Virginia Miller, described by a leading magazine as “the undisputed doyenne of South Florida art dealers,” has presented more than 300 public exhibitions of art ranging from works by acknowledged masters to the initial exhibitions of emerging artists, all with several common characteristics. “The work that I’ve shown reflects my taste and my judgment,” said the veteran art dealer. “I’ve always tried to show work that I thought presented a unique personal vision, that has long-term artistic significance, and lastly, that represents good value to my clients.”
As the owner and director of Greater Miami’s longest-established contemporary fine art gallery, Miller can reflect on the many exhibitions she has curated and designed since 1974 at the gallery’s original location in Coconut Grove, at a 9,000-square-foot space at Douglas Center, in annex galleries at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables and Miamarina in downtown Miami, as well as in such other venues as the Boca Raton Museum of Art and the Fine Arts Gallery of Broward Community College and in her present gallery in downtown Coral Gables.
For nearly 38 years, as a private dealer and as a gallery owner, Virginia Miller has introduced and exhibited emerging and mid-career artists as well as a number of historically significant 20th century masters to South Florida. Some of her exhibitions have been spectacular. “Karel Appel flew in from Monaco for his one-person show of sculpture and paintings,” Miller said. “One of his sculptures of a windmill with clouds floating through its blades was about eight feet tall.
“When we did an installation of grass growing in the shape of the late Ana Mendieta’s body, Ana’s sister Raquel, who was doing the installation, wanted us to use long grass but we could only find sod,” Miller recalls. “We put plastic sheeting on top of our hardwood floor and installed the sod on a mound of topsoil, and Raquel used a template to cut out the shape of Ana’s body. She filled it with dead leaves that she brought from New York.
“Because of the air-conditioning, we were concerned about the grass drying out, so I had the gallery assistant water it twice a day. Within a few days it began to grow, and then it grew some more. During the two-month course of the exhibition, that grass grew to about ten inches high–it was amazing.” Three thirteen-foot dugout canoes containing real skeletons highlighted the one-person exhibition of Sharon Kopriva, who makes near-life-size mummified effigies out of bones, hair, horns, leather, and papier mache. The exhibit was so spectacular that WPLG-TV newscaster Todd Tongen did two live broadcasts featuring the exhibition.
Another memorable one-person exhibit documented light sculpture by Eric Staller. The highlight of the show was his “Lightmobile,” a VW Beetle studded with 1,659 tiny light bulbs flashing in computer-generated patterns. “At night, we took the Lightmobile out on the road with all of its lights flashing various patterns,” Miller said. “People remembered seeing it in the movie ‘The Money Pit.’ Everyone honked at us, and when we stopped in Coconut Grove it really attracted a crowd. The Miami Herald ran a big picture and story about it in color on the front page of the local section.”
Some of the gallery’s shows have been controversial, such as Fernando Luis’ one-person exhibition of lascivious priests and pregnant nuns, or contemporary Russian art years before glasnost and perestroika, when the Soviet Union was still viewed as our nation’s enemy.
Other criteria for exhibitions presented by Miller has been a highly accomplished technique and the “spirit” or artistic integrity of the work. “I’ve always believed that a dealer in contemporary art has a great responsibility to help people learn how to look at art, to feel what it’s about, and not to be intimidated by new art forms,” she stated.
ArtSpace / Virginia Miller Galleries exhibits at such expositions as Art Miami, Art Palm Beach, and Arte Americas. “Blink,” its most recent exhibition at Art Miami’s “Currents,” the section of cutting-edge works, featured more than a hundred miniscule photographs, each mounted on a clear acrylic sphere the size of a ping-pong ball. The work of Russian artist Anatolij Shuravlev, the dangling spheres turned and refracted their changing environment, which included a line of 88 fingernail-sized photos mounted on another wall. Outside the booth, an elliptical installation included another 400 of Shuravlev’s minuscule works.
“When a photograph is only three-eighths of an inch square, you have to really scrutinize it to see its subject matter,” Miller said. “The line of photos on one wall was of Russian architecture and monuments. The outside installation pictures were American movie stars and other celebrities. But the tiny ones on the hanging balls were the most popular–they included a number of beautiful male and female nudes.”
Miller’s start in the art field was as unique as the works she sells. After working in a law firm and bank, then managing an advertising agency, she decided to return to college. As an undergraduate, she met a number of artists who complained that local galleries only wanted to exhibit nationally known artists.
With her business and advertising background, Miller saw an opportunity, and soon she was organizing exhibitions of fine art, mostly to benefit local charities. Beginning in the late 1960s, those exhibitions at Temple Beth Sholom, First National Bank of South Miami, Citizens Federal Savings and Loan Association, Fellowship House, United Cerebral Palsy Association of Miami, and other venues may well have made local art history as Dade County’s first synergism of art and business.
Introducing Artists of Historical Significance
After opening her gallery in 1974, seven years after she began dealing in art, Miller sought out and curated major exhibitions of a number of important artists who had never before exhibited in the region. In 1978 she exhibited a retrospective of Alice Neel’s works on paper dating from 1926 to 1977. It was Neel’s first exhibition in Florida. Along with the exhibition, the gallery showed the award-winning public television film, “Alice Neel: Collector of Souls.”
Included in the exhibition was Neel’s six-foot portrait of Miller, done shortly after the art dealer and Neel met while serving on panels during a seminar at Manhattan’s prestigious New School. “While I was posing for my portrait, I persuaded her to show the historic works by offering to dredge them out of the nooks and crannies of her rambling apartment in Spanish Harlem,” Miller recalled. “When I went back there to select works for her show, my husband and I spent most of a day dragging dusty paintings from beneath her bed and out of the depths of her closets,” Miller recalls.
Clearly, Neel had not seen many of the works for a long while. Years before, an irate lover had cut up and burned 60 of her paintings and 200 drawings and watercolors. From time to time as the artist saw an artwork she exclaimed, “I thought that son-of-a-bitch had burned that one!” The Alice Neel retrospective was reviewed in national arts magazines and newspapers. Until then largely overlooked by the art establishment, within a few years Neel was featured on the cover of Time magazine as one of the century’s most important portrait artists.
About that same time, Miller arranged for the first exhibition of models and architectural drawings by SITE, the multidisciplinary art and architecture organization from New York City. The SITE team had created a number of nationally publicized “deconstructed” buildings around the nation, including two in Greater Miami. Miller arranged for two Greyhound buses, complete with live music and snacks on the road, to take art enthusiasts to tour them after the opening reception.
Many of the works from the SITE architectural exhibition went on to be shown in Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York and at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1983 Miller scored a national coup with a worldwide exclusive exhibition and sale of “Doonesbury” animation drawings and paintings. “Doonesbury” animation art is rarely seen on the market, as Garry Trudeau only allows it to be sold to benefit select charities—in this case, for abused children.
The following year ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries mounted one of its largest exhibitions: more than 130 images from 19th and 20th century master photographers. Including works by the inventor of the photographic negative, William Henry Fox Talbot, and the first woman photographer, Anna Atkins, the show presented a history of photography, including works by the early Europeans, the American pictorialists and the then-courant colorists, such as Elliott Porter, represented by a pair of oversize dye transfers.
In 1985 the gallery presented another historic blockbuster: “Richard Pousette-Dart: Paintings: From the 1940s to the Present.” It was the first exhibition in the South for Pousette-Dart, youngest member of the New York School of abstract expressionists. “I found out why no one had sought him out to show his work,” Miller recalls. “Every time I selected a painting, he would put it back and say ‘Not that one.’ Eventually, he complimented me on my ‘eye’ in selecting his best work, and he let me have enough pieces for a major retrospective – but he wanted to pull them off the truck as they were being loaded.
“He was one of those painters who goes back to a painting year after year to work on it some more, and I suppose he felt those works weren’t really finished, even though they had been painted ten or even twenty years earlier,” Miller said. The following year Miller did a second Pousette-Dart exhibition, “Magical Radiances: Black and White” that included works from 1978 to 1981. That exhibition coincided with a one-person Pousette-Dart show at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art.
The gallery made international history again in December 1990, when Laurence Gartel used digital cameras developed by Canon for the Gulf War to photograph visitors as they entered the gallery and the first large toner printer, the Canon Bubble Jet, to output manipulated color prints of their images. “It was fun to see how Larry could shoot photos of people as they entered the gallery, manipulate them on a computer, and then print them out right away,” Miller said. “Everyone does it today, but it was phenomenal at that time.” Gartel, whose book, “Laurence M. Gartel, A Cybernetic Romance” (Gibbs Smith, 1989, illustrations by Nam June Paik) is considered the first book on an individual’s computer-generated art, believes the event was the first time in history digital art was produced at a gallery’s opening reception.
In 1992 ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries presented Florida’s first major exhibition and sale of Australian aboriginal art, “Walk About In The Dreamtime.” Its guest of honor was Rover Thomas, a founder of the Turkey Creek School of aboriginal art and one of two Aborigine painters who had represented Australia in the Venice Biennale.
“Rover speaks five aboriginal languages, but doesn’t know a lot of English,” Miller said. “His sense of humor was wonderful. When I walked toward him from across the room he would turn to my husband, smile and say, ‘Boss come.’”
“When I took him to the Foundlings Club to talk about his art, about all he could do is point to a mark on one of his pictures, give us a big smile, and say, ‘Water.’ Aboriginal ‘dreamings’ often represent a sort of map of their desert, so locating water was the most important thing he wanted us to know about. Fortunately, we had another member of their community present to give us some insight into the work and the aboriginal culture.”
In 1998 the gallery presented a major exhibition of paintings by Ramón Oviedo, the leading master artist of the Dominican Republic. Called “one of the greatest masters in Latin American contemporary art” by the late José Gómez Sicre, director of the Organization of American States Museum, Oviedo had never had a major exhibition in the United States.
Guests at the Oviedo opening included the award-winning Latin jazz composer and performer Chichi Peralta and members of his band. Peralta presented the gallery his most recent CD, which is always among the selections played during openings for Latin artists.
In the spring of 2004, ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries presented the latest in its series of exhibitions of modern masters. “Gunther Gerzso:
Defining Mexican Abstraction” featured 86 works done from 1935 to 1978 by Mexico’s leading abstract artist, a stellar figure in the pantheon of Latin American artists. The exhibition was a world premiere of most of the 1935-41 works as well as the first time Gerzso’s works had been presented in a major exhibition in the southeastern United States.
“The drawings and paintings were done when Gerzso was the set and costume designer at the Cleveland Playhouse,” Miller said. “Gerzso was only in his 20s, but the playhouse director recognized that he had a budding master artist and so he collected everything young Gerzso produced.
“When the director died a few years ago, about 400 of Gerzso’s early works–the largest archive of any modern master artist available today – were discovered in a trunk in a back room of the playhouse. The Santa Barbara Museum spent two years documenting them and a selection of them was included in their catalog and major traveling exhibition of Gerzso’s work.”
Miller commissioned two of the nation’s largest bronze sculptures, a sprawling 36 by 78-foot installation on Biscayne Bay in Miami and a 60-foot-tall work at the International Airport in Omaha, Nebraska, both by John Raimondi.
Other public sculptures commissioned by Miller include a larger-than-life bronze of baseball immortal Joe DiMaggio and a small boy at the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, Florida, by Zenos Frudakis. Miller’s article on outdoor sculpture for Collector-Investor magazine was full of advice for anyone contemplating an outdoor work, particularly one in the subtropics or near salt water. “Artists often have to learn through costly experience that designs that look wonderful don’t always work outdoors,” Miller said. “I help my clients select outdoor works that will look great year after year and require less maintenance.”
Miller has received international recognition in publications ranging from the New York Times to Artnews magazine, which gave her a full-page testimonial in 1988 for the quality of her exhibitions and community involvement. Arte al Dia International included her in its People in Art interviews for its 100th Anniversary Issue. Miami Magazine included Ms. Miller in a special section with the notation: “The six-foot redhead is a cultural explosion all by herself.” She was featured in Town and Country magazine in February 1996. Referring to her gallery’s longevity, Lear’s magazine declared her the doyenne of South Florida art dealers.
If pressed, Miller can cite numerous stories about how works that she sold have appreciated in value, but she does so reluctantly. “I’ve never told anyone to buy a work of art simply as an investment, and I never will,” Miller said. “Early on, I chose to ignore the latest trends and instead to show only works that I personally relate to and artists that I believe in,” says Virginia Miller. “I’ve always insisted that my clients buy only works that they love. Although many of those works have appreciated in value substantially, I urge clients not to consider their art acquisitions merely as a financial investment, but as an investment in their quality of life.” Judging by the number of grateful letters received by Miller from clients who bought work from her years before, her philosophy has proven successful.
ArtSpace / Virginia Miller Galleries
169 Madeira Avenue
Coral Gables, FL 33134
tel 305 444 4493