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After a year without a permanent director, North Miami plans to revitalize museum

Marielle Plaisir exhibit opens at MOCA North Miami

Marielle Plaisir’s exhibit at MOCA North Miami explores the historical and ongoing relationships between those in the Caribbean who dominate, and those who are dominated.
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Marielle Plaisir’s exhibit at MOCA North Miami explores the historical and ongoing relationships between those in the Caribbean who dominate, and those who are dominated.

In North Miami, 2016 was set to be the year that the Museum of Contemporary Art moved past the days of troublesome headlines after the split between the city and the former board of trustees. But the year started with the city in the news again and facing uncertainty after firing museum director Babacar M’Bow in the midst of sexual harassment allegations.

More than a year later the museum is still without a permanent director or curator but it has continued to host exhibits, discussions and community events. The city hopes to redefine the director position, revamp the current board of trustees and find someone to bring back the acclaim and financial support the museum once had.

“Before the breakup we were in a much higher position,” Mayor Smith Joseph said. “We are very well known worldwide and now we’re in the growing pains of rehabilitation and the work to build back up.”

City leaders said MOCA has received some positive feedback on its 2016 Art Basel event, and the museum has hosted exhibits featuring the work of French-Guadeloupean artist Marielle Plaisir, Venezuelan artist Rolando Pena, and “Intersectionality” an exhibit touching on themes like gender identity, race and homophobia.

Still, members of the art world say MOCA hasn’t gotten the same kind of buzz or attention that it did before. Lisa Austin, an art adviser, said she lives near the museum and often hears more about the monthly Jazz at MOCA concert than about the exhibits.

“They need serious curators. That’s what makes people want to go to museums, the quality of the curatorial vision,” Austin said. “If you don’t have the right people in place to bring quality art to the museum, then it’s just a building.”

M’Bow was fired after he faced allegations of sexual harassment from an employee. He later the sued the city and asked a judge to declare North Miami’s decision to fire him unlawful. He requested a hearing before the city’s civilian personnel board and an order preventing the city from hiring a new MOCA director. Last month a judge denied most of those requests as the city granted M’Bow a hearing before the personnel board back in April.

The city’s investigation turned up multiple reports of M’Bow using inappropriate language and sexual innuendo with staff members. He has consistently denied the allegations.

Before he was hired at MOCA, M’Bow served as the international exhibits coordinator for the Broward County Library, was the founder of the Multitudes Contemporary Art Gallery in Little Haiti and published the three-volume “Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora” in 2007.

If you don’t have the right people in place to bring quality art to the museum then it’s just a building.

Miami art adviser Lisa Austin

Since M’Bow’s ouster, Natasha Colebrook-Williams, the city’s chief of staff, has served as the museum’s interim director. While city officials previously wanted to fill the position quickly, they decided to slow down the process to get a better handle on the needs for the job and to seek advice from other museum experts.

“I’ve reached out to the director over at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, and a couple former museum directors around the country to sort of solicit their feedback and see, based on our circumstances, what would the ideal candidate look like,” City Manager Larry Spring said.

The museum hopes to find someone who can lead MOCA back to the prominence it had when it was led by Bonnie Clearwater, the museum’s director since 1997 and curator since 1993. Clearwater left in 2013 to lead the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art at Nova Southeastern University.

MOCA was known for its cutting-edge collection and its annual celebrity-studded Art Basel party that it hosted with Vanity Fair.

Councilman Scott Galvin, who’s been in office since 1999, said that the City Council never really had to think much about MOCA, its leadership or its financial standing in the past.

“When Bonnie was in charge, everything was in place, it was something that we didn’t really worry about in City Hall,” Galvin said. Her departure “left this void of knowledge of what needed to take place.”

After Clearwater left, the relationship between the city and the former board became strained. Members of the board filed a lawsuit against the city in 2014, citing a lack of city support for the museum and a failed $15 million bond issue in 2012 that would have paid for a renovation and expansion of MOCA.

The lawsuit was settled in November 2014. Later, the board members left and started the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami’s Design District.

About 500 of the 709 works held by MOCA before the split stayed with the museum, while 205 went to the new museum.

When Bonnie was in charge, everything was in place, it was something that we didn’t really worry about in City Hall.

Councilman Scott Galvin discussing MOCA’s management under former director Bonnie Clearwater

M’Bow and the museum continued on without much controversy with programming, exhibits and Art Basel events in 2014 and 2015. Then in late 2015 M’Bow was placed on paid leave and eventually fired.

Since the split, North Miami has spent about $3 million to support the museum’s operations including about $1.4 million set aside in the 2017 budget. Some of this year’s allocation is for more staffing at the museum.

“The city pretty much is fully subsidizing the fiscal budget because we lost a lot of endowment funding we used to have before the breakup,” Joseph said.

City leaders have referred to the museum as the “jewel” of North Miami and said it’s key to downtown development and the city’s international reputation.

“People are rooting for MOCA because this is a museum in a majority-minority city,” Galvin said referring to the city’s large population of black, Haitian and Hispanic residents.

The city manager wants to strengthen the qualifications for the director position and make sure the next hire fits American Alliance of Museum standards. He and the city attorney also plan to clarify the ownership of the building, who handles maintenance, the status of employees and hire a development director to focus on fundraising.

North Miami has spent about $3 million in recent years to support MOCA’s operations.

North Miami also plans to solidify the criteria for selecting the board, which has about 30 members, to steer the focus back to serious art collectors and people who can attract donations. The current board of trustees, selected by M’Bow, features several real estate figures and developers, including chairman Frederic Marq.

“What I suspect is going to happen is that you will see a revamp of the board,” said Larry Spring, the city manager. “Some of those active members likely will be there but some of those that are not so active will be replaced.”

Michael Spring, Miami-Dade cultural affairs chief, has been advising the museum since M’Bow’s firing and said he has regular conversations with Colebrook-Williams about the museum’s direction. He thinks the city is taking the proper steps, like reaching out to other museum directors, to get MOCA back on track.

“We talked how important it was for the museum to move forward with a quality track record,” Spring said. “Those things are being accomplished and I’m happy to see that.”

The county increased grant funding to the museum to $125,000 this fiscal year from $75,000 last year. Spring said the county plans to display the winners of the South Florida Cultural Consortium fellowship in a show at the museum this summer. The showcase has previously been at various museums across South Florida.

Staff members hope to present a new memorandum of understanding between the city and museum in the next few months. The new agreement would include changes like increasing the minimum annual dues for board members. Board members currently pay $10,000 and are expected to give or bring in additional funding or a major artwork.

“You need money, benefactors, great exhibits, you need great programming, educational programs — everything,” Larry Spring said.

Lance Dixon: 305-376-3708, @LDixon_3