Artist Alex Valls Honors Her Family Legacy While Running Her Own Curatorial Collective

"La Bodega y Más" installation by artist Reynier Leyva Novo, 2018
"La Bodega y Más" installation by artist Reynier Leyva Novo, 2018 Photo courtesy of Good to Know.FYI
It's a rare chilly night in November. A bright crescent moon peeks from behind the red neon of the Versailles restaurant sign in Little Havana. Inside, nearly every table is full. The cacophony of conversation fills the air.

Alexandra Valls sits in a quiet space between the main dining hall and the bakery of the restaurant her family owns. The floors are green-and-white checkered, a pattern that is reflected on the wicker seats.

Behind her are old black-and-white photographs depicting all sorts of happy faces from Versailles customers and staff. In one photo, a mustachioed gentleman smiles as he puts one arm on the seatback of his date's chair as she holds her fork steady in what appears to be a plate full of vaca frita.

The collection of images is part of an archival project the 33-year-old Valls began earlier this year.

She laughs as she recounts how her father, Felipe Valls, has been asking her for years to create an archive of stories and images of the famous restaurant. The 50th anniversary proved to be an opportune time.

Valls worked closely with HistoryMiami, the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami, and the Miami Herald to uncover past gems. Part of her efforts included putting out a call to action to the community asking for people to share their stories and images.

"I wanted to create this sort of public archive to make the Cuban people's voices heard more because we need more of that," she says. "[With this project,] we're essentially giving these Cuban exiles a platform to voice their own stories and their own experiences of being exiled."

In addition to the photos Valls curated, the theater collective run by director and playwright Victoria Collado and Vanessa Garcia, Abre Camino Collective, will hang portraits from its Viva Cuba Libre project in the bakery side of Versailles. Both exhibitions will be up through the end of the year.

A Versailles employee passes through the space and suddenly notices the new photos hanging on the wall. She stops to get a closer look. Her face brightens and brightens as she walks from image to image.
click to enlarge Versailles 50th anniversary zine, produced by Exile Books. - PHOTO BY EXILE BOOKS
Versailles 50th anniversary zine, produced by Exile Books.
Photo by Exile Books
Although the restaurant is a family-run business on the operations side, it's evident that the kindred sense of camaraderie extends to every member of the staff, as well as the patrons.

"It's the people who make the place," Valls says as she nods to a passerby. "It's always special when people feel connected to my family — it's beautiful to hear their stories."

Valls herself has countless memories of growing up at the restaurant. Her mother would drop her off after school and she'd skip around the place in her uniform. Staff would cut her bistec empanizado into tiny squares. She knows the ins and outs of the Calle Ocho restaurant better than any other place in the world.

"We're celebrating our 50th year, and I'm 33, so all I've ever known is Versailles," she says.

She wrote a brief foreword about her experiences for a zine she produced along with Exile Books — another project to commemorate the family restaurant's big anniversary. Valls worked with writers and locals to share their stories about Versailles for the zine, which will be available for purchase during Miami Art Week at NADA Art Fair December 1-4.

Although Valls is herself a practicing artist, she also runs the curatorial collective known as Good to Know.FYI (GTK.FYI) with fellow artists and curators Juliana Steiner, Julianna Vezzetti, and Jess Hodin Levy.

After graduating with degrees in marketing, communication, and sociology from Emerson College in Boston, Valls went on to work in advertising. She dabbled in screenwriting in Los Angeles and even had a brief stint in culinary school in New York. But after taking art classes in New York, she found her true passion.

"And then I started curating without even knowing what I was getting myself into," she says.

She meticulously picks apart a flaky Cuban pastry as she recounts how GTK.FYI came to be.
click to enlarge "A Subtropical Affair," 2020 - PHOTO COURTESY OF GOOD TO KNOW.FYI
"A Subtropical Affair," 2020
Photo courtesy of Good to Know.FYI
In 2017, Valls' father, Felipe, acquired a lot adjacent to the restaurant. It was an old shopping center, one half with working tenants, the other empty in condemnable conditions.

"My dad wanted me to paint a mural," Valls says. "When I walked in and saw the space, I saw this amazing, empty building. I knew then I didn't want to paint a mural; I wanted to do a full show there."

In less than three weeks, Valls staged a large-scale exhibition featuring artists from around the world, and Good to Know.FYI was born.

"Wayside of Versailles" and the subsequent "La Bodega y Más" remain two of Valls' favorite shows.

GTK.FYI stages a show every year during Miami Art Week, as well as large-scale exhibitions and site-specific works throughout the year in New York and Miami.

For Miami Art Week, GTK.FYI is organizing "Pleasuretown," a weeklong celebration of all things sin featuring the works of artists James Bartolacci, Nazareno Biondo, Mira Dancy, Autumn Casey, No Touching Ground, Brookhart Jonquil, Hector Madera, Tim Karoleff, Andronoos, Jason GVVL, Antonia Wright, Gao Hang, and Tatyana Zambrano. There will also be a digital exhibition titled "Erotika," curated by Clit_Splash.

"Pleasuretown is one of the more fun shows to put together," Valls says. "It's about Miami as a sort of like Sin City, party town — unapologetically looking at all these vices that people associate with Miami and this nightlife scene as a place where people come to let loose."

Good to Know.FYI presents "Pleasuretown." Wednesday, December 1, through Wednesday, December 8, at 2160 Park Ave., Miami Beach;
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Carolina del Busto is a freelance writer for Miami New Times. She nurtured her love of words at Boston College before moving back home to Miami and has been covering arts and culture in the Magic City since 2013.