The University of South Florida’s Contemporary Art Museum is an arts institution in touch with the sights and sounds of today’s society, presenting works that turn perceived realities on their ear via meticulously appointed shows and prestigious showcases of international artists. Plus, they throw really good parties.
Run by the USF Institute of Research in Art, the free (yes, free) museum is open six days a week, Monday-Saturday. It is (or should be) a point of regional pride, an antidote to all the facepalm-inducing crime stories, political snafus and trashy foibles more commonly associated with Tampa Bay.
This is an important year for the museum — its 25th — and celebrations begin this week with CAM@25: Social Engagement. The exhibition is a team curatorial project two years in the making that addresses the question: “What would honor the museum’s distinguished history and shine a light on its present and future direction?”
“A critical trend that we are exploring and that is highlighted in our CAM@25 exhibition is socially engaged art practice,” says museum director Margaret Miller, who’s been at CAM since it opened in 1989.
“Many artists are seeking ways to research social problems and develop projects that make a difference or at least provoke conversation.”
Working with such artists has been an important thread throughout the museum’s quarter century, said curator Noel Smith, who along with coordinating the exhibition has overseen Latin American and Caribbean art, education and the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate at USF.
Smith selected past favorites and current sensations for the show, with particular attention to contemporary artists from Latin America — Los Carpinteros from Cuba, Pedro Reyes from Mexico City and Janina Tschäpe from Brazil.
“Their expressions are very diverse one from another,” she says, “and they share the ability to fuse the local with the global, not losing their sense of themselves while competing and thriving on the international scene, where they are all stars.”
Smith says that Los Carpinteros’ “Transportable City” was an obvious choice for CAM@25. The museum first showed the collection of 10 tents recalling iconic Havana buildings in its 2005 exhibition Los Carpinteros: Inventing the World. A few years later the artists donated it to the CAM collection. “It lived in its crates and needed a complete rehab, which it has gotten, and we are installing it on the lawn outside the museum.”
Visitors will also encounter the city of Havana in the museum lobby, where “Conga Irreversible/Irreversible Conga,” a new video by Los Carpinteros, will document a raucous street dance performed in reverse, which the artists engineered for the 2012 Havana Biennial.
Another returnee is Tschäpe’s “gorgeous and lyrical” video “Blood, Sea,” which was commissioned and shown by CAM in 2004. The artist is creating “Ocean Study,” a site-specific construction of cut and pigmented paper spirals that will be installed near the video. CAM@25 will also feature a new work called “Imagine” by Reyes, who was part of the 2008 exhibition Mash Up.
“The Mexican government collected firearms of all kinds, ran over them with a steamroller and then offered them to Reyes,” says Smith. Working with musicians, he created some 50 playable instruments from the remains that are at once recognizable and strange.
“The artist has turned the sword into a poetic plowshare,” says Smith, “and is inviting us to really think and reflect.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, USF students can be oblivious to all that’s going on at CAM. During a recent visit for a CL interview, we encountered two graduate students who were completely unaware of USF CAM’s whereabouts or that it even existed.
“It’s really hard to make what we do matter to the USF community, our primary audience,” says Smith. “It is tough for me to hear that a student doesn’t know about the museum, but it happens, but I hope less and less.”
It’s not as if the museum doesn’t put itself out there. The public events for CAM@25 will be numerous, many of them geared toward students. They include the opening reception, plus guided tours, curator lectures, a symposium, an electronic music concert and a global dance party to close the exhibition.
Sarah Howard, curator of USF Public Art and Social Practice, is heading up an event whose theme is all too current: Amendment to the Amendment/(under)stand your ground, a theatrical performance addressing issues of gun violence, conceived by Pedro Reyes and directed in collaboration with USF theater professor Dora Arreola.
“I think the thing that strikes me most about Pedro’s work is his ingenious use of group play and therapy techniques to engage viewers as participants in his work,” says Howard.
Chances are a zither made from handguns will even engage a student or two.
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