Bonnie Clearwater was part of the crowd back in 1986 when the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale opened its new Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed building on Las Olas Boulevard.
“It really was a beacon for art and culture in Fort Lauderdale,” said Clearwater, who was director of art programs for the Lannan Foundation in Palm Beach County at the time.
Wednesday, the art-world powerhouse credited with raising the international profile of North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art, announced she is leaving MOCA to join that Fort Lauderdale beacon. The 83,000-square-foot facility at 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., which was acquired by the private Nova Southeastern University in 2008, has been searching for a new executive director since Irvin Lippman retired last year.
Though Clearwater said the Fort Lauderdale museum had approached her repeatedly over the years, she wasn’t ready to make the move until now.
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“The bones are there, the support is there and what they really need is exactly what I can bring them,” she said, describing her role as “defining its purpose, its vision and taking it to beyond not even the next level but the next level beyond that.”
Clearwater will start in her new position as director and chief curator on Sept. 3 but said she would still curate the Tracey Emin: Angel Without You exhibition at MOCA in December. She said leaving MOCA, where she has worked for nearly two decades, was a “very, very” difficult decision. But she said she is leaving the museum in good hands, with an enthusiastic board, able staff and well-regarded young new curator in place, Alex Gartenfeld.
“I feel very confident in the museum’s future,” she said. “It’s really [because of] the fact that there is such a strong and educated board and a creative, smart, resourceful staff that I feel confident that this is a good time for me to take this opportunity.”
Dr. Kira Flanzraich, chair of MOCA’s board of trustees, said in an interview Wednesday that the board will form a search committee to find a replacement for Clearwater, the director and chief curator. Gartenfeld will fill the role for now, she and others said. The museum has not yet formally announced plans for an interim director.
“Bonnie leaves us such a solid foundation,” Flanzraich said. “We are really excited about what we will be able to build on it.”
During her tenure, Clearwater — a scholar as well as director and curator — built a deep and highly regarded collection that features work by top contemporary artists globally. Many of those works were donated by the artists themselves; others have been donated by top collectors.
Irma Braman, a past chair of MOCA’s board, said she, too, is confident about the future. “We’re going forward as we always have and Bonnie’s going forward in the method she chose and we all wish her well,” Braman said. “There are certainly no hard feelings.”
MOCA had planned a $13.5 million expansion, but voters in North Miami rejected a proposal last year to finance the project through a city bond issue. The museum is partially funded by the city. Clearwater said the museum’s board and city were still looking “at all options” but emphasized that MOCA’s reputation was unrelated to its building. She said her decision to leave was unrelated to that vote.
The decision to hire Clearwater was due in part to her knowledge of South Florida and connections with art supporters in the region, said George L. Hanbury II, president and CEO of Nova Southeastern University in Davie, said she will be tasked with fully integrating the museum into the school, making it an academic asset for students at the university and at the K-12 University School.
“We have been an underappreciated museum, I believe, for many years,” said David Horvitz, chair of the Fort Lauderdale museum’s board of governors and a friend of Clearwater. He cited the museum’s sizeable footprint, its three permanent collections and its architecture as assets that often go unnoticed.
“How do you get the right person to do this when, one, we’re underappreciated and under-known and, two, have these high expectations?” said Horvitz, whose wife, the artist Francie Bishop Good, served on MOCA’s board for many years. “It was an international search, it was a big search. And Bonnie has all these attributes that we’re looking for.”
Clearwater said she believes the museum is well positioned geographically to draw crowds from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties as well as Broward. She said she believes the art scene in Fort Lauderdale is poised make a big splash.
“It’s almost where Miami was 15, 16 years ago pre-Basel,” she said. “It just needs a catalyst to bring it all together and then to put it on the national and international platform.”