Does a museum have an institutional memory? Does it labor under the burden of exhibitions past — its memories of what once was, its aspirations forever colored by what has been and can never be again? If so, the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale has a heavy cross to bear. It will always be the museum that brought us "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," a commercial triumph and statewide record setter not likely to be repeated.
"Tut" opened in December 2005, and those were a heady four months for the museum, which was my employer back then. I recall a question haunting fellow museum workers: Can we ever top this, and if so, how? It's a dilemma the museum grapples with to this day.
"Tut"'s shadow stretches over the museum. It's there in the visually arresting but now useless outdoor staircase that once channeled capacity crowds up to the Miriam & Bernard Peck Sculpture Terrace, where thousands endured the sometimes lengthy wait to enter the reconfigured museum for a taste of Egyptian antiquity. It's there in the lobby gift shop/café that for years has seemed to be in the throes of a perpetual identity crisis, most recently recasting itself as a disappointingly spare outpost of Coral Gables' legendary Books & Books.
The immediate solution after "Tut" was to move ahead almost as if the boy king had never paid a visit. Three ambitious shows immediately followed that displayed enormous verve. "Highwaymen Newton & Hair: The American Dream in the Sunshine State" assembled works by two of Florida's native-son black artists of the 20th Century made famous for initially selling their artwork on the side of the road. For "Matthew Schreiber: Platonic Solids," the museum took a chance on an up-and-coming Miami-based artist who created two sensational site-specific installations of light-based art. And "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge" drew on the jaw-dropping private collection of actor-comedian Richard "Cheech" Marin.
But instead of carrying that momentum forward, the museum embarked on a series of exhibitions that indeed seemed to fetishize objects at the expense of fine art. First came "Cradle of Christianity: Jewish and Christian Treasures From the Holy Land," a 2006 exhibition that sought, unsuccessfully, to top 2003's "St. Peter and the Vatican."
The museum solidified its reputation as an object museum (instead of a fine-art museum) with what came next: furniture in "Inspired by China," "The Quilts of Gee's Bend," and "Future Retro: The Great Age of the American Automobile." The trend crested with "The High Style of Dorothy Draper," which focused on... interior design. Never mind that some of these shows were excellent. Docents grumbled about having to try to generate excitement by talking about cultural artifacts. Visitors wondered if the museum would ever get back to emphasizing paintings, drawings, and sculpture.
A comeback of sorts arrived in late 2008. "Pablo Picasso Ceramics/Carlos Luna Paintings" offered for display the museum's prized collection of Picasso ceramics, which it had acquired from benefactor Bernie Bercuson in 1991. The full collection had rarely been on view locally — it was usually on the road, out on loan to other institutions — and here was an opportunity to see it not only in its entirety but also juxtaposed with the audacious art of Luna, a prodigiously talented Miami-based Hispanic painter. It was an inspired pairing.
Aside from its overall excellence, the Picasso/Luna exhibition reminded us of two things worth remembering: that the museum's own permanent collections include a wealth of work that in years past often went neglected locally, and that the museum has a laudable track record when it comes to presenting the work of artists from Latin America and the Caribbean. Indeed, one logical course for the museum to take post-"Tut" would have been to stake its claim on such art, given its substantial contemporary Cuban collection.
Works from Latin America and the Caribbean have long been the basis for some of the museum's best shows. In 1997, it devoted the bulk of its then-21,000 square feet of display space to the landmark "Breaking Barriers," drawn entirely from the contemporary Cuban collection. A little more than a decade later, a sequel of sorts, "Unbroken Ties: Dialogues in Cuban Art," again demonstrated the museum's flair for presenting Cuban art. In between came 2004's "Enrique Martínez Celaya: The October Cycle," focusing on the work of another extraordinary Cuban-born artist who went on to display at the Miami Art Museum and the Boca Raton Museum of Art as well as many top venues worldwide.
The "Unbroken Ties" show has traveled to other museums, among them the prestigious Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California. As with the traveling Picasso ceramics, this both brings in a little income and also keeps the museum's name out there as a lending institution, something that only enhances its reputation in the art world.
The case for the museum as a venue for great Latin American art was bolstered last year by two complementary exhibitions. "Latin American Art From the Collection of Pearl & Stanley Goodman" was compiled from the breathtaking collection of a local collector and museum board member, and "Recent Acquisitions From the Latin American Art Collection" beautifully augmented it.
The museum has also taken to showcasing more work from its other permanent collections. This is a very good thing. For years, it seemed the museum trotted out selections from the magnificent Meyer & Golda Marks collection — the museum's extensive holdings by modern artists from the Copenhagen/Brussels/Amsterdam axis — only when it needed to fill space. Now there's the sense that someone has finally realized, belatedly, what an asset the museum has on hand and has decided to share it with a local public hungry for more traditional fine art.
Then there's the museum's enormous William Glackens collection, which has been a constant for many years. The American artist's heir, Ira Glackens, bequeathed a hefty set of works by his father to the museum in 1991, and a decade later, a new, 10,000-square-foot wing opened to provide a venue for the collection, which is maintained thanks to regular infusions of cash from the Sansom Foundation. For a long time, I was dismissive of the Glackens collection, only to find myself growing to admire its depth and breadth the more I learned about the artist and his contemporaries. The collection anchors the museum, in its own way, and with a longtime Glackens expert on staff, the museum is able to offer a steady stream of rotating exhibitions that draw on the collection.
Unfortunately, the museum is too cavalier about some of its facilities. Although the lobby and some of the galleries regularly host special events, including private functions that generate modest revenue for the institution, other amenities remain underused. Take the previously mentioned Peck Sculpture Terrace, that nearly 3,000-square-foot space where visitors awaited entrance to "Tut." It once lived up to its name, presenting displays of large-scale sculptures such as the 2004-05 show of lovely work by British artist Edwina Sandys. But it's long overdue for renovations and sits empty at the top of that expensive outdoor staircase that was designed and installed for the "Tut" show and that now literally leads to nowhere.
The museum's Norma and William Horvitz Auditorium gets a little more use, but it has yet to become a reliable cultural destination for the community. The space is perfect for lectures and panel discussions and the like, as well as concerts and plays, all of which it has hosted from time to time. It would also be ideal for a small-scale series of independent and foreign films. An occasional movie or two does not constitute a serious film program.
An institution like this is ultimately exhibition-driven, however, and on that front, there is cause for cautious optimism. In the past couple of years, the museum has finally gotten back to the kind of programming that pleases fine-art aficionados — people for whom the Diana and "Tut" and Vatican shows were necessary evils that helped pay the bills. The 2009-10 season included "Coming of Age: American Art, 1850s to 1950s," a sweeping, painting-intensive exhibition the likes of which hadn't been seen since "American Renaissance: Painting and Sculpture Since 1940," a 1986 show that inaugurated the museum's move into its current Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed building.
The follow-up, "American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell," seemed to suggest that "Coming of Age" was no fluke. The retrospective of one of America's most beloved artists turned out to be an overdue reappraisal of Rockwell — a surprisingly well-argued case that he was also one of the country's most misunderstood and underestimated artists. The double whammy that came next, "With You I Want to Live" — a pair of exhibitions drawn from the local private collections of Gordon Locksley and George T. Shea, and Francie Bishop Good and David Horvitz — overstayed its welcome, but the two shows also included some terrific contemporary art. And 2010-11's "Tom Wesselmann Draws" took an unexpected look at a top 20th-century artist better-known for his paintings.
Two recent shows were something of a step backward. "Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art" was a decidedly unsatisfying object-based show in which many of the artifacts were of the "from the studio of" and "in the style of" variety. A set of iron calipers, for instance, was identified as "believed to have belonged to" Michelangelo.
The just-ended "The Art of Caring: A Look at Life Through Photography" was big and ambitious but ultimately bland, with more valleys than peaks. At the same time, however, I was heartened to find a concurrent exhibition that was nothing if not edgy, the small group show "Sight Specific: Explorations in Space, Vision and Sound."
The long-range challenge may ultimately be one of balancing big, splashy exhibitions like "Tut" and its ilk with smaller, quirkier shows like "Sight Specific" that appeal to the younger, more aesthetically adventurous crowd that, on the basis of recent programming, the museum seems eager to court. Yes, it will always be the museum that brought us "Tut," but if its legacy is to be more than that — if it's to remain relevant — the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale must constantly reinvent itself.