Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: MOCA, North Miami must find a way to work together for the sake of the art community

All too often in Miami-Dade, we make grand leaps — in the arts, with the stunning Pérez Art Museum Miami, enjoying, after years of distress and uncertainty, record-breaking crowds and five-star reviews. But then, in the same breath, we witness a major step backward.

And that’s what the ugly war raging over the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, a community jewel in its own right, feels like — a regrettable regression.

The quarrel between the City of North Miami and MOCA’s board of trustees is a lose-lose situation for both entities.

If the board succeeds in taking the nonprofit’s collection to the Bass Museum in Miami Beach, the move would amount to the dissolution of MOCA as we know it — a major player in the Miami art scene, one with a vibrant role different from the rest of the region’s art institutions.

If North Miami city leaders insist on imposing on MOCA its own appointed board members and on having the power to remove existing trustees — thus yielding unprecedented influence on how the museum is run — they’ll be doing themselves and residents who count on the museum’s high-quality programming a tremendous disservice.

“This group seems to have forgotten that they serve at the pleasure of the North Miami City Council,” North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau has said.

But Tondreau is wrong.

The museum is a nonprofit; it’s not city-owned.

No respectable museum board serves at the whim of politicians. Boards serve the art-loving public and the interests of art; they’re custodians and stewards. And this is what’s at the heart of this dispute. A changing city that up to now had only been host and landlord of a building constructed in 1996 with federal, state and county funds — no city funds — now wants to run things.

It’s not going to fly — and city leaders’ maneuvers are only going to lead to the closure of a respected venue for out-of-the-box emerging and mid-career local, national, and international artists — and a popular part of the Art Basel Miami Beach program since its inception.

Add the no-less important educational programs for children and teens — from art summer camps to programs aimed at children at risk and community conversations of all kinds — and what’s at stake is a major loss to North Miami and the arts community.

The board, made up of wealthy patrons who help generate according to its own estimate 75 percent of the museum’s operating budget, is also being short-sighted in its fight with the city. Leaving for the Bass, as wonderful as that museum is, isn’t good for MOCA.

As an insider put it to me, the museum’s edgy location and founding mission to be a part of an under-served community, is “part of MOCA’s DNA.”

Driving the dispute is the board’s desire for more space to display the MOCA Collection, which includes important pieces donated by current and past members of the board. It’s understandable that the museum’s collecting success begs for an expansion.

But when voters in 2012 rejected footing the expansion bill through a $15 million city bond, they had reasons to do so. For one, this wasn’t — and still isn’t — the kind of economy in which taxpayers should be asked to carry such burdens, and less so in this working-class city.

This powerful board of philanthropists could have raised that kind of money, but they mistrust the people who run this city and were unwilling — with good reason. This City Hall has been embroiled in one mismanagement scandal after another, and the bullying attitude of the City Council and mayor is not helping foster trust.

A lawsuit stands now between city and board, but one would hope it’s not too late for mediation and negotiation to save the museum.

The type of in-fighting that has characterized this and other South Florida institutions, often reflective of the community’s ethnic and class divisions and the mistrust of government, doesn’t do anyone any good. Philanthropists stepped up to turn the Miami Art Museum into the spectacular PAMM and made the dream of a world-class performing arts center in downtown Miami a reality.

MOCA, too, can continue to thrive.

For the good North Miamians, art lovers everywhere, and the region’s reputation as an art destination, the city and the board should find a way to work together.

They need each other.