Growing up in Puerto Rico, Silvia Karman Cubiñá rarely had the opportunity to visit art galleries or museums. "The scene was very underground and out of reach to the mainstream," she says. "It might not be inaccurate to say that what is out of reach is what you end up wanting the most."
Now Cubiñá is executive director and chief curator of the Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach's premier art venue and a leader in revitalizing the area's once-moribund visual-arts scene.
It all began when a mentoring adult set her on an unexpected career path.
"I had a French teacher in high school for four years who took it upon herself to expose us to art history, music, architecture, opera, and even food ... She got tickets for us, picked us up at home ... She never took no for an answer," Cubiñá fondly remembers.
She went on to earn a degree in art history from Boston College in 1987 and then worked as a curator for Inova, the Institute of Visual Arts, at the University of Wisconsin. In 2002, she took a job as director of the Moore Space in the Design District. The internationally recognized contemporary art gallery was founded by local collectors Rosa de la Cruz and Craig Robins.
She stayed there until 2007 and then, in October of the following year, took the helm at the Bass.
Along the way, she had two sons, who helped her appreciate the need to instill a love for culture in young audiences. It is a lesson that has helped her with the Bass's educational community outreach programming.
Her oldest son, Raul, is a 20-year-old sophomore at New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. The youngest, Alfredo, is 17 and a junior at Ransom Everglades School, where he is a hurdler and president of the chess club.
She says they have both "been deeply and inextricably enmeshed in art since they were born ... They've helped install a Jim Lambie floor and stuff sweaters for a John Bock performance," Cubiñá informs. "They've been to many a Whitney and a couple of Venice and Berlin biennials, Documenta, and Art Basel. My favorite story, though, is when Alfredo asked the British conceptual artist Jonathan Monk if he painted The Scream."
Indeed, the museum's work with kids has contributed to the Bass's growing popularity in the community. "The Knight Foundation says it best with their motto, to make art general. The Bass Museum's IDEA@thebass program is all about developing creativity," she says.
The initiative established in partnership with Stanford University provides teacher training, family days, summer camps, weekend portfolio classes, and an art club for adults.
"It goes back to making art a part of people's everyday lives ... whether you want to join as a docent, participate in a program, attend jazz concerts, or enjoy a DJ at Beats on Friday night."
Another part of Cubiñá's success at the Bass has been the approach she has taken in creating exhibits that combine the museum's Renaissance and Baroque works with contemporary art. "Miami Beach, like the Bass Museum, is about the duality of its now-ness and its historical roots" she says. "People love the mix -- the old and new."
She says one of the bonuses of her job is seeing young contemporary talent rise to the challenge of creating a project in direct dialogue with the museum's collection.
"When invited to create these projects within this context, some artists are pushed a little beyond their comfort zone. As a curator, I love when this occurs," she says. "I've seen artists make magic when this happens. A few months ago, I called Hernan Bas and asked him to create a cabinet of curiosities for one of our galleries. He is researching 19th-century cabinets of curiosities and he is making a selection of hundreds of objects from his own collection -- art, objects, bric-a-brac. He has access to the Bass collection as well. He recently told me he could not get this project out of his head."
Cubiñá has also made a concerted effort to showcase other Miami talent at the Bass. "In the past four years, we've shown Bert Rodriguez, Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, Frances Trombly, Cesar Trasobares, and, most recently, Jillian Mayer," she says.
"Works by Manny Prieres and Michele Oka Doner are currently placed near the Greek vases, and a Janine Antoni and four Ana Mendietas are now hanging next to the Botticelli. Upcoming solo projects are in the works with Cristina Lei Rodriguez, Hernan Bas, Jim Drain, and Agustina Woodgate.
"What you will not see at the Bass is a Miami-artist exhibition. We invite artists, from Miami and otherwise... and they exhibit in an international context, not a local context."
The curator is planning the Bass's 50th-anniversary season next year. She has a couple of surprises and blockbuster exhibits up her sleeve.
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"I need to keep a sense of humor about it because the museum is beating me to 50 by only one year! We launch our celebration at the end of 2013 with a show appropriately called "Gold," then in December, with a show called "Time," both continuing our exploration between our historical collection and contemporary art," she says.
"In the spring, we'll present a fashion exhibition, and there are a few other big surprises. The Bass will have 50 celebration events, 50 donors, 50 new works of art for the collection, and we are still coming up with more 50s, so if you can think of any, we are all ears!"