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Written by Mark Sell -- BT Contributor   
December 2012

North Miami’s MOCA has garnered international attention, but it could really use some local love -- and money

APix_MarkSell_12-12s surely as the sun will rise on Tuesday, December 4, some 4000 souls will descend on 125th Street for the fourth annual Vanity Fair party at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in North Miami.

This year’s international crowd of artists, dealers, curators, investors, media mavens, and celebrities will join North Miami council members, city residents, and art fans from all over South Florida.

The peg for this year’s celebration: the December 5 opening of an exhibition by Bill Viola, whose meditative, Buddhism-inflected video art just got MOCA a high-profile write-up in the New York Times. That’s a big deal for this fractious, gritty city of 60,000.

While last year’s party featured a quirky celebrity A-list that included Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and the mayor of Port-au-Prince (now practically a sister city to North Miami), this year’s will feature fashion designer and Viola patron Stella McCartney, daughter of Sir Paul. She will likely bring some boldface names with her. And who knows? Perhaps a Kardashian or two will drop in. (Kourtney and Kim are currently ensconced in an 11,000-square-foot Sans Souci mansion, filming their upcoming series Kourtney and Kim Take Miami.)

The real queen bee of the proceedings, of course, will be Bonnie Clearwater, MOCA’s founding executive director and curator. She is fresh from a November 14 reception at the White House, where MOCA received the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the highest honor American museums and libraries can receive for service to their communities.

Over the past 16 years, Clearwater has transformed this municipal museum adjoining city hall from a funky outlier into an international force in art and community service; its youth-accented programs serve 20,000 people a year through countywide magnet, after-school, and teen programs, among them Women on the Rise, which takes local artists to juvenile detention centers to help teens express themselves through art.

MOCA’s very success has strained the museum beyond its capacity, prompting the need for expansion. And yet for all the acclaim and the victories, outreach and pushback collided this year for MOCA and Clearwater, as the museum took its case to the public and came up short. On August 14, North Miami residents narrowly rejected a 20-year, $15 million bond issue to double the museum’s size and triple its exhibition space.

The bond issue would have cost city property owners $48 a year per $100,000 in assessed property valuation. It simply proved too big a pill to swallow for the hard-up residents who crowd city hall when water assessments go up three dollars a month, and perhaps too bitter a pill for some of the well-to-do in the eastern neighborhoods, who take a jaded view of the city council, particularly Mayor Andre Pierre.

“Of course I would have liked to see a positive response,” Clearwater says, adding that “the city and the MOCA board are discussing the options, and the architects are completing the working drawings and construction documents. We’re moving forward with the expansion as envisioned.”

Prominent opponents of the bond issue, who would not talk on the record for this column, have no harsh words for Clearwater or MOCA, but they believe that private donors, rather than residents, should fund the museum’s expansion. They also have called the city’s five-week summer campaign for the bond issue dishonest in failing to disclose to property owners the real cost of the proposed measure.

While that is history now, the answer to the question of how much of the $15 million would be private and how much public -- or if it will be raised at all -- is anyone’s guess. One possible clue may come on December 11, when the North Miami City Council will discuss the first $2.5 million of the $17.5 million bundle the city recently received from Biscayne Landing developer Michael Swerdlow. The agenda item raises the possibility that public money for the museum may be back in the mix. (MOCA was a big factor in the original Swerdlow deal with the city, a subject that has resurfaced since the defeat of the bond issue.)

“The bond issue’s failure was a reflection of the economy and the lack of attachment of some people in the community to MOCA’s programs,” says Councilman Scott Galvin, arguably the museum’s most passionate advocate on the council (along with his otherwise frequent adversary, Mayor Pierre). “The closeness of the vote tells you that there is certainly a large percentage of residents who support expansion of MOCA at the $15 million level. I think the conversation will veer back in that direction before too long.”

In its relatively short history, the museum’s annual budget has increased roughly fourfold, to $4 million, but the city’s financial commitment to the institution has grown only modestly, from $1 million to $1.3 million. The other $2.7 million of the museum’s annual budget comes from MOCA’s nonprofit foundation, supported by private donations.

Galvin sees an upside in the bond issue’s narrow defeat, in that it has refocused the discussion on the museum and its good works, which extend well beyond the city limits. (The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has taken notice of the museum’s outreach efforts and in January launched a $100,000-a-year challenge grant for community outreach over three years.)

“We go far beyond what any museum does,” Clearwater says, making a case that MOCA’s community outreach has benefited the residents of the city enough to justify greater financial support. “From our spring campaign alone, we got 2000 households in North Miami as registered members. Conservatively, that’s 4000 people -- and that’s just registered people.

“At Jazz at MOCA on the last Friday of every month, at least a third of the audience is from North Miami. And with our education programs, no one is telling kids they have to be here -- with the self-esteem, the freedom they feel, the friends they are making, they have a safe place, off the street, where they have fun and meet like-minded people.”

(Full disclosure: Both my daughters went through the children’s art programs at MOCA. The youngest became a star junior docent, opening gates of contemporary art perception to her sometimes flummoxed father and other visitors, and is today a busy intern with her own aspirations to become an art curator or dealer.)

Another art museum director with Clearwater’s national reputation might be tempted to make a move to an institution more fully embraced by its community, but Clearwater appears to have no plans to leave, despite this summer’s setback. “I love it,” she says of her work. “Just look at what we’ve been able to do.”


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