Spotlight on University Art Museums: Jill Deupi (director, Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami)

“In a cross-curricular model, students aren’t necessarily coming to learn about art. They are coming to learn how to be better observers, to be better thinkers, and, above all, to be better communicators.”

I believe that college and university art museums’ greatest value lies in the breadth of the exhibitions and programs they spearhead and, by extension, the diversity of audiences they serve and the range of people whose lives they touch. Our parent institutions’ faculty and students are of course our primary audience. But we also have an important role in our communities at large.

The Lowe, for example, is the only comprehensive, encyclopedic museum in Miami—we have 19,000-plus objects in a collection spanning 5,000 years of human creativity on every inhabited continent. We are the one place in a very cosmopolitan and diverse city where visitors can experience and enjoy contemporary art as well as an ancient Egyptian mummy, Japanese netsukes, and Renaissance painting (among other things). In terms of impact, as but one example, we run more than 250 K-12 school tours each year. Of the nearly 40,000 visitors we welcome through our doors every year, over 50 percent are from the community. Of course we also work very closely with University of Miami faculty and students, with whom we have the luxury of more sustained and consistent engagement.

Digging a bit deeper, academic museums are also, generally speaking, more nimble than public art museums. We can do things that might be more experimental, work a little more on the fly. We can mount exhibitions with shorter lead times than large municipal and public institutions, where an exhibition can take up to a decade of planning and fundraising.

Additionally, we play a very significant role in putting the next generation of museum professionals into the pipeline. The field as a whole has a deep commitment to diversity, equity, access, and inclusion, but we need to start the process as early as possible. At academic art museums, students who are interested in a museum career can begin to prepare for one as undergraduates.

Two decades ago there was a big movement in academic museums toward increased professionalization. It’s very uncommon now, for example, for a college art museum to be run by a faculty member. Even the smallest institutions now generally take their cues from public art museums in terms of professional practices, curation, and development models.

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has revamped its standards for accreditation to make it more reasonable for a small museum to become accredited, which is really important not just for the stamp of approval, but because the process is very rigorous and makes you ask a lot of questions of yourself, your team, and your parent institution.

The Association of Art Museum Directors has also played a big role in such professionalization. About a decade ago they changed their criteria for membership. Until that time, you had to have a budget over a certain amount, but that threshold no longer exists. That means there’s more room for smaller, more diverse institutions, which are frequently academic art museums. Currently, 26 percent of their membership is college and university museums, so you now have the Lowe seated at the table with MoMA and the Guggenheim, and that’s great because that’s how you learn.

Last, but certainly not least, the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries has worked very hard to advocate for greater professionalization. Several years ago, they published Professional Practices for Academic Museums & Galleries, an online guide to best practices. And in 2016 they began having their own annual conference, which previously was an add-on to the AAM’s. All three of those organizations, working in very different spheres, have done a tremendous job supporting the field’s professionalization and growth .

From my perspective, the number one challenge for academic art museums is ensuring that our parent organizations truly understand who we are and why we matter. We are not an auxiliary service unit. We are not a frill. Given the opportunity, we can be a central component of the academy that reaches all disciplines, all curricula.

At UM, we have three campuses: Miller School of Medicine, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, and Coral Gables (the location of all other units, including the School of Architecture, College of Arts and Sciences, Herbert Business School, School of Communication, School of Education and Human Development, College of Engineering, School of Law, Frost School of Music, School of Nursing and Health Studies, and Graduate School). It’s exciting to explore how the museum can engage with the rest of the university. For instance, we have a show up right now of paintings by the Miami-based Cuban-American artist Carlos Estévez—very beautiful paintings influenced by city plans and ancient cartography. When I saw the paintings, I thought of Goethe’s observation that “music is liquid architecture” and “architecture is frozen music.” So I reached out to UM’s Frost School of Music, one of the best in the country, to see if faculty or students could create a piece of music inspired by Estévez’s work.

We also try very hard to reach out far beyond the College of Arts and Sciences to traditionally non-museum-going disciplines like STEM. We have a long-standing program with UM’s Miller School of Medicine called the “Fine Art of Healthcare,” which has been wildly successful. I think that cross-curricular models like “FAoH” are where magic can happen. Students aren’t necessarily coming to learn about art. They’re coming to learn how to be better observers, to be better thinkers, and, above all, to be better communicators. This model is so flexible that we and other institutions working with it are expanding it into other arenas. For example, the Lowe is making overtures to the Miami-Dade police force. I would also love to see us engage with the TSA agents at the Miami International Airport, which, incidentally, currently has a work by Duane Hanson currently on loan from the Lowe— the power of collaboration!

Thanks to the Mellon Foundation, we enjoy a half-million-dollar grant that we share with our libraries; it’s enabled us to hire two shared staff members, a Mellon Fellow for Paper Conservation and, more important in the context of this conversation, a Mellon Fellow for Campus Engagement, who helps faculty incorporate the Lowe’s and our libraries’ collections into their pedagogy.

I began by saying that academic art museums matter because they touch so many lives. I see the collection as a means to an end. When people refer to the evolution of museums, they often mean the progression from temple to agora. And I think that’s right. We want to be the meeting place, the town square. We often talk at the Lowe about being a place for civic and civil dialogue. We are not here to promote our personal views, even though every choice we make in terms of exhibitions is an expression of our belief systems. But we are creating opportunities for conversation, one hopes, through what are, at times, provocative catalysts.

And we all need to be continuously recalibrating, making sure that we are not trying to be like the public museum down the block. We need to remember that our mission is to be a center for learning and engagement and be true to that.