When my children were very young, the oldest still in elementary school, summers involved elaborate plans to entertain three energetic kids who’d inherited the artsy tastes of their parents. One of those frequent field trips involved excursions to MOCA, the contemporary art museum in North Miami, whose summer programs for children and occasional — not frequent enough — excursions into exhibitions reaching the African Diaspora were a rare cultural touchstone that brought Miamians of all backgrounds together.
The controversy over MOCA and the future of its presence and collection in North Miami, has been difficult to watch from afar. Not only because I, like so many, saw it as more than a museum, but rather a rare marker of cultural collusion in a Miami that can be almost Balkan in its tribalism.
MOCA existed within the framework of a city whose culture and politics, unlike Cuban-dominant greater Miami — were heavily Haitian, but also Anglo and African American. MOCA, and the strip of art galleries along the central drag that made NoMi an attraction of its own, gave black Miamians direct access to cultural forms that don’t typically make it into urban spaces.
The process wasn’t always smooth, and despite the attempts at cross-pollination, like Jazz at MOCA and the Gallery Walk, there remained an undercurrent of occasional misunderstanding. That misunderstanding and misalignment broke open last winter, when the board decided it wouldn’t accept Babacar M’bow as MOCA’s new director. Then came the threats to take the collection away from North Miami and send it to the Bass Museum in Miami Beach, sowing even more mistrust and even charges of cultural theft.
Now, a deal has been cut to allow the MOCA board to leave the city and form something new, leaving open the question of what happens to the institution that used to all but define North Miami. When they go, much of the artwork will go with them.
“What’s true is that we don’t know how the mediation played out,” said a longtime friend of mine with deep connections to the art world, including being an annual participant in Art Basel, the massive festival that has put Miami on the map in the art world. “But the rumor is that the board members are taking 150 pieces out of MOCA, perhaps the best of the lot.”
That would leave North Miami poorer, not just in the raw value of the art treasures transferred to the new “entity” being formed outside of North Miami. Without the funds to keep up whatever MOCA becomes, the city will lose something that had become its one nod to hybrid culture. And it will lose a landmark that drew valuable tourist dollars to the city.
That’s not to mention the potential loss of important programs like Women on the Rise, the art and photography classes and painting workshops that made summers at MOCA so special.
Losing MOCA is also a major blow to the greater project in South Florida: to make the various cultures and camps feel like members of one community. That’s a loss that can’t be measured in the value of a collection of paintings.