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After two-year search, MOCA names a new director. Miami arts fans already know her.

Chana Budgazad Sheldon
Chana Budgazad Sheldon

More than two years after the removal of its previous controversial director, the Museum of Contemporary Art-North Miami has named a well-known Miami arts executive to lead the museum.

Chana Budgazad Sheldon, best known locally for her eight-year tenure as executive director of alternative arts space Locust Projects, will take over this week as MOCA-North Miami’s executive director.

“MOCA has been among the most important institutions in South Florida for more than three decades,” said Sheldon in a phone interview. “It has an incredible legacy of presenting wonderful exhibitions in our city and beyond. To have the honor of leading an institution with this rich history in the region where I live is a great honor.”

Most recently, Sheldon served as the Miami director and national program advisor for ProjectArt, a nonprofit organization that provides free after-school art classes to underserved youth. MOCA has been well known for its community arts education — an effort that will remain a priority, Sheldon said.

So will maintaining the museum’s position as the City of North Miami’s nexus of art and culture. But exactly what form that takes — and whether MOCA will focus primarily on local artists or resume its broad global programming — has yet to be determined.

“I really come to MOCA with the intention of listening, understanding and speaking with the community and stakeholders as we prepare to move forward,” said Sheldon. That will include the City of North Miami government, which owns and runs the museum; staff; local residents; area artists; and an expanded museum board.

MOCA has long been a trailblazer. Under former executive director Bonnie Clearwater, who ran the museum from 1997 to 2013, MOCA built an international reputation, showcasing such well-known artists as abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler, Miami-based sculptor Mark Handforth and Bill Viola, godfather of video art.

Sheldon was hired after a national search that drew candidates both locally and nationally, said Larry Spring, North Miami’s city manager. “Chana’s energy [and] her approach to what MOCA could be in the art space that is now Miami with PAMM and ICA and all the other museums that work intersectionally” were standout qualities, he said. He also noted her fund-raising and grant-writing experience.

Sheldon’s appointment comes after a long period of turmoil for the museum that began in 2012, after city residents narrowly defeated a $15 million expansion proposal to be backed by city bonds. The next year, Clearwater left to lead the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art at Nova Southeastern University, located in downtown Fort Lauderdale. By 2014, a rift between the city-owned museum and its high-profile board of trustees erupted into a lawsuit; eventually the directors left and created a new institution, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which opened a new museum in Miami’s Design District late last year.

In late 2015, then-MOCA director, Babacar M’Bow, was fired following allegations of sexual harassment. (He denied the allegations.) Since that time, the museum has been without a permanent director. City Chief of Staff Natasha Colebrook-Williams has filled the role on an interim basis.

Despite that rocky path, “MOCA still is great,” said Spring. “We never closed. We’ve continued to put on great exhibitions. We’ve had a lot of traffic. MOCA still holds an important space in Miami.” What it needs now is a transformed vision, one that Sheldon will help create.

“She’s the right person at the right time.”

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