster shows, the museum was beginning to seem at best troubled, at worst culturally marginalized -- a white elephant in the middle of downtown.

Then came "Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes," an unlikely savior for an institution in the heart of what's widely perceived as a hotbed of hedonism, permissiveness, and other threats to the social structure. (Whether South Florida in general and Broward County in particular make up a liberal bastion worthy of conservative contempt is a subject for further debate. Don't get me started.) More to the point -- for MoA, anyway -- then came Irvin M. Lippman, whose appointment as executive director dovetailed nicely with the Vatican show.

Lippman, a veteran of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio, didn't officially take charge until October 1, but the papal preview heralded his arrival with a last-minute announcement to the media; press releases were even passed out among the journalists waiting to see the exhibition. The timing was impeccable: If "Saint Peter and the Vatican" failed -- a possibility, however farfetched -- Lippman would be able to distance himself from it; and if it lived up to expectations as a record-breaking success, the show would be associated, at least in some minds, with the new director.

From "The Indigo Room": It gives up its secrets only grudgingly.
From "The Indigo Room": It gives up its secrets only grudgingly.

The latter scenario played out, of course, and MoA was saved the embarrassment of a high-profile flop. Thanks in part to "The Legacy of the Popes," Lippman now has a good shot at carving out his own legacy, and so far, he's doing so quietly but effectively. Earlier this year, the museum showcased the work of Cuban-born painter Enrique Martínez Celaya in a small but exceptional exhibition, one of MoA's best in a long time. It was followed by an inspired double show pairing the photography of Ansel Adams with that of Clyde Butcher.

As the first anniversary of the new director's hiring approaches, there are other encouraging signs. MoA's dramatically overhauled website may still need some fine-tuning, but it's a major improvement over the old one. Hours of operation have been tinkered with as well, with the museum closing on Tuesdays instead of Mondays and staying open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays. And through the end of August, admission is free.

But easily the most impressive innovation during Lippman's short tenure is the creation of an artist-in-residence program. The first artist so designated is Edouard Duval-Carrié, who was born in Haiti (in 1954), raised in Puerto Rico, and educated in Canada and France. He now lives and works in Miami.

One of Duval-Carrié's contributions as artist in residence is "The Indigo Room or Is Memory Water Soluble?"This mixed-media installation, which opened on May 1 and will remain in place through the end of the year, is an ambitious affirmation of the artist's roots in a country steeped in mystery, ritual, and social and political turmoil. Instead of turning to the pastoral idylls and ebullient village scenes that preoccupy so many of his fellow Haitian artists, Duval-Carrié delves into the darker aspects of his heritage. Voodoo is never far from his mind.

The installation is a room-sized work for a very small room, as in the elevator foyer adjacent to the museum's main lobby, which has been dimmed and painted a deep blue that's lightly mottled to suggest water. (Even the restroom doors have been painted and relabeled in Creole: Fanm and Nonm.) The one full wall in the space features a conglomeration of light boxes -- three long, vertical rectangles, surrounded by nearly a hundred small squares -- that commemorate, in various ways, the bicentennial of Haitian independence. The boxes contain an assortment of items such as photographs and plastic miniatures of animals, plants, and other objects. The piece also spills onto the ceiling, where there are nine more illuminated panels, and into a small alcove to the right of the entrance, where disembodied hands reach out from the walls surrounding a radiant bust of a creature that resembles the mythical gorgon Medusa.

"The Indigo Room" is undeniably atmospheric, with its softly glowing palette of blues, yellows, and greens suggesting serenity even as the content of the piece chronicles the relentlessly turbulent history of Duval-Carrié's homeland. But for all its cultural baggage, it's also a near hermetic work, a highly personal piece that gives up its secrets only grudgingly.

Duval-Carrié's other big artist-in-residence project is no less personal but much more accessible: "Nepotism: The Art of Friendship." The artist drew on the work of two dozen other artists he knows and/or admires for this group show, which takes up most of MoA's first floor. There are 35 pieces, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, videos, and installations.

The artist turned curator doesn't provide much of a context for his selections other than a statement on the museum website (if there's also a brochure, I didn't run across it): "There has always been among artists a level of resentment, particularly when you are not chosen in a certain show, especially when you are invited to submit and then you are rejected," the statement reads. "And, there is always talk as to why one and not another got in... always very confusing. I know it is difficult to organize a show; there is too much, or not enough, space, etc. I find artists always accusing the curators of museums of some sort of nepotism of their friends. So I decided to play on that."

Based on the works included in "Nepotism," Duval-Carrié's sensibility is characterized by a healthy eclecticism, and he has a good eye for placement. He eases visitors into the show with Angel Maker, a spiky lead sculpture by John la Huis near the entrance to the museum, and Maritza Molina's Conquering Space, a roughly five-minute video shown on a large screen in the lobby.

They're followed by a bracing trio: the shifting music and imagery of Lionel Saint Pierre's video Vision Test, played on a wall-mounted flat-screen monitor; Carolina Sardi's sculpture Rising Line, a thin steel obelisk that's 20 or so feet tall; and the delicate installation Larrabee's Echo, by Karen Rifas, which consists of small dried leaves attached to thin strings hanging from the underside of the museum's grand staircase.

Other than Duval-Carrié's taste, there's not much rhyme or reason evident in the flow of the show. I suspect, for instance, that the artist-curator displayed three huge pieces -- an oil portrait by Damian Sarno, an acrylic collage by Carlos de Villasante, and a mixed-media work by Sergio Garcia -- side by side simply because they're all the same size and shape and look good together. And he's right: The juxtaposition is an apt one, and it also plays nicely off the adjacent wall's grouping of four medium-sized abstracts by Jose Alvarez, who overlaps big, earthy-colored slabs of mineral crystals and resin on wooden panels.

Among Duval-Carrié's other winners: Light Made Visible, Bhakti Baxter's string-and-nail construction that forms a sort of minimalist mandala; the explicitly political Betraying the Youth, in which Macuria Monolanez connects three massive wooden doors with hinges, paints screaming figures onto their fronts, and affixes photographs and paperwork relating to the juvenile justice system onto the back sides of the doors; and the vaguely unnerving Dresden Tongue, by an artist identified only as Miralda, who wall-mounts seven large, molded-plastic tongues of various colors and lights them from within. And for sheer textural appeal, it's hard to match Glexis Novoa's Endurance City, a pair of roughly three-foot-square marble panels with a sort of alien cityscape rendered in graphite.

You'd be hard-pressed to uncover any sort of artistic agenda in "Nepotism," which is exactly the point. While it might be nice to have a bit of biographical information about the artists Duval-Carrié included, it's also a relief not to have to wade through some creaky aesthetic justifications for his choices. A show like this invariably includes both hits and misses -- so what? I hope Irvin Lippman makes the Artist-in-Residence program a tradition that he and the Museum of Art can justifiably embrace with pride.

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