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.