The longtime rift between the Museum of Contemporary Art’s board of trustees and the city of North Miami turned into a physical breakup Wednesday as the nonprofit that has overseen MOCA moved its employees out of the city-owned building and announced plans to establish a new arts organization.
The new Institute of Contemporary Art will open a temporary space in November at the Moore Building in Miami’s Design District, according to a statement from board co-chairs Irma Braman and Ray Ellen Yarkin.
“We’re very excited about it,” Braman said in a brief interview Wednesday afternoon. “It’s double the space we have now and it’ll be super … We’re looking forward to it.”
Still unclear: What artworks will go with the nonprofit board of trustees to the new site. MOCA’s roughly 600-piece collection — which includes pieces by Gabriel Orozco, Jose Bedia, Julian Schnabel and Anna Gaskel — remains in storage, the subject of ongoing negotiations between the board and city.
The two sides have been working toward a settlement since attending mediation sessions in mid-June, according to lawyers for both sides. City spokesman Pam Solomon released a statement late Wednesday criticizing the outgoing board’s announcement and emphasizing that North Miami is not affiliated with that group or its interim facility.
“As we continue to work on the final stages of the mediation process, it is unfortunate that the Board has released statements that add a sense of confusion to the matter,” Solomon’s statement said. “Statements made by the outgoing Board were not authorized through the mediation process, nor are they consistent with the intent and spirit of the continuing mediation.”
Questions remain about how the museum’s well-regarded permanent collection will be split and whether the “Museum of Contemporary Art” name can still be used by either institution.
But Babacar M’Bow, appointed by the city as the museum’s director in April, said the North Miami site will continue to be called MOCA. He will continue to lead that institution, while Alex Gartenfeld — named interim director by the trustees in 2013 — will move to the new space.
“Nothing changes, we’ve just agreed to part ways,” M’Bow said in an interview. The museum, at 770 NE 125th St., will retain five employees that are paid by the city: the director, assistant director, buildings manager, an administrative assistant and educational curator. There’s no budget to add more staff immediately, M’Bow said.
M’Bow said he plans to bring in a new board in September. That same month will see the opening of “Third Space: Inventing the Possible,” an exhibit planned by M’Bow featuring local Latin American artists. The museum is currently closed for reinstallation.
Four exhibits are planned between September and June, M’Bow said, but dates are not yet set and details about them have not been released. He plans to showcase contemporary work by international artists, but said he also wants to find a way to highlight more locals.
“I am reopening this museum focusing on local artists that have received international acclaim but have not been showcased in Miami,” he said.
While the dual-director situation that has existed at MOCA for the past few months has led to awkwardness and confusion, M’Bow said he was saddened by the split. “I consider this slightly as my inability to convince the board to stay,” he said. Still, he said, “leadership is all about challenge. I look to the future with a very, very enthusiastic mindset.”
In April, MOCA’s board of trustees filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the city, claiming its municipal landlord was failing to properly maintain the facility, provide adequate security or even pay the interim director.
Gartenfeld, a rising young critic and curator in New York, was appointed to the leadership position by the board after longtime MOCA curator and director Bonnie Clearwater left in summer 2013 to run Nova Southeastern University’s Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. Gartenfeld is one of more than a dozen staffers moving to the new location.
City officials appointed M’Bow, who has been working out of a city office, in April. The board of the governing nonprofit said it would not consider him for the directorship after he failed to submit information for them to do a background check. Bylaws required board approval.
Tensions between the trustees and the city first flared in December, when news broke that the museum board was in talks to move the collection to the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach. City officials called the move a “modern-day art heist,” and vowed to do whatever was necessary to keep the museum in North Miami.
Talks with the Bass have since ended because of the litigation. Executive director Silvia Karman Cubiñá could not be reached Wednesday, and a spokesman for the MOCA board would only say that a collaboration with the Bass Museum would not happen in the near term.
The statement issued Wednesday by the MOCA board of trustees thanked Miami Design District Associates, a partnership between Craig Robins’ Dacra Development and L Real Estate, for its “support and generosity.” The venture is not charging the group rent for its new 12,500-square-foot location on the second floor of the Moore Building.
The statement referenced a 2012 failed referendum on a $15 million bond to expand MOCA’s North Miami facilities as part of the reason for the split between the city and the board.
“The Board sought an on-site expansion at our former home in North Miami for more than a decade, as the demands of our collection, program, and audiences grew and our museum gained international acclaim,” the statement by Yarkin and Braman said. “The Moore Building has a rich history of presenting cultural events and contemporary art, and our interim facility allows us to continue serving our audiences throughout Miami-Dade County and beyond as we plan for a permanent location.”
Robins said Wednesday afternoon that the location has a history of hosting cultural nonprofits.
“Part of our goal is to make sure that the Design District is an important destination for art, design, fashion and food, and so this opportunity to collaborate with the MOCA board and have them operating here for a period of years is ideal from our point of view,” he said.
He said the length of time the Institute of Contemporary Art will stay in the space is not yet defined, but the idea is to house the museum until it can establish a permanent location. Neither Braman nor a spokesman for the outgoing MOCA board would comment on what ICA’s long-term plans might be.
The dispute between the city and the board has drawn national attention to a museum previously known for its cutting-edge exhibitions and annual Art Basel fetes sponsored by Vanity Fair magazine. The New York Times covered the situation, referring to “the circus that is the Museum of Contemporary Art these days.” A publication devoted to coverage of nonprofits, Nonprofit Quarterly, has also written about what it called the “ugly public dispute.”
Attorney Alan Kluger, whose law firm is representing the board, said North Miami’s outside attorneys SquiresBenson have done “a splendid job” in their work to reach a resolution.
The board chairs’ statement said the city and institution “remain dedicated to working together in good faith to reach a global settlement that will benefit the audiences that we serve.”
Scott Galvin, the North Miami councilman who called the board’s actions a “modern-day art heist” earlier this year, was more measured on Wednesday.
“There is some very encouraging progress and I think in the end the city and the residents will be happy with the plan,” he said. “I think people thought the MOCA board was going to clean our clock.”