A version of this story appears in the December issue of ARTnews. Because of developments since that issue went to print, it has been expanded for its publication online.
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.”
Art Basel accelerated the growth of Miami’s art scene, and alongside the museum grew the distinguished public collections that now receive as much attention from the art world as any of the city’s museums. In 1993 the Rubell family opened its collection’s space, in 1998 Martin Z. Margulies opened his, this followed by the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation in 2002—the same year Art Basel Miami Beach staged its first edition—and the De La Cruz collection in 2009.
The collections emerged, at least in part, in response to the fact that Miami lacked a single contemporary institution to which everybody gives, despite the best efforts of MOCA and the Miami Art Museum, which started its collection later. The idea of institutional competition is always a little absurd—my museum is more influential than your museum—but proliferation does not favor anyone in a town with a limited number of collectors and arts patrons. Individual personalities take on greater significance and their clashes come to be reminiscent of a low-stakes version of Game of Thrones. (Asked why she didn’t start her own public collection at the time the others were cropping up, Braman reiterated that hers was “private,” and that she and her husband were “private collectors.”)
The institutions, perhaps feeling competition from the collections, made plans to expand, to the point that The Miami Herald began to make references to a “museum boom.” Soon after the first Art Basel Miami Beach came the announcement of plans to move the Miami Art Museum to a major new home in Bicentennial Park, at an eventual cost of $131 million (the future Pérez Art Museum Miami), just next door to a new science museum to be built for $275 million, and a $19 million move for the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum to a new 46,000-square-foot space.
MOCA, which by that point had built arguably the best contemporary collection in the city, wasn’t going to be left behind. In 2007 Clearwater and the board revealed plans to expand the museum that would add another floor and double the size of the museum to 54,000 square feet, tripling the exhibition space to 23,730 square feet.
Shortly after this, Irma Braman, who served as chair for most of her time on the board, signed a new management agreement that included a clause stating that the board “shall own, protect and manage the permanent MOCA collection of art, and all additions and modifications of the same.”
Both sides point to the failure of the expansion as the main reason for the board’s decision to break away from North Miami, though the extent to which the city was responsible for that failure is up for debate.
To be sure, in the time since Mike Colodny was mayor, the city government had become laughably corrupt. To reference just a handful of examples: Andre Pierre, elected mayor in 2009, stepped down in 2013 amidst a number of accusations, among them that he used the position to benefit from real-estate deals, used his nephew to solicit bribes, and called a city councilman’s daughter a “prostitute.” (Before he left office he gave the key to the city to the Kardashians.) Lucie Tondreau, his successor, was arrested in this past May in a mortgage fraud scheme and, this past fall, the IRS announced that it would open the books for the entire city.
But North Miami’s politicians still might have found time between their criminal endeavors to become involved in the running of the museum—to which it still contributed around $1.2 million each year, or half MOCA’s annual expenditures—had the museum not already philosophically moved away from them anyway.
Clearwater programmed for the art world so, like North Miami’s citizens, the city council and mayors had to trust that she was doing the right thing, without always understanding her movements or shows. This extended to her and Braman’s expansion of the board, which grew to 27 members by the beginning of this year. Though the board members served at the pleasure of the city council, the council increasingly rubber-stamped the nominees, and residency requirements fell by the wayside.
“In retrospect maybe we gave Bonnie too much leeway running that without us,” North Miami Councilman Scott Glavin said, “choosing the board members and things like that.”
All this made it hard for the city to come up with the $15 million needed for the expansion. Their last, biggest push consisted of an attempted bond issue in an August 2012 referendum. Despite a city campaign, MOCA Yes!, funded by Braman and a handful of other board members, voters were unsure that MOCA had brought the economic redevelopment promised by its initial HUD grant. One city council candidate on that ballot, Carol Keys, even campaigned against the bond issue, despite the fact that her mother had been a major volunteer at MOCA, and had a desk named after her. Keys was elected and the referendum failed, albeit by a slim margin.
After the failure of the bond issue the trustees began to look for other options around Miami for their collection, either for more programming or a complete move. They’d programmed elsewhere before, from 2005 to 2009, staging shows in the gentrifying Wynwood’s Goldman Warehouse, following a temporary rent-free lease from the father-son developers Tony and Joey Goldman. (If art doesn’t necessarily raise property values in blue-collar communities it seems to do wonders in places where hipsters and other rich people congregate.) They weighed a space in Brickel, and another that would be part of the plan to renovate the Miami Beach Convention Center and its surrounding area. Among the more attractive options was the merger with the Bass Museum in Miami Beach.
But however the museum was to continue it would be without Clearwater who, apparently disheartened by the failure of the bond issue, announced her plans to leave the museum for a reportedly high-salary job at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale at Nova Southeastern University in July 2013.
Six months prior to that she hired Alex Gartenfeld as a curator and something of a successor, since he too represented the well connected art world—his shows always feature of-the-moment artists and his boyfriend, the artist Matt Keegan, is fairly of-the-moment himself—and fell into the role of interim director during the ensuing MOCA fallout and establishment of the ICA. Gartenfeld stages high-profile shows, the kind that landed him on Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” list of influential people in fashion and the arts in 2012. His first at MOCA, “Love of Technology,” offered the art of Ian Cheng, Jason Galbut, Lena Henke, Morag Keil, Ben Schumacher, and Anicka Yi.
Gartenfeld and Braman took an instant liking to one another. Over coffee in the Design District in October, Braman, a slight woman with blue eyes and yellow hair in her 70s, said they clicked immediately at a lunch shortly after he was hired, and joked about him spending so much time at the Bramans that the two might have had “slumber parties.”
“He’s intelligent, cute,” she said. “Not acute, cute.”
“She’s the absolute funniest, smartest person you’ll find in museums,” Gartenfeld said. It wasn’t even their taste in art that they bonded over, Braman said, because their tastes don’t always match up. But clearly Gartenfeld represented something to her. “We don’t live in New York,” Braman offered later. Gartenfeld provided a link to that world.
And Gartenfeld’s energy is slightly contagious. After that meeting he took me on a tour of the Moore Building (owned by Craig Robins), where ICA will have temporary rent-free space as its new plant is under construction. “You’re going to have to use your mental image of a museum,” he said, striding into the lobby space and pointing with his whole hand what would go where. “Front desk here, book store here,” with outstretched hands he gestured to the walls saying what would stay, what would have to go, then looked up at the white girders of the atrium. “It’s a little like being inside a Sol LeWitt cube.”
If Clearwater operated at a distance from the city, Gartenfeld, who knew about the plans to move the collection, seemed to operate with one foot out the door. He reportedly failed to apply for grants that would have given the museum at least $288,000 in financial years 2013 through 2015, and saw the museum become ineligible for another $35,000 in grants since he moved the education programs four miles down the road because, according to current MOCA employees, he thought the after-school students “made too much noise.” (Gartenfeld said he needed more space for programming, and declined to comment about the grants.)
Around the beginning of the year rumors about the move bubbled. Rosa De La Cruz, who was close with Clearwater and reportedly donated almost half of the pieces that constitute MOCA’s collection, gave an outraged interview to the Miami New Times decrying the idea that MOCA might join with the Bass, since she had given to MOCA, not the Bass (and reportedly no longer gets along with Bass Director Silvia Karman Cubiñá, the former curator at the Moore Space, a kunsthalle in the Moore Building operated by De La Cruz and Robins from 2001 to 2008).
At that time, Lou Anne Colodny, who hardly knew Irma Braman, called her to see if there was any truth to the rumors.
“She wasn’t specific,” Colodny recalled. “She said that they had not been maintaining the building,” a later allegation in the board’s lawsuit, “which I hadn’t heard from anyone.”
“She was talking in riddles,” she added. “And I asked her the question, ‘Are you moving to the Bass?’ And she said, ‘I can’t answer that. We’re all sworn to secrecy about what we’re doing.’ I said, ‘Sworn to secrecy? You’re sort of part of a government agency. Whatever you’re doing, it should not be done in secret.'”
Braman would talk to Colodny about the problems at the museum, though, and reportedly told her “it’s getting harder and harder to raise money with the new PAMM,” harder still now that the North Miami government was in such shambles and the wealthy no longer trusted them. Colodny said Braman seemed to hold resentment for the North Miami government, and said that she implied it had used museum funds for illegal purposes. Braman also took the opportunity, Colodny said, to bring up the failed bond issue.
“Blah, blah, blah,” Colodny said. “And through all this I was thinking in my mind, Well, if each member of the board of trustees gave a million dollars, you’d have your money.” Even during that discussion it never occurred to her that the board would simply start its own museum, nor, despite being part of the initial decision to keep the collection separate from the city, that any board would ever try to appropriate the collection from MOCA. But Braman also seemed to want to move. In an interview she contended that the bond issue wouldn’t have even provided all of the $15 million needed for the expansion, which it would have.
In March, former North Miami Mayor Howard Premer (whose terms, 1995 to 1999, still saw good relations between the city and the museum) organized a meeting at MOCA between Lucie Tondreau, City Manager Stephen Johnson, Irma Braman, Gartenfeld, and the board’s lawyer, Alan Kluger, with the goal of addressing the rumors of the move. Premer had assumed to rumors to be false, so it was a short meeting.
“My jaw dropped,” Premmer said of Kluger telling him that MOCA was in fact looking for a new home. Tondreau stood up and tried to console him, but, “there were tears in my eyes.”
The day after that meeting, the city passed an ordinance that would remove the current members of the MOCA board. Kluger, a high-profile attorney who handled Alex Rodriguez’s divorce, rushed to file a status quo order so that wouldn’t happen and soon after that, in April, the board sued the city for the right to break away with the museum with the collection.
Court documents show that the city’s wealthy philanthropists quickly sided with the board, with De La Cruz, Margulies, and others filing intervening lawsuits to join the board’s. Then, in May, the Knight Foundation withdrew a $5 million contemporary art grant that had been awarded to the museum under Clearwater, because, Knight President Alberto Ibargüen said, the foundation was no longer confident that the museum was still equipped to effectively use it.
The North Miami city government became desperate to reassert its control of the museum. It filed a countersuit, which led to court-ordered mediation, and Johnson nominated Babacar M’Bow to be the museum’s new director. (Amid his own corruption charges, Johnson left office the next day to become police chief of Miami Gardens.)
When the board met with M’Bow, he told the Miami New Times, Braman’s first question to him was whether or not he would keep Gartenfeld on staff at the museum, her second whether or not he felt he had the authority to fire him. M’Bow said he hadn’t decided, but that Gartenfeld seemed talented. The board ultimately refused to confirm M’Bow because, they said, he had not provided his social security number, which they said they needed for a background check, implying that there was something seedy about this State Department and USAID veteran.
(M’Bow is, admittedly, not one to go along, get along. He seasons his speech with intellectual concepts like the Civilization of the Universal and infrarealism without immediate elaboration for those unfamiliar with the concepts. During a later discussion, Braman mentioned the idea of keeping MOCA within the purview of the board, to use it for “minority programming.” M’Bow responded, “Ms. Braman, in North Miami, you are the minority.”)
Relations between the board and the museum soured further in June. Tommy Ralph Pace, formerly spokesman for MOCA and currently an associate director at the ICA, purchased 22 domain names that MOCA might want to use in the future, among them mocanmiami.com, themocanomi.com, northmiamimoca.com, and all .net and .org variants thereof. The move seems to have been a bargaining chip for the negotiations regarding the collection, since the board still controlled MOCA’s homepage, mocanomi.org, and it, along with the others, were turned over by ICA to MOCA in the November settlement—along with a trademark for the name MOCA. Ray Ellen Yarkin, Braman’s second-in-command on the board, filed that trademark in September, one month after the ICA had already announced its name. (The website shenanigans would resume in August, when ICA took over the MOCA Facebook page, instantly gaining 35,000 followers, and for a brief period in October, when visitors to mocanomi.org were greeted with a long message that read like a news story and advertised the “new interim facility to open in Miami’s Design District.” The message names the ICA and ends, “We look forward to sharing exciting details about our plans for our program and a new permanent location soon.” It was signed by Braman and Yarkin.)
In June, M’Bow organized a conference at the museum to signal that it would continue to operate, and give a sense of the sort of programming he wanted to do moving forward. (Though it was also a clear commentary on the situation at MOCA; its title was, “What Happens When Politics of Class and Culture Collide.”) In response to the conference plans, M’Bow said Pace sent an email to every participant in the conference that read in part: “We regret to inform you that the symposium will not take place at the museum at this time. The standard application procedure that all groups must follow for holding such an event at the museum was not adhered to, despite our offer to Mr. M’Bow to facilitate and even expedite the process. By way of clarification, Mr. M’Bow is not the Director of MOCA, as he may have presented himself to you, nor even on staff at the museum.” (The symposium did take place and its essays will soon be collected into a book by Duke University Press.)
Then, in late July, repo men representing the ICA cleared out a number of video cameras, computers, and other assorted “furniture, fixtures and equipment” later valued in the settlement at $27,500. The ICA will pay MOCA that amount, but at the time that wasn’t clear. “They stripped us bare,” M’Bow said.
The repossessions coincided with the board’s decision to start its own museum, the Bass merger having been scuttled over the summer (in an interview Silvia Karman Cubiñá was unable to recall exactly when, or how).
The problem of where to go came to be settled over a September lunch between Craig Robins and Norman Braman (who has some experience separating private organizations from public funding, successfully lobbying against public funding for a new Dolphins stadium in 2013 and suing the city in 2008 over proposed public funding for a new Marlins stadium). Braman’s proposition, Robins said, was simple: “I’ll fund the building if you give the land.”
For Robins, a collector and philanthropist whose Miami Design District Associates—a partnership between Robins’ Dacra and L Real estate—owns 70 percent of the Design District, it was a perfect fit. Robbins said he saw it as part of an ongoing culture initiative he launched in the neighborhood 15 years ago.
“We want to make an amazing neighborhood and that means there has to be an element of art, design, fashion food, cultural content,” he said. “A museum is an amazing producer and holder of content, of amazing content.”
(If there was also a profit motive in those efforts it seemed to have paid off. In October General Growth Properties Inc. and Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. announced they would pay $280 million for a 20 percent stake in MDDA, which would value the District at $1.4 billion, at least.)
MDDA, will donate the land for the ICA at 61 NE 41 Street, along with three lots for a sculpture garden. The plans for the ICA’s new space show a metallic, three-story building designed by the Spanish architecture firm Aranguren & Gallegos, totaling 37,500 square feet, a stone’s throw from the De La Cruz Collection. The board hopes to be finished in two years. Since finalizing the plans, they hired Suzanne Weaver, a 20-year museum veteran formerly of the Louisville, Kentucky’s Speed Art Museum and the Dallas Contemporary, as interim director, with Gartenfeld staying on as deputy director and chief curator. (Though Weaver replaced Gartenfeld as interim director, the press release announcing the news was clear that his new title was a “promotion.”)
In late November, the mediation was finally settled. The Miami Herald quoted “a source familiar with the negotiations” saying that the deal was “very fair to both sides,” with MOCA retaining about 70 percent of the collection. But anyone with an art background can see from the list of what went where that almost all the distinguished, and expensive, pieces will go to the ICA. The ICA will start its collection with all the Raymond Pettibon works from MOCA, the Dan Flavin, all but one of the Gabriel Orozcos, all but three Ed Ruschas, nearly all the Richard Tuttles and nearly all of the James Turrells. Of the names you’d recognize, about the only artist whose work they didn’t take the vast majority of was Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, whom they left entirely alone. Every single one of the works in the collection that can be publicly linked to the Bramans and De La Cruzes—which is to say listed on the MOCA website with the phrase “Gift of Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz”—will go to the ICA, with the exception of one 3-foot-by-2-foot tapestry work by Elaine Reichek.
The ICA’s representatives maintain that the move to a new building and new museum was never geographically motivated, and that they merely wanted more exhibition space (even though the new ICA building offers 3,730 fewer square feet than the MOCA expansion would have). But if geography was the main factor it’s possible that more people will see these works in the Design District than ever have before in North Miami.
“I do believe that in this location we’ll be able to better serve Miami,” Gartenfeld said. He pointed out that the Design District is part of a network of diverse neighborhoods, among them Little Havana, Little Haiti, Edgewater, Overtown, Midtown, and Wynwood. “We’re going to have a very textured audience,” he said. “We’ll have a local audience, and then an international audience.”
I asked him if he worried about setting a precedent. What if 18 years from now a new board decides they want to start a new museum elsewhere and take off with the ICA collection?
“I think that’s a bit of a silly question,” he said. “The museum has to evolve to continue to work. It’s a private 501c3, but it’s fulfilling a public service.” The Whitney Museum in New York, he pointed out, is in the process of moving from the Upper East Side to the Meatpacking District, “farther than we just moved, and there is no lamentation, there is excitement. It means the evolution of that institution.”
It was an imperfect comparison, he admitted, but it’s how he thinks about the future board members of the ICA. “In 18 years if they want to build another building,” he said, “I’d say, ‘God bless.'”
Update, December 18: This article has been updated to clarify that the lawsuit 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. A passage in the paragraph pertaining to “new management agreement”—a 2008 agreement between the MOCA board and the City of North Miami—contained some editorial license and has been adjusted.