Visitors never know what to expect at the Vero Beach Museum of Art. While the institution’s permanent collection focuses on pieces from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, its special exhibitions are broad in scope. Where one gallery might house fanciful Lego sculptures (as with “The Art of the Brick,” on display to January 3), another tells the story of American folk art (e.g. “Folk Art from the Morris Museum of Art” to January 17).
“We really run the gamut with our exhibitions, from historical art to contemporary art,” says Jay Williams, the museum’s curator of exhibitions and collections. “We’re doing a lot to provide our audience members with a wide variety of exciting visual experiences [that also] have a connection to other areas of life.”
The museum’s exhibitions on the docket for 2016 touch upon many movements in American art, including modernist abstraction, 1970s documentary photography, and landscape painting as exemplified in the work of Martin Johnson Heade. One thing is consistent: Education is a key aspect of every show.
“We know that people are more likely to feel comfortable in the museum if we are meeting them more than halfway,” Williams says. By presenting lectures, hands-on exhibition elements, family-focused events, and a children’s art festival, the Vero Beach Museum of Art attempts to bridge the gap between the gallery and the community.
PBI.com spoke with Williams about the museum’s personality, permanent collection, visiting exhibitions, and commitment to education.
|Cadalac Message, Howard Finster, part of “Folk Art from the Morris Museum of Art”|
PBI.com: How long have you been at the museum and what are your primary duties as curator?
Williams: I’ve been at the museum almost five years and my primary duties are to organize exhibitions, both from the collection and from outside sources, and also to oversee the development of the collection along with our registrar, Dana Twersky.
How would you describe the museum to someone who has never visited before?
The Vero Beach Museum of Art, I think, is a hidden gem. Hidden in the sense that a lot of people don’t really know this community very well because we’re about halfway between Palm Beach and, say, New Smyrna. It’s an area of Florida where some people who live, I think, in West Palm Beach and farther south just aren’t used to coming up this way for cultural things. They think about going south to Miami, but they don’t necessarily think about coming up this way. But, we do offer very high-quality exhibitions. We’re accredited with the American Alliance of Museums, the AAM, which is the national accrediting body. We do a series of very high-quality exhibitions all year long, both from our collection and also from outside sources of various kinds. We’ve done everything from major exhibitions of Cuban art, and we did have quite a few people coming up from Southeast Florida for that. We collect art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but we exhibit much more broadly than that. We have a very well educated community here and very art-savvy community because many of the people who live here are part-year residents who live in places where there are major museums. There are people who, when they come down here for the winter they want to see art that’s of a similar quality to what they’re used to seeing up north.
How do you go about creating your season exhibition schedule?
We’re looking at the fact that we’re the primary art museum for the large stretch of territory here. That’s one reason why although we have more focused collecting, we do try to provide exhibition experiences that will draw in and appeal to a very wide audience. We’ve had contemporary shows. This past spring we had an exhibition called “Embracing Space and Color: Art On and Off the Wall” that included both emerging and well-established contemporary artists since the 1860s. I think that’s a good example of a show that’s very much like the kind of show you would see in a much bigger community. We’ve also offered high-quality exhibitions of historical art. For example, not long ago we had an exhibition of works of art from the collection of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. This was mostly Baroque and late-Renaissance Baroque and Rococo art, which is not something people would normally get to see around here. And as I said, we organized an exhibition in 2013 of Cuban masters of the modern and pre-modern era. For that show, we had a guest curator who is a scholar from the Miami area who drew on major collections from Miami, but also more broadly. In that instance, we were offering something here for a very broad audience that really represents an important part of Florida heritage because of the relationship between Cuba and Florida.
Do you often find yourself thinking about what a Florida audience will like?
Oh absolutely. We [recently had] an exhibition called “Ocean Fishes” by James Prosek, who is one of the hottest artists right now in terms of art that has to do with the natural environment. He paints life-size paintings of fish and these are presented in a very personal way for James because they’re not just like guidebook illustrations; they’re actual depictions of fish he has either caught or seen caught. So, he calls them portraits of individual fish. … Obviously, paintings of fish hold a high degree of interest for our audience because everyone in Florida is interested in the health of the oceans, and these are mostly predator type of fish and they’re game fish predominantly that the people are used to catching.
|Salt Marshes, Newburyport, Massachusetts, Martin Johnson Heade, part of “Nature Illuminated: Landscapes and Still Lifes by Heade and his Contemporaries”|
Looking forward to the 2015-16 season, are there any overarching themes that connect the exhibitions?
At any given time we try to provide a variety between them. We have three galleries where we have temporary exhibitions: one large gallery and two smaller galleries. We always try to provide contrasting experiences. For example, if we do a show of paintings, we might also do a show of sculptures. This fall, “Shadows of History: Photographs of the Civil War” [features] Civil War photographs in one gallery; at the same time we have sculptures by Nathan Sawaya, who does sculptures from Legos in another gallery. And in another gallery we’ll have historical folk art. So, we have a variety of experiences.
In the spring, we’ll be having an exhibition from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston of paintings by Martin Johnson Heade. He was working in the late-nineteenth century to just after the turn of the twentieth century, and actually spent the latter days of his career in Saint Augustine living at one of the grand hotels that was established there by Henry Flagler. So, he has a strong connection to Florida at least in the latter part of his career. … At the same time, we’ll be showing John Baeder’s photographs of roadside culture from the 1970s and ’80s. John Baeder is probably best known as a photo realist painter—diners and other roadside culture—but he’s also a very important photographer. We’ll be showing some of his historical photographs of roadside culture. So, here you’ve got roadside culture of the ’70s, along with Martin Johnson Heade’s landscape paintings, and then, to top it off, we’ll have paintings by Oscar Bluemner from the collection of Stetson University. He’s a historical realist who was active from about World War II into the 1930s. So, again, it’s a really wide variety.
What’s your general approach to growing your permanent collection and how would you like to see it grow and evolve in the coming years?
Our collecting mission centers on art of the twentieth century and the twenty-first century. That sounds fairly narrow, but if you’re collecting high quality art you do it a little at a time. Our membership has been very generous in supporting the museum. The museum has an organization called the Athena Society, which is a support group formed by upper-level members to enable the museum to purchase one or more major works of art per year. We have 80-some members [and] they all contribute a certain amount of money each year. The director of the museum and I go to New York, we visit galleries, and we look at what’s on the market in terms of historical art and contemporary art. Then we come back and have a slate of candidate pieces of art—it’s sort of like an election where we have a primary and then the election because the Athena Society members vote for a slate that usually has three or four major pieces of art that are sent down here on consignment. They get to see the art and then they vote on it. They actually have a real sense of ownership then in the collection. This has been going on for the better part of 10 years at this point.
Is there anything else you’d our readers to know?
One thing I would like people to know is that the museum has a major emphasis on education [and] public programs that appeal to both adults and children. There’s a movement to counter the idea that an art museum has these pristine white walls—you put the art up on the wall and people are just supposed to understand everything about it magically and feel comfortably with it. We know that people are more likely to feel comfortable in the museum if we are meeting them more than halfway. We offer video clips, children’s programs, lectures, all kinds of ways to be involved with the museum that will help people feel comfortable with what they are seeing in the galleries and understand it better.
|Trailer, Arizona Route 66, John Baeder, part of “John Baeder’s American Roadside”|