From the Guest Editor, Margaret Miller: Arts Excellence in an Age of Populism

From the Guest Editor, Margaret Miller: Arts Excellence in an Age of Populism


Guest Editor Margaret Miller is a Professor in the School of Art and Art History and Director of the Institute for Research in Art at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida.

We’re pleased and excited to have Margaret Miller as the new guest editor of the Creative Pinellas Magazine. Miller is a Professor in the School of Art and Art History and Director of the Institute for Research in Art at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida. She holds an MA degree from the University of Hawaii in Asian Art History. From 1978 to 2001 Miller served as Director of the USF Contemporary Art Museum and in 2001 was appointed to also serve as the Director of Graphicstudio, USF’s renowned art production atelier.

The Institute for Research in Art is part of the College of The Arts at USF and is composed of the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM), Graphicstudio, and the Public Art Program. The synergy between a university-based museum and a production atelier allows for an intensive and ambitious relationship with internationally recognized and emerging visiting artists. USFCAM offers a broad framework of exhibitions and related programs that are designed to provoke critical interpretation and explore ideas and issues relevant to the larger fields of cultural, social and political practices and Graphicstudio provides an innovative and collaborative research environment in which distinguished visiting artists can advance their studio practice. The Public Art Program administers a USF system-wide program of contemporary art purchases and commissions funded through Florida’s Art in State Buildings Program, which was created legislatively in 1979; it requires setting aside one half of one percent of any new state construction funds for the acquisition of artwork to be placed in and around new buildings.

Appropriately then, our conversation with Miller and this issue of Creative Pinellas focuses on arts excellence and the challenges it faces in an unfolding age of populism.


This month’s issue of Creative Pinellas Magazine touches on arts excellence and challenging audiences during challenging times. How does this manifest itself in the work that you do?

In recent years campus and community constituents have realized the value of the university-based museum and use exhibitions and collections as a pedagogical tool. A program of temporary exhibitions introduces provocative themes such as climate change, identity issues and social justice and faculty from diverse disciplines and community visitors use the museum as a teaching laboratory.  It is our mission to enhance observational and interpretive skills, improve visual literacy and hone creative problem-solving abilities. The quality of the artists and the artwork is paramount.

Two recent projects demonstrate our mission and focus:


CLIMATE CHANGE CUBA/USA  (January 12-March 3, 2018)

The exhibition, curated by our Curator of Latin American and Caribbean Art, Noel Smith, presented five artists from different generations that address the fluctuating relationship between Cuba and the US. Artists Glexis Novoa, Celia y Yunior, Antonio Fernández “Tonel” and Javier Castro respond to the Cuban revolution and political and diplomatic developments. The exhibition included video, paintings, installations, drawings and archival material.


PLEDGES OF ALLEGIANCE (July 2017-July 2018)

Pledges of Allegiance is a nationwide, year-long public art project featuring a series of flags created by acclaimed artists and organized by the New York-based public art nonprofit, Creative Time. Internationally recognized artists were invited to respond to the current heated political environment. Every few weeks a new flag is hoisted on the corner of the museum in concert with other museums participating around the world.


Truly great art clarifies and intensifies life experiences and can offer new perspectives on today’s social challenges and even offer transformative experiences.


One aspect of running an institution such as a museum is, of course, drawing audiences. However, great art also frequently challenges the preconceptions of audiences, provokes and, at times, even upsets. This seems like a challenging push-pull to navigate as a director. Have you found this to be the case and how do you approach it?

The USF Contemporary Art Museum is free to students and the public. The campus has a built-in audience of 42,000 students and over 3,000 faculty and staff. Our exhibitions, collection and educational programs can be accessed through our website. It is my view that great art can be challenging, accessible and satisfying. Educational programs help visitors access the ideas and understand the visual language.  The presentation of mediocre art for the purpose of attracting an audience results in disappointment and a misunderstanding of the joy and enrichment that great art provides. Truly great art clarifies and intensifies life experiences and can offer new perspectives on today’s social challenges and even offer transformative experiences. I avoid presenting art that is designed to just titillate, is abject or simply confrontational.


The United States, and to a degree the Western world in general, is experiencing a populist moment. Art that aims to maintain its rigor by challenging larger audiences seems to stand in contrast to that sort of sociopolitical climate. With that in mind, what do you think is art’s roles and aims in such a climate?

Can a powerful and provocative artwork be meaningful to everyone? The significance of a work of art is not simply based on its craftsmanship, technical excellence or how it was made, although these may all be avenues of access; it is an artwork’s meaning that inspires and offers a significant experience for the viewer.

Great cities have great art institutions that house significant art collections and organize exhibitions that define quality and offer learning experiences for visitors. My concern is that the Tampa Bay area may inadvertently be moving toward mediocrity in an effort to support a new egalitarianism intended to reject elitism and deliver services for creative expression to a broad and diverse public. While this may seem like a noble gesture, without great artists, expert curators and highly trained educators, the quality of the programming will be mediocre and the community will not achieve the rich cultural environment that attracts businesses, residents and visitors. Populist art has had many forms throughout history; in the late ‘70s some artists were inspired by underground comics, punk music and graffiti and wanted to support the rights and power of the people in their struggle against a privileged elite. Today’s populist ideology ostensibly continues to reject elitism but ends up taking an anti-intellectual stance and refuses to consider oppositional viewpoints and does not support a pluralistic world-view. Art museums have not gained bigger audiences through efforts to embrace populism.

Today many artists use their art practice to interrogate this new populist ideology in order to preserve democratic ideals. A form of art has emerged that defies commodification and wishes to serve as a catalyst for social transformation and directly engage communities outside of the museum.  Under the leadership of USFCAM’s Curator of Public Art and Social Practice, Sarah Howard, we have developed projects for Tampa with artists like Pedro Reyes, Duke Riley and New Orleans Airlift. Projects were developed in concert with area community centers and engaged students of all ages.  Excellence comes from passionate leadership, professional expertise, and a dedication to exploring the challenges of achieving and sustaining quality. It isn’t something we should shy away from or fear.


Do you think art playing the role of a sort of Socratic antagonist, really puts it in danger of defunding or any other sort of dismantling? Is this or should this be a concern when making, curating or programming art?

The role of the contemporary art museum and its curators is to create a platform for innovation and discovery and to provoke dialogue about today’s cultural issues. USFCAM is a meeting place for the exchange of new ideas, perspectives and experiences among artists, students and the public.

As a university-based museum we are committed to the highest level of research and experimentation in organizing exhibitions and programs and take advantage of faculty and students to forge meaningful connections across with faculty and researchers across the campus in order to enhance learning, promote visual literacy, enhance observational and critical skills and prepare students for a future as global citizens.

Museums rely on multiple funding sources- private donations, grants from local, state and federal sources.  Defunding can be considered as a form of censorship. In the late ‘80s Jesse Helms condemned National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grants to controversial artists such as Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. In 1996, Congress cut the NEA funding to $99.5 million as a result of pressure from conservative groups who criticized the agency for using tax dollars to fund controversial artists and now the Trump administration threatens to defund the NEA, NEH and other public sources of funding.  Recently we have been notified by the Arts Council [of Hillsborough County] that the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners have decided that all organizations associated with higher education are ineligible to apply for grants. The Arts Council has been a source of funding for USFCAM for many years and we have successfully competed for grant funds based on the quality of our exhibitions and outreach projects. This unfortunate circumstance will likely have unintended consequences as our exhibitions and programs are often utilized by local schools, community organizations and seniors. Whether this action is a result of this new form of populism that is suspicious of higher education and its role in our culture, our role continues to be to present the highest level of art and programming. We cannot allow the whims and influences of politics to erode the quality of the work we do, even if that means working even harder to support our programming.


What are some artworks and projects, national, international and local, that you cite as examples that challenge well in a challenging time?

There are many good exhibitions and public art projects that have been challenging while offering new perspectives in these challenging times. Here are a few national and local examples:

In April 2018 Virginia Commonwealth University will open its new Institute for Contemporary Art designed by Steven Holl Architects. The inaugural exhibition, curated by Lisa Freiman will be Declaration that explores contemporary artists power to respond to pressing social issues and catalyze change, installations, site-specific works by more than 30 emerging artists. The exhibition will fill the ICA and reach into the city with a dynamic mix of projects in a wide array of media including painting, video, installation, performance and site specific projects. It will feature artists commissioned to new work from Richmond and around the world. Declaration will examine themes of protest, social justice and the value of a creative community.

In the fall of 2016, Megan Voeller curated an exhibition for USFCAM titled Extracted that brought together a group of artists whose work investigates the extraction of natural resources and the material and cultural circulation of such resources around the globe. There is a growing consensus among scientists that suggests that we live in a new geological epoch characterized by humankind’s impact on Earth: the Anthropocene.

BLACK PULP! was presented in the summer of 2017 at USFCAM with a two-person exhibition in the adjacent gallery titled WOKE! with its curators, Mark Thomas Gibson and Will Villalongo. BLACK PULP! examined the evolving perspectives of Black identity in American culture and history from 1912 to 2016 through rare historical printed media shown in dialogue with contemporary works of art by African American artists.

From June to October 2017 three area museums: The Tampa Museum of Art, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota and the Museum of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg collaborated on an exhibition titled Skyway that profiled and celebrated the many talented artists that reside in our communities.

The Tampa International Airport under the leadership of Joe Lopano and Chris Minner has commissioned leading artists to create new work for Tampa’s world-class airport. Local citizens and visitors are greeted by engaging installations by emerging and established artists including Chicago-based artist Nick Cave working with Bob Faust to create a massive beaded work, Erwin Redl who produced a hanging sculpture with LED lights forming pictograms, a hanging sculpture with hearts and wings by Cuban artist, Esterio Segura, and an LED ribbon that coils around trusses by Spanish artist, Daniel Canogar. Public Art at the TIA sets a new bar for public art in the Tampa Bay area.

Educational programs can bring together people for an experience that is both fun and educational. In conjunction with our recent exhibition Climate Change: Cuba/USA we hosted a Salsa Social. The Salsa Social was the premier presentation of the new CAM Club, a student organization designed to engage students with museum programs. The event featured a brief lecture on the history of the salsa form of dance, including information about its birth in Cuba and its development in New York’s Caribbean immigrant communities, a performance by the USF Latin Dance Club, and dance lessons from an experienced instructor.

We are inspired by the work of the New York-based non-profit organization Creative Time. Creative Time has commissioned and presented ambitious public art projects throughout New York City, across the country and around the world. Their work is guided by three core values: art matters, artists’ voices are important in shaping society and public art spaces are places for creative and free expression. We are currently collaborating with Creative Time to present Pledges of Allegiance– a series of artist-designed flags.

University-based museums can have significant roles on campus and in the broader community. Exhibitions, educational programs and community projects are designed to push conversations across disciplines. The synergy between the Contemporary Art Museum, Graphicstudio and the Public Art Program at USF provides a unique environment for collaborative and innovative opportunities for artists and for our community.

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