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What's going on at MOCA North Miami?


Preliminary rendering of the new ICA Miami in the Design District, designed by Aranguren & Gallegos. Courtesy ArtNews, ICA Miami.

Over at ArtNews earlier this month, Dan Duray reported a fascinating story about Miami’s newest museum, the ICA Miami, and its previous incarnation as the more community-oriented Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, which still exists. The ICA has experienced some growing pains, to say the least, and it seems as if Duray’s reportage has mainly gone unnoticed. Here’s the first half of this very important story. Read the full version here.

In late November 2013, Alex Gartenfeld, curator and interim director of the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, opened the outgoing director Bonnie Clearwater’s last show at the museum, a survey of neons by British artist Tracey Emin. The Vanity Fair-sponsored party included among its attendees all the art world royalty in town for Art Basel Miami beach, and even celebrities like Kevin Spacey.

That same week, across town, the locally based Senegalese academic Babacar M’Bow was opening a more modest exhibition, a show of Caribbean artists, at his Multitudes contemporary art gallery.

You would be hard pressed to find two men more dissimilar. Gartenfeld, 28, made his name in New York as an independent curator with an interest in the super contemporary. He served stints as an editor at Art in America and Interview and mounted shows in an apartment gallery along Manhattan’s West Side Highway, cultivating a taste that walked the perfect line between known and soon to be known. M’Bow is a 60-year-old scholar born in Dakar, an intellectual specializing in the African diaspora who speaks of fighting in Guinea-Bissau as a teenager, and calls people “my brother” in the style of Cornell West.

But six months later Gartenfeld and M’Bow had something in common: they both claimed to be director of MOCA.

The far-fetched scenario was born of the acrimony between the museum’s well-heeled backers and the working-class suburban city of North Miami, MOCA’s landlord and supporter since its founding three decades ago (MOCA’s plant happens to be right next door to City Hall). In April 2014, MOCA’S 27-member board sued North Miami for the right to move, with its impressive 709-piece collection, and merge with the Bass Museum, which is located in Miami Beach, a few blocks from the convention center that hosts Art Basel Miami Beach each year. (The lawsuit, as filed by the board of MOCA North Miami against the City of North Miami, was a breach of contract lawsuit over services the city was contractually obligated to provide to the museum and allegedly did not provide.) In response, the city tapped M’Bow for the director position.

Though Miami’s population is smaller than Omaha’s, it boasts six museums in its orbit—MOCA, the Bass, the Frost, the Lowe, the Pérez Art Museum Miami (formerly the Miami Art Museum, the name change following a 2013 move to a massive new building designed by Herzog & de Meuron), and the Wolfsonian. In two years they will be joined by the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami, the MOCA board members’ new museum in the chic Design District, which will feature 20,000 square feet of exhibition space, courtesy of the billionaire collectors Norman and Irma Braman, who will pay for the construction, and of real-estate developer Craig Robins, who donated the land. With all these elements in its favor—the ICA will also start its collection with many significant works from MOCA, following the November settlement of the board’s lawsuit—the ICA is poised to be one of the more influential museums in the art world, and has already distinguished itself from Miami’s other museums with the unique way it came about. One might even say that the ICA’s creation has shown it to be, already and in every sense, the contemporary art museum of the moment.

If MOCA always seemed like the sort of pairing that might result from a shotgun wedding—part international arts destination for the wealthy, part community center for a town of 61,000, where the average salary is $37,353 a year and 32 percent of the population white—that’s because its origin lies in two real marriages, those of Lou Anne and Mike Colodny and William and Joan Lehman.

MOCA’s first iteration in 1976 was as an education branch of the Metropolitan Museum and Art Center of Dade County. Through its parks and recreation budget, the city offered free studio-art classes to North Miami residents out of its former water department, a 2,000-square-foot space across from City Hall.

When the Metropolitan folded in 1980 (it had no affiliation with the New York museum), the North Miami branch’s chief volunteer, Lou Anne Colodny, petitioned the city to continue its programs and in 1981 became the first director of the newly christened Center of Contemporary Art. The city continued to fund COCA but also had a handful of benefactors and a board that was mostly selected by the city. Per the articles of incorporation, the board had to feature a majority of North Miami residents (though one need not have been wealthy to join the board then since Colodny, COCA’s only real employee, arranged for volunteer hours to count toward board eligibility).

Colodny’s husband Mike served as mayor for four terms in this period, and was a city councilman for the rest of that time, which ensured a copacetic relationship between the city and the museum for those first 15 years.

The trouble began in 1996, when COCA (which would that year become MOCA) moved from its modest water department space to the angular, Charles Gwathmey-designed building that still houses it and boasts 8,000 square feet of exhibition space.

The new building came about not because COCA wanted to become the leading contemporary voice in Miami, but more because over dinner in the early 1990s Congressman William Lehman, whose wife Joan was a local artist, told the Colodnys that there happened to be a good deal of Housing and Urban Development money floating around at that moment and that North Miami might be eligible for some of it. The three secured a $2.5 million HUD grant, and more state and county funding followed, until they managed to put together $3.7 million.

MOCA, as people knew it before the ICA split, came together in the new building under the leadership of Bonnie Clearwater, a former art advisor to Leonard Lauder who first came to MOCA as a curator in 1995. Colodny, who is upfront about her lack of formal arts education and knew Clearwater through her old job at the Rothko Foundation, reached out during the planning phase of the new building, to ask Clearwater about the needs of contemporary curator.

“I think the only thing we told him we didn’t need was a coat closet,” Colodny said. “Because nobody wears coats in Miami.”

With the new building came the decision to start a collection for the museum, since no other museum in Miami was seriously collecting at the time, and the first division between the city and the board.

Colodny said she and Clearwater decided to keep the collection under the “stewardship” of the board (per a written agreement) to encourage donors, since donations to nonprofits receive better tax write-offs than donations to cities. Their other concern, Colodny said, was that “the city might run low on funds and appropriate the collection,” as was the recent concern with the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The board expanded through those new ambitions, which Colodny observed at a distance since she left the year of the Gwathmey building’s completion to pursue her own career as an artist, leaving Clearwater to step into the director role.

Irma Braman, the wife of former Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman, was among the board members who came on in 1996 with the opening of the new building, and became close with Clearwater. The Bramans are prolific art-buyers—their collection includes the likes of Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Pablo Picasso and Claus Oldenberg, and in 1997, Norman bought Irma Willem de Kooning’s Woman (c. 1942) for her birthday—so much so that they have their own gallery in their home. One can obtain tours of it through a VIP ticket to Art Basel, which, at the time Irma joined the board, the couple was working hard to bring to Miami.

Colodny had focused on local artists, but with the support of her board Clearwater, who succeeded Colodny as director in 1997 (and declined to discuss her 20 years at the museum with this magazine), brought the museum more in line with the trends of the global art world. The difference in their styles is evident from the titles of the shows they staged during their directorships, Clearwater’s “Dark Continents” and “The Reach of Realism” to Colodny’s “Florida Fellows” and “Collage Unglued.” More often Clearwater’s shows were simply the names of internationally popular artists like Louise Bourgeois, Bruce Nauman, Frank Stella, and Cory Arcangel.

Clearwater was never private about her ambitions to make MOCA a place separate from its geography. A 1996 article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel about the first show in the Gwathmey building, “Defining the Nineties,” opens with a woman walking out of the building in disgust at the show, which featured the likes of Damien Hirst and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “How could they take such a nice space and show things like those?” she asks.

At this Clearwater “could only smile and shrug,” adding, “If that lady wants Grandma Moses, she needs to go some place else.”