The city of North Miami has made another play to keep the Museum of Contemporary Art from leaving town.
On Wednesday, city officials said they had appointed a new director for the lauded museum earlier in the week — a move that still must be approved by the institution’s board, which is not likely to play along.
After MOCA confirmed last month that it was “exploring a collaboration” that would move its permanent art collection to the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, current and former elected officials in North Miami pledged to keep the museum where it is: between City Hall and the police department.
“The city always has supported, and will continue to support, MOCA’s operations, exhibits and programs in North Miami,” Mayor Lucie Tondreau said in a statement Wednesday. “MOCA is the heart of our city, and we are not letting our heart go without a fight.”
Plans to hire Babacar M’Bow, managing editor of the Encyclopedia of the African Disapora and founder of the Multitudes Contemporary Art Gallery in Little Haiti, began during the tenure of former City Manager Stephen Johnson. North Miami spokeswoman Pam Solomon said the city made the decision in order to solidify its presence in the museum’s leadership.
Alex Gartenfeld, who was hired early last year by former executive director Bonnie Clearwater, has been interim director since Clearwater left last fall to become director at Nova Southeastern University's Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.
“Alex was employed by the board of trustees, not the city of North Miami,” Solomon said. “The city took this step to ensure that there was leadership at MOCA.”
The announcement comes about a week after MOCA’s board filed a lawsuit claiming its municipal landlord is in breach of contract for a slew of reasons, including failing to maintain the facility, provide adequate security or pay Gartenfeld after Clearwater departed. Shortly after the suit was filed, North Miami City Council members approved a measure that would give them more control over the museum’s board of trustees.
Abbey Kaplan, a partner at Miami law firm Kluger, Kaplan, Silverman, Katzen & Levine, which filed the lawsuit, said the museum’s board has the right to reject any potential director suggested by the city. The board of trustees is next scheduled to meet on Monday.
“It seems to me this is a purely political move by the city because of this lawsuit,” Kaplan said in an interview Wednesday. “Alex has been the acting director since September of 2013, the city has known about his position, has worked with him and has never said anything negative about anything Alex has ever done.”
He added: “The board has complete faith in Alex.”
Solomon said Interim City Manager Aleem Ghany plans to meet with the MOCA board before its next meeting on Monday. The city has not said what action it plans to take if the board does not approve the selection.
Gartenfeld said negotiations continue with city staff this week over ways that the museum can expand its programs.
“The most disappointing aspect to this most recent very political turn of events is that the board has been attempting to negotiate in good faith now for months and has only been met with activities of this type,” he said.