The long-rumored merger between two high-profile, city-affiliated museums has progressed so far that one of the cities has vowed to do “whatever is necessary" to stop the deal.
Confirming rumors that surfaced in December, North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau told attendees at the Tueday night city council meeting that its Museum of Contemporary Art was seeking to merge with the Bass Museum in Miami Beach. She said she had met with MOCA board members and learned they were “in the final stages” of moving the collection and operations to the Bass. The process of negotiating a contract between the MOCA board and Bass would likely take about 90 days, said City Manager Stephen Johnson.
In response, the North Miami City Council voted unanimously to direct the city manager and city attorney to do “whatever is necessary" to keep the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. Late Wednesday, MOCA’s press office issued a statement that indicated MOCA could continue to provide programming in North Miami after the merger is complete.
According to Tondreau, board members cited the 2012 vote rejecting a $15 million city bond proposal to fund an expansion that would have tripled MOCA’s space as a major impetus for the move. Also, the board did not feel MOCA had the support of North Miami residents, particularly on the affluent eastern side of the city, Tondreau and Johnson said.
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Efforts by the Miami Herald to reach MOCA board of directors co-chair Irma Braman were not successful. Alex Gartenfeld, MOCA’s interim director and curator, did not confirm a timeline for a move from North Miami or even that a merger is a done deal.
“What I can say is we are rigorously exploring a collaboration with the Bass Museum,” he said in an interview Wednesday. He said the museum had informed the city of its conversations with the Bass, but said he found North Miami’s “leap to action” Tuesday surprising since the city had been included in crucial discussions.
The talks with Bass are a continuation of conversations MOCA has had for years about ways to better respond to the demands of its programming, Gartenfeld said.
“At this time, we feel confident that a collaboration with the Bass could make a lot of sense,” he said.
Sources familiar with the deal said that talks with the Bass were first raised after the 2012 bond vote failed. Last fall’s departure by long-time director Bonnie Clearwater — well known in the art world for her keen eye — to her current post as director of the NSU-Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale was an additional spur. Gartenfeld, a New York critic and rising curatorial star hired by Clearwater in early 2013, was named interim director.
Many questions remain: What would a merged MOCA/Bass museum look like? Who would be in charge? What would happen to each individual museum’s collections?
“We’re still defining what the exact program and profile will look like,” Gartenfeld said. “We know there certainly would be a strong focus on contemporary art. Collection program details are still being sorted. Our goal is to make the collection accessible to the largest possible audience.”
Late Wednesday, MOCA’s press office released a statement that read, in part: “The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, is exploring a possible collaboration with the Bass Museum of Art that would unite and expand the resources, collections and programs of the two institutions. One plan under consideration would focus exhibition and related programming in Miami Beach and would present a robust schedule of educational and outreach programs in North Miami and throughout the greater Miami region."
One of the goals of the failed expansion plan was to regularly feature pieces from the museum’s permanent collection, which wasn’t always possible in MOCA’s small space. The collection contains about 600 works.
If the MOCA collection moves to the current Miami Beach Bass Museum facility, it would likely bear the Bass name. In answer to a Miami Herald query about restrictions on the Bass Museum’s name, Miami Beach chief deputy city attorney Raul J. Aguila wrote in an email that conditions of the 1963 John and Johanna Bass art collection stipulated that the collection be housed in the city-owned building that is currently the home of the Bass Museum — “and that such building be named ‘The Bass Museum of Art.’ ”
Bass Museum officials shed little light on the plans, releasing a short statement Wednesday afternoon.
“I can confirm that the Bass Museum is in active conversations with MoCA regarding a possible collaboration that would allow us to expand and enhance educational and public programming,” director Silvia Karman Cubiñá said in the statement.
In North Miami, six former city mayors and Tondreau gathered collectively at the podium Tuesday to present a united message to let the MOCA board, the Bass Museum and the city of Miami Beach that North Miami wouldn’t give up MOCA without a fight.
“We should call for the resignation of some of the people on the board who would choose to be a part of another museum,” said former Mayor Frank Wolland.
Tucked between city hall and the police department, MOCA is the centerpiece of downtown North Miami and the city's most visible commitment to arts and culture. Known internationally for its cutting-edge collection and exhibitions, the museum’s Art Basel kickoff party sponsored by Vanity Fair each December is a draw for international celebrities and collectors alike.
Despite all the glitz and global attention, MOCA is still a city institution. North Miami, which owns the building, allocated $982,000 to the museum in its 2014 budget.
“We’re not going to let Miami Beach steal MOCA from us,” former Mayor Kevin Burns said during the meeting. “We’re not going to let the Bass steal MOCA from us.”
The Bass also is a city institution owned and operated by Miami Beach. Founded in 1963 through the donation of 500 Renaissance and Baroque works by private collectors John and Johanna Bass, in recent years the Bass, too, has turned to displays of contemporary art, design and fashion, including Wednesday night’s fund-raising opening of Vanitas: Fashion and Art, an exhibition in connection with Vogue Magazine that explores connections between avant garde fashion and contemporary artworks.
Tondreau outlined several possible actions by the city to ensure MOCA’s ongoing presence, including demonstrations in front of the Bass Museum, sending a delegation to speak with Miami Beach Mayor Phillip Levine and removing specific board members. Although the city appoints only one of the 11 board members, a long-standing city ordinance allows the city council to remove any member of the board “for cause” by majority vote.
City attorney Regine Monestime said she would speak with MOCA’s attorneys to find out what “leaving” actually means, but several former mayors maintained that it could only mean one thing: Taking the museum’s art collection and collectors, and leaving North Miami with an empty building.
Charles Gwathmey designed the MOCA building, which opened in 1996. Along with its exhibitions and collection, MOCA is known for popular education programs for children, teens and adults. In 2012, the museum received the National Medal for Museum Service for its community outreach, including programs that focus on literacy, dropout prevention and work with girls in juvenile-detention centers. The award, given by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, is considered the country’s highest service honor for museums and libraries.
Regardless of where MOCA is located, Gartenfeld said the museum takes its responsibility to North Miami and the greater Miami area seriously and has had discussions about how to expand the reach of its educational programs.
“At our root, we are an educational institution, and we continue to look for ways to educate as many people as possible about art,” he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Christina Veiga contributed to this report.