The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Above: Sylvie Fleury “Eternity Now” on the façade of the Bass Museum. Photo by Silvia Ros.
The death knell had gone out for public libraries. Like book and record stores, they were pronounced irrelevant at the advent of the digital age. As the country fell into the recession that began in 2008, libraries, including in Miami, became some of the first casualties of budget cuts.
Yet advocates fought back, arguing that libraries should be viewed not just as a place for books but as neighborhood gathering points where all types of people can access information and community resources online, in print and in person.
Rachel Harrison “Voyage of the Beagle Two” at the Miami Beach regional Library. Photo by Silvia Ros.
In that vein, an experiment that helps to reimagine libraries as civic spaces is taking place in Miami Beach. The Bass Museum of Art there is undergoing a massive renovation and is closed until the end of 2016. But it refused to hibernate.
The museum was looking for a place to keep exhibits continuing during its closure, said executive director and chief curator Silvia Karmen Cubiñá . The head of the Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs, Michael Spring, suggested she talk to the Miami Beach Regional Library, located next door, about setting up a temporary gallery space.
“Initially, at best, I thought this would be a nice little corner of the library to show art,” said Cubiñá . “But it has turned out to be so much more. It’s turned out to be a real partnership. We are exchanging audiences.” Kids, she said, are going to the library and are being exposed to a curated contemporary art exhibit, and the artists are getting exposure to a broader viewership than might pass through a museum. Through this programming at the library, called bassX and funded through the Knight Arts Challenge, the museum has started collaborating on specific days with the library, such as a recent mask-making workshop and a family day of art, along with educational programs.
Bass exhibitions curator Jose Carlos Diaz at the inaugural opening of bassX at the Miami Beach library. Photo by Dan Bock.
The Bass came up with a series of exhibitions from international artists, with work that on some level relates to the world of libraries. That can mean anything from text-based art to history-telling imagery. The inaugural exhibit, “Voyage of the Beagle Two,” comes from Rachel Harrison and is a series of almost fanciful photographs that line the Bass gallery in the front left area of the library. It fits into the “history-telling” category. The title refers to notes that Charles Darwin made during a scientific fact-finding trip on the HMS Beagle to the Galapagos Islands, which formed part of his theory of evolution.
Harrison has photographed her own subject matter in a journey of discovery as well, but with iconic symbols that trace the trajectories of various cultures. She has captured ancient stone monuments, whose significance has long been lost; a gargoyle from a gothic church; a Canadian Mountie and pop icons represented in a kitschy sculpture of Elvis and an inflatable puppet on Coney Island.
bassX at the Miami Beach Regional Library.
The artist has placed each photo next to one another in a very specific manner, according to Bass exhibitions curator José Carlos Diaz. As viewers move from one to the next, looking at seemingly unrelated images, they can begin to form their own story, he said, and begin their own voyage of discovery. “The library is the perfect place to begin their research,” Diaz said.
The Bass Museum campus itself has not really gone dormant either. During Art Basel, the wildly popular public sculpture show opened up in the front park, with a highlight of another bassX artist, French visual and performance artist Sylvie Fleury, whose blue neon sculpture now lights up the façade of the museum. It will be on view through May 16.
Back at the library, coming up this year will be an exhibit of art made from books, and an exploration of ancestral and geographic origins from a South African artist. According to Cubiñá, the collaboration with the library won’t end when the museum reopens. The exchange has opened up doors that can’t be closed.
Rachel Harrison “Voyage of the Beagle Two,” part of the bassX series, runs through Jan. 10 at the Miami Beach Regional Library, 227 22nd St., Miami Beach. For more bassX programming, visit bassmuseum.org.