Brian Dursum grew up visiting the grand museums of New York and Europe. But at home in Miami, he never stumbled across the county’s oldest collecting art museum.
“My mother never brought us here, probably because she never heard of it,” said Dursum, now director and chief curator of the Lowe Art Museum. “I was across the street and I never walked into the museum.”
As the museum, on the campus of the University of Miami, turns 60 this year, Dursum is trying to make sure that the current generation of art enthusiasts doesn’t overlook this boutique but broad collection.
An exhibition featuring 137 rarely (or never) seen works from the nearly 18,000-piece permanent collection, From the Vault: Building a Legacy, Sixty Years of Collecting at the Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, opened recently and runs through March 25. The show highlights the many niches that the museum, named for philanthropists Joe and Emily Lowe, has come to fill since it opened in 1952 following a couple of years in classrooms.
From antiquities to a contemporary life-like sculpture of a football player, the Lowe’s collections represent 5,000 years of art history, with specialties in Native American, Asian, African, Ancient American and Renaissance and Baroque art. The collection has grown in large part due to major donations since the museum’s founding, including 41 Renaissance and Baroque paintings and sculptures from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. A gallery dedicated to those works opened in 1961.
Other major historic art donors have included Alfred Barton, Robert Bischoff and Stephen Junkunc III. Well-known arts patrons such as Lin Arison, Phillip and Patricia Frost and Martin Z. Margulies are also among the list of donors.
“To create a collection like this now would be impossible,” Dursum said. “The Lowe really is this wonderful cultural resource which is global in its view and reflects the community.”
For a town that has come to be known as a fashionable gathering place for lovers of modern and contemporary art during Art Basel Miami Beach and monthly events in Wynwood and the Design District, the Lowe’s offerings might seem decidedly un-glitzy.
But experts say the museum holds an important place on the arts landscape.
“When you’re a university museum, you try to have a very broad brush, so to speak, because your obligation and your mission is education,” said Carol Damian, director of the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University. “It wouldn’t be right for us or the Lowe to be so one-dimensional.”
Damian, who earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in art history at the University of Miami, highlighted the Kress Collection and the museum’s African, Asian and Native American collections.
“They don’t have to do things that are cutting edge. I think that what they have is really important,” she said. “You have alternatives at the Lowe that you don’t have anyplace else.”
The challenge is to get that word out. More than 41,000 people visited the museum in the last fiscal year, including about 6,500 students. That’s eclipsed by the estimated 50,000 people who visited Art Basel Miami Beach over five days in December and the 60,000 who visited Miami Art Museum last year.
Dursum is trying to make the museum more welcoming for UM students; last year, he got Wi-Fi installed and he’s raising money for classrooms in the building.
The Lowe also holds monthly socials, free admission days and family events to engage the community. A birthday party celebrating Lowe’s 60th is scheduled for March 25. Lectures draw well-known names in artistic circles, such as artists Sally Mann, who will speak on Feb. 16, and Jon Kuhn, who speaks March 7.
Perhaps better known than the museum itself is the annual January Beaux Arts Festival held on UM’s campus. Earlier this year, Beaux Arts, which supports the museum, recently announced a $1.7 million gift to the Lowe for exhibitions and educational programs. The festival also serves as an introduction to the museum, which does not charge admission during the event.
“Increasingly, we’re trying to show people the breadth of the collection,” Dursum said.
And the collection keeps growing.
The Myrna and Sheldon Palley Pavilion for Contemporary Glass and Studio Arts opened in 2008, the first major addition to the museum in 12 years. The couple gave $1.7 million toward the construction and donated their own collection of studio glass.
“It’s a fantastic museum; it’s a gem,” said Myrna Palley, who attended the university shortly after the Lowe opened. “It’s a shame though, because even people that have lived here a long time know the University of Miami but do not know that there’s a museum on campus. They call it Lowey’s or Lowe’s. I even stopped correcting people.”
Palley said her support has been motivated by the desire to see the museum grow in stature and to provide more educational opportunities. Years ago, she helped support the building of a glass blowing studio at the university.
For auto dealer and Lowe supporter Alan Potamkin, who has donated hundreds of pieces of mostly primitive African art, the interest dates back to his own education.
“I developed an appreciation for primitive art when I was at the University of Pennsylvania,” he said. “And I found that the Lowe provides a tremendous combination of introducing college students to spiritual, primitive art at the same time it serves the community with that same concept.”
He compares the museum to a better-known institution farther north — one that Dursum visited as a child.
Said Potamkin: “I found that the Lowe is really a mini version of the Met in New York, with a great variety of different cultures of art from ancient primitive to modern.”