The Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami has endured a roller coaster series of events in the last several years, starting with the 2013 departure of its respected longtime director Bonnie Clearwater; followed by an acrimonious legal battle between city government and the board of directors, who left in 2014, taking much of the museum’s collection with them. In late December, the city fired Clearwater’s successor, director Babacar M’Bow, for alleged sexual harassment of staff.
The drama has left many wondering what’s next for a museum that began in 1981 as a pioneer of adventurous contemporary art and for years was a flagship of the Miami-Dade art scene.
City officials in North Miami, which owns and oversees MoCA, say they are determined to keep the museum going, calling it central to the reputation and future of the city.
“We’ve been through hell with it and we recognize the important role the museum plays in the community,” said North Miami council member Scott Galvin. “From a reputational standpoint and an economic standpoint, MoCA is what North Miami is known for.”
But many in the Miami art world wonder what MoCA will be known for in the future. The museum is currently headed by interim director Natasha Colebrook-Williams and a board that is still a work in progress, with 23 of what its new chairman, hotel designer and developer Frederic Marq, says will eventually be 30 members. Although Marq and Galvin say that M’Bow programmed shows through the end of the year, no exhibits are listed on the museum’s website beyond the current show, Latin America and the Global Imagination, by Colombian painter Carlos Salas.
The city recently has posted advertisements for a new director on several websites. M’Bow’s salary was $105,000, while Clearwater, who held dual positions as curator and director, earned $168,000; the new director’s salary will depend on experience and qualifications, Galvin says. But the city has not formed a search committee or hired a search firm, the usual strategy for filling a high profile position in the specialized and competitive world of contemporary art.
Galvin says they cannot afford the time for this kind of effort.
“This comes at a time when the whole museum is in flux, we have to move quickly,” he says. “This will not be a bureaucratic decision. We’ll reach out to people involved in the museum in the past and to the board. Who would we put on [a search] committee? Those people we’ll call anyway.”
The new board does not yet include the kind of well-connected, prominent collectors whose ability to lend and donate artwork, as well as funds, are usually considered critical to a successful museum. Nor does the board seem to include people who are highly knowledgeable about visual art. It is heavy on business people and developers; and also includes Marq’s wife Adriana De Moura, dubbed the “Brazilian bombshell of the art scene” when she starred on the reality show The Real Housewives of Miami.
Jimmy Tate, who owns North Miami-based development firm Tate Capital and was an involved member of MoCA’s board for many years, says this poses something of a Catch-22 for the museum.
“The question is what comes first — the board or the director?” Tate says. “Can you successfully hire a world-class director for this museum before you prove you have the board behind him to support the growth and value of the museum? Or do you need the board first; ... do you have to bring on more people with more art and collection knowledge?”
Marq says the board is determined to keep MoCA a top contemporary museum.
“We have a strategic plan and strategic vision that we are developing for the next few years to position ourselves at a whole different level,” he says. “There’s no other way.”
Clearwater, who now heads the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art at Nova Southeastern University, made MoCA an engine of the developing Miami art scene in the 1990s and 2000s. But a number of art world sources, who did not want to be identified, questioned whether the institution can maintain its status in a city increasingly crowded with venues for contemporary art, from the Perez Art Museum of Miami, to Miami Beach’s Bass Museum of Art, slated to re-open this fall after extensive renovations; the Patricia and Philip Art Museum at Florida International University, the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami, and showcases for the private De La Cruz, Rubell and Margolies collections. Add to that list the Institute of Contemporary Art launched by the former MoCA board, headed by Irma Braman, wife of billionaire Norman Braman, and slated for the Design District.
“There are definitely voices out there saying this place is over, and that would be a real pity and a waste,” says Jane Hart, an independent curator who organized a successful survey of Miami artists, 100 Degrees in the Shade, during last December’s Miami Art Week. “MoCA is an institution with tremendous potential.”
Hart and others see opportunities for a new era at MoCA in the latest art world shifts. Gentrification and rising rents in Wynwood and the Design District have forced out most of those areas’ galleries, a number of which have moved to the Little River area just to the south of North Miami. A revitalized MoCA could be the center of Miami’s next art frontier.
“If the right leadership gets put into the museum it could serve as a catalyst,” says Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, who has conferred with North Miami officials about MoCA. “If you’re that person, you’re seeing an institution with a really great track record under other leadership, a great building in the heart of a ... multi-cultural community of all different economic backgrounds. They have a city government that’s extremely committed to having a viable museum.”
North Miami officials see MoCA as key to their efforts to encourage the visitors, restaurants, and stores that tend to follow an art scene. They awarded a $250,000 grant from the city’s CRA to the Buena Vista Bistro, a popular Design District restaurant, to open a new restaurant immediately to the east of the museum, giving the eatery 1,800 square feet of seating on MoCA’s outdoor plaza. Interim city manager Arthur Sorey says the city is working on a redevelopment plan for downtown which would add parking and encourage new retail, as well as renewing their CRA, which is set to expire in October.
The departure of the previous board, and then the fracas over M’Bow, who Storey says had begun to build community good will before he was fired, seem to have jolted officials into realizing they could lose an important institution. The city is maintaining the museum’s current $1 million budget. Although city residents voted down a $15 million bond to expand the museum in 2012, which is believed to have precipitated Clearwater’s departure, MoCA’s art programs for school children, and outdoor events, such as a successful jazz concert series, are popular.
“The city had to really take a look at what’s going on in the museum and get more involved,” says Storey. “Before we didn’t have to do anything for MoCA. But people in the community know we have a gem. The museum appeals to all of North Miami — it’s for all of us.”
But finding a new director, rebuilding the board, and re-forging the museum’s reputation and identity will all take time. The city is anticipating new tax revenue from SoLe Mia, a vast, 183 acre, $4 billion development east of Biscayne Boulevard near Florida International University’s North Campus. One of the project’s owners is Richard LeFrak, the billionaire head of a New York development firm, is on MoCA’s new board. But the project, and the money that will come with it, could take up to half a dozen years to finish.
Spring advises patience.
“You don’t build a great collection overnight,” he says. “Success in that has everything to do with the overall reputation of the museum. People like to donate to places with good exhibits, outreach, and organizational stability, and it takes time to build those things. It isn’t a sprint — it’s a marathon.”