University of Miami's Lowe Art Museum director Jill Deupi celebrates her first anniversary at the institution with a dive into history.
Museum Director and Chief Curator Jill Deupi in front of Hans van de Bovenkamp’s Circles and Waves XX, 1987, at the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum.
“By the end of One L, I knew I had made a terrible mistake,” recalls Jill Deupi, referring to her first year of law school at American University in the early ’90s. “Where is the philosophy? Where are the ideas? It was just a lawyer factory.” Even though she went on to graduate summa cum laude, Deupi realized it was the art world—always a side passion—that was calling her. With the ink barely dry on her law diploma, she moved to London with her architect husband and “started over at the very bottom rung, as a volunteer with the Royal Academy of Arts.”
Two decades later, Deupi herself is now the one overseeing volunteers as the director and Beaux Arts chief curator of the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum, a post she took over last August upon Brian Dursum’s retirement after 24 years as director. A year in, Deupi has had to grapple with competing identities for the Lowe: Is it a campus museum serving UM’s student body, or is it a community resource, responsive to the needs—and demands—of greater Miami? For several decades following its 1950 founding, as the only serious visual arts game in town, the Lowe was everything to everybody, producing more than a little grumbling over its often-cloistered curatorial attitude. These days, with major Miami museums sprouting up everywhere, as well as the gravitational pull of Art Basel dominating virtually every cultural conversation, the Lowe can sometimes feel like an art-scene afterthought.
The exhibition “1 2: Colección Jumex in Dialogue with the Lowe Art Museum” included No Number #001, 1989, by Joseph Kosuth.
For her part, Deupi says her vision is clear. “It’s really important to understand the personality of your institution,” she explains of the Lowe, which this month mounts a survey of new work from University of Miami art department faculty members, a tribute to the late Miami art collector and museum patron Francien Ruwitch, and a new installation from Miami artist Glexis Novoa, in addition to its permanent exhibits. “For us, the Lowe is a history book. That sounds really stuffy and dry, but I think once you begin to explore that on the ground—when you come in and look at our vast array of pre-Colombian pieces, for example—it’s really inspiring!”
Indeed, walking through virtually every other Miami museum, it can often feel as if the art world begins in 1980. Works from the earlier post-war period, let alone Renaissance-era paintings or Greco-Roman antiquities, are given only token acknowledgement—or ignored altogether. By contrast, while the Lowe’s building may be modest in size, the art on display provides a sweeping view, from impressive contemporary works by Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella, to Native American headdresses and totem poles, to foreboding supernaturally themed animal sculptures from Ecuador, circa 400 BC.
Donald Baechler’s Rotate in Void, 1989, from the Lowe’s new exhibition “A Collector’s Legacy: Highlights from the Francien C. Ruwitch and The Ruwitch Family Collections.” The exhibit is a tribute to the late Miami art connoisseur and museum patron.
“We are, at 65 years, one of the oldest visual arts cultural institutions in Miami,” says Deupi. “What that means is that we have an incredible collection. We have not just breadth, but we have depth as well. People may have forgotten, or maybe they never heard, that we have 19,000 objects covering 5,000 years of universal human history. That allows us to be relevant to almost anything.” It also means, Deupi adds pointedly, that “we can embrace the contemporary while giving it legs, explaining where it came from.”
What’s most striking about Deupi is that in a city whose cultural leaders often seem determined to chase the zeitgeist regardless of where it leads, what it costs, or what its actual intellectual value may be, she emphasizes the need to slow down, breathe, and take the time to look backwards. Tellingly, though Deupi has a long track record of scholarship and prior museum experience, she credits those early days in London as formative, citing hours lovingly poring over hand-written documents from 1768 drafted by the Royal Academy of Art’s founders. “I got bit hard,” she says of that archival dig. “It’s always been the historical aspects of art that appealed to me.”
On that note, Deupi says museums need to be cautious about the current mania for all things digital. “One has to be wary of gimmicks and gadgets,” she stresses, citing the thankfully subsided fad for curators to slap QR codes on every wall. Striking a balance with technology is key, she says, not only to avoid turning the museum into a vapid amusement park, but also, via “self-directed learning,” to enable every visitor to tailor his or her own experience. “You can just enjoy the sheer beauty of the objects. You can skim and enjoy on a very sensorial level, or you can go deep.” For exhibition info at the Lowe Art Museum (1301 Stanford Dr., Coral Gables, 305-284-3535), visit online here.
photography by ruwitch Family collection (baechler); colección Jumex, méxico (Kosuth); nicK garcia (Deupi)