Something Very New at Old Vizcaya Print
Written by Terence Cantarella, BT Contributor   
August 2015

A contemporary art project aims to bring the estate’s “lost spaces” back to life

JVizcaya_1ames Deering, a slight, silver-haired man in a white linen suit and little round glasses, sits in the bright loggia of his Venetian-style mansion in Coconut Grove and watches a crowd of tourists wandering through his home. Servants move among the visitors, preparing for a dinner party later in the evening. They set the walnut table in the Renaissance dining room, bring the shine to a collection of gold-rimmed china, and set up the bowling alley, billiard, and smoking rooms.

But the modern-day tourists can’t hear the clinking of dinnerware. They can’t see the dapper gentleman or his servants. Deering and his staff at Villa Vizcaya have all departed this world. Today they’re just specters of a long-gone era, a lingering presence in the Gilded Age home that is now a popular museum.

Gone, too, is the furniture from that sunny loggia where Deering liked to sit. The bowling alley where he cavorted with friends is now the museum café’s kitchen. And the billiard room no longer has a billiard table. It’s been turned into a gift shop. The spirit of those spaces, and several others at Vizcaya, has been lost.

Gina Wouters, Vizcaya’s curator, believes contemporary art can bring them back to life. “Historic houses have a negative stigma,” she says. “People think they’re static, that they’re odes to people who are dead from times long gone, that they’re nondimensional. But that’s not always the case. So I want to look at the original design intent of these spaces and have contemporary artists respond to them.”

 

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Wouters, who has worked at Vizcaya for eight years, was promoted to curator in 2013. Since then, her goal has been to create a more locally focused art program at the museum and commission works that people can relate to. “Because contemporary art is intimidating,” she says. “And if you go to Vizcaya to see something beautiful and you see some incredibly conceptual, inaccessible stuff, you’re not going to get it.”

With that in mind, last year, she conceived of “Lost Spaces and Stories of Vizcaya,” a project for the museum’s Contemporary Arts Program, which has commissioned art at Vizcaya since 2006. Vizcaya put out an open call, held a series of information sessions, and then waded through 160 proposals submitted by artists. Last month her five-member panel selected 11 of those artists to create installations for eight discrete areas of the estate. The artworks, which will be installed next year to commemorate Vizcaya’s centennial, will be on view for 6 to 12 months, depending on the installation.

Using contemporary art to reinvigorate historic homes and traditional museums isn’t a new idea. France’s former royal palace, Versailles, has done it annually since 2008. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence has been doing it for almost a decade. And last year England’s historic Blenheim Palace exhibited the work of famed Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei.

Vizcaya_4But Wouters’s project is different.

Major historic sites often exhibit the work of big-name international artists who have little connection to the place. Wouters, on the other hand, sought out local artists who, she says, have a deeper understanding of Vizcaya’s place in the cultural landscape. And she asked those artists to create works that use Vizcaya as a point of departure.

The idea is one that Deering might have liked.

While the story of Vizcaya’s creation has been well documented, the parallel story of Deering’s pursuit of contemporary art, the movement that inspired him, and his aesthetic impact on South Florida is less widely known.

As the heir to a family fortune and the former vice president of the flourishing International Harvester Company, Deering was fabulously wealthy. Single, childless, and already retired by age 49, however, he had little invested in the future. So in 1912, at 53 years old, he bought 180 acres of subtropical wilderness just south of the small, remote City of Miami and started planning his legacy.

Intrigued by Mediterranean architecture and design, Deering toured Italy several times with his flamboyant artistic director, Paul Chalfin. Together they sought inspiration, antiques, and decorative arts to use in the creation of an opulent 16th-century-style Italian estate, complete with Renaissance gardens and lagoons.

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The year before construction on Vizcaya began, however, a paradigm shift occurred in the art world -- and, perhaps, in Deering’s own creative outlook.

In 1913 the works of more than 300 European and American artists were exhibited at New York’s 69th Regiment Armory building. The show, now known simply as the “Armory Show,” was the first major exhibition of modern art in the United States, and introduced Americans to avant-garde styles like cubism, impressionism, and futurism. Highly controversial and ridiculed at the time, the show marked the beginning of the modernist movement in America and helped shift art away from realistic portrayals toward experimental, conceptual work.

Vizcaya_6Deering’s circle of friends included artists featured in the Armory Show. And in the years following the exhibition, he commissioned several of them to create sculptures, murals, and decorative elements for his new palazzo on the bay.

The weaving of this new artistic milieu into Vizcaya’s classical design transformed the home from a sober Italian estate into a whimsical wonderland. The result perfectly epitomized the quixotic spirit of South Florida at the time. It also introduced the Mediterranean-Revival building style that now dominates the region, while portending Miami’s present contemporary art scene.

It is in this spirit that Wouters conceived of her project, looking to continue Deering’s legacy of artistic patronage while breathing life into some of his home’s forgotten or repurposed spaces.

Magnus Sigurdarson, one of the project’s 11 commissioned artists, plans to film telenovelas in the home’s two loggias, creating narratives for the former inhabitants of the house. “The place just screams out for telenovelas,” he says. “Vizcaya is loaded with history and personal stories. And because the surrounding city is on the borderline with South America, you have that influence, too.”

Juraj Kojs, a composer and multimedia artist, will revive a Medieval-style moat that Deering had dug to protect the home from intruders but then quickly abandoned because it wouldn’t hold water. Kojs plans to create a sonic encounter that will “fill up the moat with the sounds of water.”

Vizcaya_8Other lost spaces include an Islamic-inspired “Casbah” that lies outside Vizcaya’s present borders, the recreational rooms that have been emptied or adapted for modern use, a wall of empty map racks, former staff spaces, an out-of-the-way garden area, and a two-room pavilion whose original use is a mystery.

The “Lost Spaces” project, meanwhile, comes amid discussions to reorganize Vizcaya’s governance to more effectively raise money for renovations and future art projects.

In 1952, 27 years after his death, Deering’s heirs sold the home to Dade County to operate as a public museum, which it still does today. But Vizcaya’s leadership now believes that transferring governance to a private non-profit board will allow the museum to raise more funds for renovations and future art projects -- since people are more likely to make charitable contributions to a private fundraising organization than a government agency. (Donations made to private non-profits are eligible for more favorable tax deductions than contributions to governmental entitites.)

The museum also wants to attract more locals. Currently, roughly 90 percent of its 200,000-plus annual visitors are out-of-towners. So having cultural programs and revolving art exhibitions like “Lost Spaces” gives locals a reason to visit regularly and become members.

But as curator, those bureaucratic issues are not Wouters’s main concern. “My idea was about Vizcaya in all its glory,” she says. “Vizcaya in its complete design intent and the way it was meant to be experienced and appear.”

Recapturing that glory won’t be easy. Deering’s Vizcaya arose during a gilded era of great wealth, glamour, war, prohibition, and the genesis of Miami. It was astir with prominent artists, writers, and luminaries roaring through the 1920s. That era, though, is over. The context is gone. The glory has lost its frame.

But if James Deering is still ephemerally ensconced in his playful manor, art may be the one thing that can cross the dimensional divide to connect his past with the present.

“Art can reactivate those lost connections to Deering’s original creation,” Wouters says. “That’s the whole inspiration behind this project.”

 

The 11 local artists selected to participate in “Lost Spaces and Stories of Vizcaya” are Duane Brant, Brookhart Jonquil, Amanda Keeley, Juraj Kojs, Lucinda Linderman, Mira Lehr, Kerry Phillips, Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, David Rohn, Magnus Sigurdarson, Yara Travieso, and Frances Trombly.

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