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Public funding for local culture might be sinking, but philanthropists Myrna and Sheldon Palley are throwing a lifeline. Last year, the couple donated nearly half of their vast glass art collection to the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami, along with a $1.7 million gift for the construction of a new wing to house the work.
"They are amazingly generous," says William Carlson, an internationally renowned glass artist and UM art faculty member. "At a time when government grants are dwindling and even collectors are hesitant to buy art, the Palleys have plunged headlong in supporting both the university and the community."
The Palleys, who have collected glass for more than 30 years, gave the Lowe more than 150 pieces by 53 artists. Their gift is valued in excess of $3.5 million and is considered one of the nation's finest collections of studio glass. The couple donated another $1 million as an endowment for the collection.
When the Myrna and Sheldon Palley Pavilion for Contemporary Glass and Studio Arts opened in May 2008, it marked the first expansion of the Lowe in more than a decade.
The Palleys' comprehensive collection at the museum includes works by Howard Ben Tré, José Chardiet, Dale Chihuly, Dan Dailey, Michael Glancy, Harvey Littleton, Stephen Weinberg, Stanislav Labinsky, and Lino Tagliapietra, among others.
The Palleys, both UM alumni, are no strangers to cultural volunteerism in the Magic City. They helped found the New World School of the Arts and the Miami International Film Festival and have contributed greatly to the National Foundation of the Arts. "It's sad that public funding of the arts is suffering so terribly right now," Myrna Palley rues. "It would be a tragedy to have to live in a dark world without art, without soul. I feel that if you feed the soul, the body and mind will follow."
Since the eponymous pavilion opened, Palley says others have contributed. "What's nice is that local collectors have been making donations of ceramic and glass pieces, as well as textile and wood works. This is allowing the collection to expand and better serve the students on campus," she adds.
Inside the Lowe's sparkling 3,500-square-foot glass wing, designed by local architect Ronald Mateu, reflection from colored glass dances in the flame of sunlight. As one walks around the space, the Palley Collection enchants as if blessed with magical properties. Everywhere one looks, layer upon layer of opaque, translucent, and transparent yellows, oranges, reds, greens, and blues bloom in natural light that teases rainbow-hued shadows onto the gallery's floor, ceiling, and walls.
A Jon Kuhn chandelier of revolving icicle-shaped prisms greets visitors, playfully refracting the sunlight glimmering through the windows and dazzling the peepers. The full range of the medium, from cast to blown glass and multi-element works and installations, is represented.
"This is a boon for art lovers," says Carlson, whose cast glass and paint multi-piece sculpture graces a wall near the entrance. His Contundo features a series of concentric circles and words on a shimmering earthy surface reminiscent of coppery, sun-baked soil.
"What is remarkable about this collection is that it reflects the innovations and conceptual evolution of glass as a contemporary art form and the broader acceptance it has gained internationally in recent years," Carlson says. "It can help students in my glass program here at UM see how the properties of glass can be explored conceptually and sculpturally."
One of the more whimsical pieces on display is Rick Beck's azure blue and corn silk-gold Wing-Nut/Tee-Slot Bolt. The sculpture stands nearly four feet tall and looks like a gargantuan wing nut.
Another amusing piece is Robert Carston Anderson's beguiling self-portrait, Nasal Flat, in which the artist's huge ceramic-and-glaze bearded mug features his eyes crinkled up and his schnoz pounded as thin as a pancake.
An intriguing work by Michael Glancy, Boss Codex, made of blown and plate glass that's been sandblasted and electroplated, is a vessel with a honeycombed brown and black surface that looks part grenade, part pine cone. The sculpture resembles an ancient artifact.
Likewise, Dante Marioni's Goosebeak Set includes a refined, almost futuristic turquoise-blue blown-glass pitcher and cup with golden handles and accents that convey a sense of the glassware once used by ancient Egyptians or Romans.
In fact, the works on display are quite diverse in style. "I've been collecting glass since the '70s. People often come here to look at the work and say, 'Wow, I can't believe that is glass,'" Palley says. "One of the most important things for me is the collection's educational possibilities. When I've told people I'm a glass collector, the response often was, 'What, you collect glasses and dishes?' I still hear that occasionally, if you can believe that," Palley laughs.
The closest thing to dinnerware in the Lowe's stunning glass wing is Dale Chihuly's gorgeous Yellow and Orange Persians Form with Cobalt Blue Lip Wrap. The bowl-shaped piece appears to be a stylized representation of some exotic fruit, with honey-hued orange and yellow swirls of bright color ringing its surface. Inside the vessel, flower-like petals seem to undulate as if tickled by the sun's waning rays.
"I love glass and how the light brings it to life," Palley says. At the Lowe, her love affair with the captivating medium, not to mention generosity, is in full bloom for all to see.