Visual Arts

Museum of Contemporary Art helped bring worldwide attention to Miami art scene, artists

The trajectory that the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami has taken since its inception parallels that of Miami’s rise to prominence on a national level as a burgeoning art center. And that’s no coincidence.

The future of the storied institution is still in question: The museum’s board has parted ways with the city, which owns the North Miami facility, and moved its employees to the Design District’s Moore Building. Plans call for a new museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art, to open there temporarily in November and eventually establish a permanent home. Meanwhile, the board and city continue to work toward an agreement about the fate of MOCA’s permanent collection.

But as MOCA soon divides into two entities, which could be either a complement or detriment to the growth of the arts community, it’s time to look back at what the museum brought to the development of this community, and with that hindsight, what its new incarnations may continue to do.

It has been a trailblazing path. Back before the hot glare of the Art Basel Miami Beach lights, before the glamorous, star-studded opening night Vanity Fair and Art in America parties, there was COCA, the Center of Contemporary Art, a tiny exhibition space opened in North Miami in 1981, the first institution to concentrate exclusively on contemporary art from South Florida. It found a bigger home in 1996, was renamed MOCA, and in 1997 installed Bonnie Clearwater as director.

At the same time, a new crop of local artists, many coming out of the also-nascent New World School of the Arts programs, along with galleries focused on contemporary art and other artists who had been working under the radar, were sprouting up and waiting to be heard. There was a need for an institutional voice to express what was happening, as well as a vehicle to connect the broader world to our somewhat provincial shores. MOCA quickly stepped into the void.

In fact, the first show that Clearwater curated was the audaciously titled “Defining the Nineties: Consensus-Making in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles,” where the new director put Miami artists up against the talents of those powerhouse cities. They held up well: Alongside Matthew Barney and Jack Pierson, Jose Bedia, Teresita Fernandez and Robert Chambers stood their ground.

Also in 1997, the Cuban-American artist and puppeteer Pablo Cano started producing a yearly show, involving his semi-surreal marionettes made from found objects cast as characters in plays based on music and dramas from the Middle Ages to 19th century France. Called “The Art of The Play,” they became staples of the museum’s programming every December.

Two years later, MOCA inaugurated Optic Nerve, an August film festival showcasing experimental and innovative video and film from local artists, where the winning video would be purchased for the museum’s small but growing collection. It too became an annual hit.

In 2000 and 2001, MOCA would take chances with entirely home-grown exhibits, Making Art in Miami: Travels in Hyper Reality and The House at MOCA, featuring many young artists who were emerging on the scene, such as Hernan Bas, Daniel Arsham, Bhakti Baxter and Naomi Fisher.

It was an auspicious beginning from a local perspective. “Before Art Basel Miami Beach or anything else we know today here, MOCA was the engine motor of the art scene,” says Mariangela Capuzzo, curatorial and artistic director of ICArt (International Corporate Art), an art consulting company specializing in corporate collections, including that of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. “MOCA was the incubator, facilitator and rock for the artistic community in Miami.”

But facilitating indigenous art was only one part of the mission; bringing quality and cutting-edge art from the rest of the world to Miami’s attention was another. They were pioneering works expressed in painting, installation, light pieces and video. And again, early on, the signs were promising.

Shows from heavyweights of the art world such as Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella and Louise Bourgeois took Miami to a new level — we no longer had to travel thousands of miles to see what established art cities had long enjoyed. But new stars who were just arriving on the international art stage were also featured, artists such as Matthew Ritchie and Isaac Julien.

When Art Basel collided with the percolating art scene, the results were explosive for MOCA. The tightly focused, ultra-contemporary vision that MOCA had developed for its programming under Clearwater was a good fit with the international taste at the beginning of the new millennium, and when Basel landed, the art cognoscenti descended on MOCA, for its exhibits and for its famous parties, which kicked off what would become one of the most frenetic art weeks in the world.

The first year that Art Basel came to Miami, in 2002, MOCA hosted several shows, one from local Hernan Bas and another from well-known photographer Jack Pierson. His neon sculpture in the courtyard installed that year would become an iconic backdrop to many a photo snapped at MOCA parties, where celebrities made a point of making an appearance through the years.

But although the parties raised MOCA’s status, it continued to be the art that has had the most profound effect on Miami’s development. Glowing reviews popped up in national publications such as Art in America, Artforum and the New York Times. MOCA gave new-wave German star painter Albert Oehlen his first U.S. solo show in 2005; highlighted an array of neon works from a founding forger of light art, Bruce Nauman; and screened seven videos from the trippy and experimental young video artist Ryan Trecartin simultaneously with New York’s MoMA PS1.

Maybe the best example of the combination of local and international, experimental and top-quality multi-disciplinary art that MOCA has strived to deliver occurred in 2007, with Merce Cunningham: Dancing on the Cutting Edge. The legendary avant-garde choreographer, who had worked with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol to create his sets, was bringing his company for a premiere at the Arsht Center. Clearwater was asked to recommend someone to design the latest set.

For Clearwater, who left MOCA in 2013 to take the helm at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, the whole Cunningham experience is one of her fondest memories.

“I highly recommended the young artist Daniel Arsham, as I knew he would create something exceptional and unexpected,” she recalls. “I wasn’t sure Merce would pick him because his work was so different from artists he worked with previously, but to my delight he did. The instant relationship between the octogenarian Cunningham and the then 20-something Arsham grew beyond my expectations into a lasting and productive collaboration.”

Another productive result was an exhibit at MOCA featuring décor and costumes crafted by Olafur Eliasson, Christian Marclay, Ernesto Neto and many other visual artists.

MOCA has branched out to the broader community, with well-regarded outreach programs for at-risk children, programs such as Women on the Rise, in which the works of renowned female artists who deal with gender and race issues are used as tools to help navigate the difficult passage through teenage years — works from Bourgeois, Shinique Smith and last December, Wangechi Mutu.

Along the way, MOCA presented a group show highlighting recent acquisitions and donations to the museum’s collection, called Pivot Points.

To mark the 15th anniversary of MOCA in 2013, the latest incarnation of Pivot Points showed off the newly acquired works of Yinka Shonibare, Rita Ackerman, Oehlen and Gabriel Orozco, and of locally based Mark Handforth, Jorge Pantoja and Juan Carlos Zaldivar. A good compass point to the trajectory of the exhibits and collection of MOCA.

Visual feats/feasts at MOCA

• Bill Viola, ABMB exhibit 2012, a solo show of 10 moving and utterly immersive videos from a founding father of video art.

• ‘Mark Handforth: Rolling Stop,’ ABMB exhibit 2011, a retrospective of the large-scale sculptures from one of the first locally based Miami artists shown at MOCA in 1998.

• ‘Ryan Trecartin: Any Ever,’ Summer exhibit 2011, stunning and unsettling films from the new enfant terrible of the art world.

• Luis Gispert: Spring 2009 at MOCA Goldman Warehouse, survey of the elaborate and narrative videos, sculptures and photographs of the Miami native.

• Jorge Pardo: ABMD exhibit 2007, life-size installations of rooms and furniture from the L.A.-based artist who mixes design and art in a unique fashion.

• Merce Cunningham: ‘Dancing on the Cutting Edge, Part I,’ Winter exhibit 2007, sets and costumes designed by famous visual artists for the ground-breaking choreographer through the decades.

• Bruce Nauman Works With Light: ‘Elusive Signs,’ ABMB exhibit 2006, large-scale, text-based and figurative neon sculptures from one of the world’s masters in light media.

• Isaac Julien: ‘True North,’ ABMB exhibit 2005, performative video from the rising British star.

• Louise Bourgeois: ‘Stitches in Time,’ Winter exhibit 2005, sewn fabric busts, totems and clothing from one of the most important contemporary artists of the 20th century.

• Helen Frankenthaler: ‘Paintings on Paper,’ Winter exhibit 2003, more than 80 paintings on paper from 1949-2002, some never publicly exhibited before.

• Solo Projects Hernan Bas and Bhakti Baxter, Spring and fall exhibits 2002, two special projects highlighted during the year from the young Miami artists.

• ‘The House at MOCA,’ Summer exhibit 2001, featuring 15 emerging artists who lived and exhibited in the alternative art space in a house in Edgewater.