'Embracing risk' part of the adventure at the Lowe

Michael R. Malone, 02-05-2019

Director and Chief Curator Jill Deupi brings a penchant for the edgy and hunger for adventure to UM’s stellar art museum.
Jill Deupi, Lowe Art Museum
Photo by: Evan Garcia / University of Miami


Step inside the Lowe Art Museum and you are greeted by the mélange of contours and kaleidoscope of colors of glassmaster Dale Chihuly’s “Mosaic Persian” sculpture. Its floor-to-ceiling scale and swirling shell shapes invite you to pause and, in an instant, experience all that art can communicate. And here at the Lowe, South Florida’s first art museum, there is so much to experience and so much art—19,250 pieces, in fact, spanning five thousand years of cultural history and located within 35,000 square feet of designed space.

The museum today reflects the bold, exciting vision instilled by Deupi, who joined the museum as director and chief curator in 2014 with a charge to “put the Lowe back on the map.”

Deupi has a penchant for trying new things and looking for new adventures, a stance she brings to her leadership responsibilities. She encourages her staff to embrace calculated risk. 

Explore the Lowe during After Hours, a signature social event that is free and open to the public from 7 to 9 p.m. on Feb. 7 and March 7. Enjoy food, entertainment, and refreshments by Bacardi!

“We can do things that are experiential and out of the box as we’re striving for excellence. We want to be always pushing forward and scanning the horizon—and that does mean embracing risk,” she said. 

That sense of adventure and ability to scan the horizon were set in motion early in her life.

A Visionary Lens to See the World

Born in Adak, a former Navy base and the most remote of the Aleutian Islands that string south from Alaska and bend across the Bering Sea toward Russia and where it rains 263 days a year, Deupi developed early a keen, visionary lens with which to view the world. Her family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania when she was three. “I was certainly the only kid in grade school wearing a seal-skinned parka,” Deupi remembered.

In the third grade she moved to Kilmarnock in Virginia, just a few hours from Richmond and Washington, D.C. When the time came, it was law school, not museums and culture, that attracted her to college and the capital.

Yet in her first year at law school she took a class in cultural property that unleashed her real passion. “The class filled me with wonder,” she said. She persevered to graduate summa cum laude from American University’s Washington College of Law, then a week after passing the bar exam, she and her new husband moved to London.

Deupi began volunteering at a museum serving tea and coffee, was soon offered a job as an office assistant, then was hired as assistant to the director of Finance and Administration of the Royal Academy of the Arts, working at the historic Burlington House.

“Living and working in this incredible 18th-century building, I fell completely under the spell of Georgian England,” she said. She became mesmerized by the story of Mary Moser, one of only two women who formed part of the 40-member Royal Academy under King George III. “Moser was completely forgotten to history and that really solidified my interest in the 18th century and The Grand Tour,” she said. Her doctoral advisor convinced her to focus her studies on art in 18th century-Naples, at that time a teeming urban center. She completed her M.A. and Ph.D. in art history from the University of London’s Birkbeck College and the University of Virginia.

Pushing Boundaries and Taking Risks

In terms of bringing high-caliber, adventurous art projects to the Lowe, Deupi points to Titus Kaphar’s “The Vesper Project” that artistically depicted a New England family who were able to “pass” as Caucasian despite their mixed heritage that cast them as “black” in the eyes of the law, and Donald Sultan’s “The Disaster Paintings” of fire, accidents, and industrial calamities. “His works show us that it’s important not to shy away from our tendency toward self-destruction,” Deupi said.

She’s excited for UM artist Billie Lynn’s upcoming “Hoodie Project,” a 24-foot towering black-hoodie sculpture which opens at the Lowe this summer and invites audiences to meditate on and talk about racist assumptions based on the symbolism evoked by a black-hooded sweatshirt. “It’s one of the edgiest projects that we’ve taken on during my time, one that embodies the notion for taking risks within an ecosystem. It’s also one of the projects of which I’m proudest.”

Creating Collaboration Through Art  

The Lowe, which operates as part of the College of Arts and Sciences, works closely with the dean of that school to collaborate with faculty to share the many dimensions of art. A $500,000 Andrew Mellon Foundation grant shared with UM Libraries for Cultural Resources, Engagement, Academics, Technology, and Enrichment (CREATE) offers immense possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration across the University.

“CREATE focuses on promoting deep library and museum collaboration as well as faculty engagement with and conservation of special collections, archives, and works of art on paper,” explained Charles Eckman, dean and University librarian. During the program’s two years, 12 grants averaging $6,000 each have been awarded.

Guided by Mellon Fellow for Campus Engagement Christina Larson, CREATE works with faculty across the University’s three campuses through interstitial spaces, including with STEM disciplines. “Art history and other disciplines may be more natural and immediate connections—and many don’t see [at first] that there are points of crossover with the sciences,” said Deupi.

Deupi joked that she suffers from a “terrible case of wanderlust” and knows that her childhood is certainly at cause. “I just don’t sit still very well, though I really admire people who set down roots and stay in one place—I’m a shallow-roots girl.”

That quality of movement and a certain unsettledness exercises an immense influence on her artistic credo.

“Though visiting museums and experiencing art wasn’t part of my youth, it’s in me in terms of my connection to humanity,” she said. “I’m interested in thinking about the long arc of time, of our brief moment of time as humans, and the role that art plays in making it a better role. It is a “universal.” You have art as this great connector, a relic that is the artist’s moment but also a whole generation’s moment.  

“At the Lowe, we serve different audiences, but our core audience is UM faculty, staff, and students. A significant Mellon grant is enabling us to more effectively reach out to faculty and they, in turn, help to engage students. It’s about awareness—we want our campus community to know not only that they have an art museum on their campus, but that we are one of the best. We’re the “mini-Met” in Miami,” Deupi said. 

Learn more about the Lowe at https://www.lowe.miami.edu/