When Carol Damian took over the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, its new, stand-alone building was more than 12 times larger than the original gallery. Its nine exhibition spaces, its ceiling and skylights and its idyllic location by a campus lake reflected the ambitions of the new chief curator and, in many respects, the hopes of the community’s burgeoning art scene.
Damian and the museum’s four employees had to scramble to launch its debut exhibition, which included works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and others from the university’s permanent collection.
“Back then, it was still relatively quiet out here,” Damian recalled with a wry laugh during a recent interview. “All the hoopla of [Art] Basel was just beginning, and we really didn’t have the excitement of so many art institutions.”
That was in 2008, and much has changed both at FIU and in the city it calls home. The Frost anchors the Tamiami Campus’ Avenue of the Arts, a cultural corridor that includes the Wertheim Performing Arts Center and the Sculpture Mall. Under Damian, it has hosted dozens of impressive shows, brought in important artists, featured prominent locals — and joined in the cultural transformation of Miami as it has elbowed its way into the international art scene.
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For Damian, 72, this means that her job as director is done. The art historian stepped down last month. In January, Jordana Pomeroy, executive director of Louisiana State University’s Museum of Art, will take the Frost reins.
Damian joked that her tenure went a year beyond what she had committed to.
“I never thought I’d be here this long,” she said. “When I started I thought I’d do it for five years, and it’s been six. In that time we’ve become a player in a very competitive Miami art market, and now we’ve got an exhibition schedule two years out. I’ve done what I set out to do.”
Damian is not going far. She will remain a professor in FIU’s art and art history department and plans to offer her extensive contacts and knowledge to the new director.
“Teaching is my strong suit,” she said. “It’s what I love most.”
And although curating the exhibitions, particularly those that included Asian art, proved to be fascinating, Damian said it was time for someone else to take over the time-consuming issues of personnel and fund-raising. While FIU provides the funds “to keep the lights on and for our salaries,” Damian and her staff must raise money for the extras, including special shows.
Pomeroy said she expects the transition to be seamless. Both women share a similar vision of a university museum as guiding cultural light, and Pomeroy wants to build on Damian’s legacy of education and outreach.
“What really attracted me [to the Frost] was not the individual exhibitions themselves,” Pomeroy said from her office in Baton Rouge, “but the number of exhibitions under Carol’s tenure and the sheer ambition, the quality of them.”
Pomeroy, who has master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University, worked as chief curator of the National Museum of Women in the Arts before she joined LSU. Said said the Frost is uniquely equipped to create a dialogue through art on both the local and international levels. She wants to expand the museum’s research and educational roles.
“The educational mission of a museum is what I do well and what I love to do,” Pomeroy said. “We can especially make a difference in these times,” when so many schools are cutting back on art education.
Jose Valdes-Fauli, an FIU graduate who has served on the university’s foundation, said the Frost has benefited from having the right director at the right time. Before Damian, Dahlia Morgan served the museum for more than two decades until her retirement in 2005, transforming a student gallery into a university art museum.
“Now we want Jordana to take the Frost to the next level,” Valdes-Fauli said. “We want to create major exhibitions and create a major mentoring center for our art students.”
In an email announcing Pomeroy’s appointment, FIU Provost Kenneth Furton pointed out that Pomeroy had doubled LSU’s museum membership, overhauled its exhibition programming, written a new strategic plan and built support from the community.
“Dr. Pomeroy has a very impressive background as an art historian and a keen interest in how cultures come together in art,” Furton said. “That’s a perfect fit for Miami.”
He pointed out that FIU occupies a special position — and bears a unique responsibility — in the art community. Its three museums (the Frost and the Wolfsonian and Jewish museums in Miami Beach) can “engage the local community as well as introduce and expose our students” to a wide variety of art from different parts of the world.
Many say Damian had already started doing this.
“Carol has been a pillar in the art community in Miami from before the art scene exploded,” said Cookie Gazitua, a museum benefactor. “Everybody turns to her. She has had the most incredible exhibitions, and I think she has set a precedent for what the Frost can be in the art world.”
Other benefactors laud Damian for her outreach to local talent. “Jorge and I think Carol Damian has been a significant figure in developing Miami as a center for the arts,” Darlene Pérez wrote in an email. Husband Jorge, CEO of the Related Group, is a well-known art collector who gave a $40 million gift of cash and artwork to the Miami Art Museum in 2011. In return, the museum changed its name to the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM).
“She has particularly helped young local artists and focused on Latin American art, cementing Miami’s reputation as a cultural center for both South and North America,” Pérez added. “We hope that she continues to be very involved with the local arts community as she is a great asset to all of us in Miami.”
Under Damian, Frost’s more than 100 exhibitions included “The Art of Manuel Mendive,” “The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama,” “Embracing Modernity: Venezuelan Geometric Abstraction” and “Ivan Navarro: Fluorescent Light Sculpture.” She acquired 259 works of art for the museum’s permanent collection and raised more than $2.5 million.
Most recently she welcomed a new endowment for Latin American and Caribbean art, established by benefactor Tony Ulloa to foster and engage Latin American and Caribbean art through scholarship, exhibitions and programming. This week, artist and filmmaker Ryan Trecartin lectured at the museum thanks to the Helen Venero Artist Lecture Series, which will bring other top names of the art world to the Frost.
Although her longtime interest and expertise is in Latin American art, Damian says she is particularly proud of the Chinese exhibitions she has brought to the Frost with the help of the Jane Hsiao Asian Art Endowment, established early in Damian’s tenure. Shows such as the recent one by Simon Ma, one of China’s best known and internationally acclaimed artists, and the 2010 “Taiwan Discovered: In Place and Time” have underscored the depth and breadth of the Frost’s goals under Damian. The focus on Chinese art in the past two years, Damian admits, was an education for her.
“I hope that we have created a foundation and met our educational mission,” Damian said, “not just for our students but also for the community. As a university museum you have a special obligation. You hope to bring people in, but you also hope to build an interest for life.”