Claiming a host of grievances against the city of North Miami, the Museum of Contemporary Art has sued its landlord for breach of contract as the institution’s board continues to pursue a move to the Bass Museum in Miami Beach.
The 23-page complaint, filed Monday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, accuses the city of breaching its obligations to the well-regarded museum in several ways, including:
• Failing to pay the museum’s interim director, Alex Gartenfeld, after former executive director Bonnie Clearwater left last year.
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• Refusing to fix the museum’s roof, air conditioning and other issues at the city-owned facility, 770 NE 125th St., despite repeated requests, and neglecting to keep up the grounds around the museum.
• Failing to provide adequate security for the museum and surrounding areas or fix a broken closed-circuit surveillance system in the parking lot.
• Failing to provide money to expand the museum, promote the institution or improve its infrastructure.
News of the lawsuit, filed by Miami law firm Kluger, Kaplan, Silverman, Katzen & Levine, broke just hours before the North Miami City Council was scheduled to vote on a measure that would give the city more control over the museum’s board of trustees.
The council unanimously approved a new rule that allows the city council to appoint members to the board – two for each council member – and to remove any board member with a majority vote. The new rule covers some other city boards as well as MOCA’s.
However, Councilwoman Marie Steril said she disagreed that board members’ terms should be limited and aligned with their appointing council member.
“The sense of belonging and ownership is not there with term limits,” Steril said.
Mayor Lucie Tondreau reminded her that the city's current situation with MOCA is due to the board members’ sense of ownership.
“We have given them too much sense of ownership,” she said.
The council decided to go with fixed three-year terms for MOCA board members.
The city attorney advised council members not to talk about the lawsuit and interrupted when the discussion moved in that direction.
Earlier Tuesday, Tondreau — who is named in the lawsuit along with the city manager and other council members — said she had not yet seen the complaint and could not comment.
The museum’s suit alleged Tuesday’s move by the council was “part of the city’s strategic attempt to destroy any alliance between MOCA and the Bass Museum, and to keep MOCA in North Miami.”
Representatives for MOCA and the Bass Museum confirmed last month that they were “exploring a collaboration” after rumors surfaced in December. The lawsuit says MOCA’s board unanimously decided that joining forces with the Bass was essential in order to further the institution’s development.
According to a management agreement between the city and board of trustees, the board “shall own, protect and manage the permanent MOCA collection of art, and all additions and modifications of same.” The lawsuit includes a defamation count against Tondreau, in part for claiming that the art belongs to the city and its residents.
The chair of MOCA’s board of trustees, Irma Braman, said in a statement that she and the rest of the board were “shocked” by the city’s response to the idea that the museum was considering options outside the North Miami campus.
“The city's neglect has put the very existence of our institution at risk,” she said in the statement. “And our current building has been an impediment to our services and mission for too long. We are dedicated to serving our public and we hope the city will move forward with us in a collegial and productive conversation so that MOCA can maintain a vibrant presence in North Miami and throughout the region.”
Between North Miami’s failure to meet its obligation and the emergence of new, high-profile arts institutions such as the Pérez Art Museum Miami, MOCA considers its own place in the region’s art world threatened, the suit says.
“To avoid further damage to the reputation to and relevance of MOCA’s permanent art collection, MOCA has sought to collaborate with other world-class museums, including the possibility of moving its permanent art collection to the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach,” the complaint said.
Gartenfeld said MOCA is “still very open and vigorously exploring the idea of a collaboration with the Bass as a way of expanding and growing our mission.”
MOCA is known for its cutting-edge collection and exhibitions, annual celebrity-studded Art Basel party sponsored by Vanity Fair as well as its educational programs for all ages. Expansion plans at the current facility were stymied when a $15 million city bond proposal was rejected by voters in 2012.
Former executive director Bonnie Clearwater, who was credited with raising MOCA’s profile during her long tenure, announced in the summer of 2013 that she was leaving for the director job at Nova Southeastern University’s Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. Gartenfeld, a rising young critic and curator whom Clearwater hired in early 2013, was named interim director.
After a March 11 City Council meeting in which members directed the city manager and city attorney to do "whatever is necessary" to keep the museum in North Miami, the MOCA board proposed a plan to have a presence in both North Miami and Miami Beach, according to the complaint.
Gartenfeld said MOCA is in the midst of a negotiation with North Miami addressing how the museum could continue to have a presence on the existing site, possibly through initiatives including education and programs.
“We have been operating and negotiating truly in good faith with the understanding that MOCA would come to an agreement with the city on how to maintain our presence in North Miami while moving forward with a much-needed expansion that allows us to meet the demands of our programs,” he said.