What the Hell Happened at MOCA North Miami? A Timeline of a Trainwreck

by Michael Anthony Farley on April 23, 2015 · 7 comments Survey


What the hell happened at Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami? Over the past few years, the museum went from being a staple of the South Florida art scene—with an increasingly global reputation—to an institution characterized by dysfunction of operatic proportions.

Beginning in 2012, tensions between different entities with vested interests in MOCA escalated into a full-blown crisis in 2014—resulting in lawsuits, a temporary closure of the museum, and a schism into two separate institutions. If one were to swap out the names, the whole affair could pass as a Game of Thrones subplot—full of secret alliances, broken treaties, territorial bickering, and much wounded pride.The fallout was a very high profile, very ugly game of he-said-she-said that involved litigation, mud-slinging, and accusations of racism from both sides of the dispute. Despite the fact that the craziness was far too public to be considered decorous, it’s really, really hard to get the whole story, as various media outlets tend to side with one camp or the other, thus providing an incomplete picture. To that end, here is a timeline of major incidents leading up to the museum’s formation and eventual split. If anything is missing, please let us know in the comments.

  • 1976: The Metropolitan Museum Art Center, a Miami-based nonprofit, reaches an agreement with the city of North Miami (a working-class suburb physically and culturally miles away from the present-day centers of Miami’s booming art scene) to operate a satellite center in a city-owned and maintained building for $1 a year in exchange for free arts classes for North Miami residents. The deal is facilitated by The Society of the Arts, a separate North Miami entity.
  • 1980: The Metropolitan Museum Art Center folds, but members of The Society of the Arts ask the city of North Miami for permission to keep the center open. They deliberate and a new non-profit entity, the North Miami Museum and Art Center, is formed with a continued emphasis on education. Under the agreement, half of the 20-person board of directors are residents of North Miami.
  • 1981: The North Miami Museum and Art Center reevaluates its programming and realizes there is more demand for exhibitions than education. They rebrand their one-room art space as Center of Contemporary Art, or COCA.
  • 1996: With funding from the federal, state, and county governments, COCA constructs a new building on city-owned land.Under this arrangement, the city of North Miami continues to own and operate the nonprofit’s facilities while the board continues to manage programing and fundraising. The new center opens as Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami and begins its troubled existence as a collecting institution.
  • August 2012: MOCA, having outgrown its cramped quarters, asks the city of North Miami to issue bonds for a $15 million expansion project.The initiative would have tripled its exhibition space and allowed its permanent collection (which is mostly in storage) to be displayed in addition to creating space for its expanding education programs. North Miami voters reject the ballot initiative. The board of directors is understandably disappointed.
  • July 2013: Bonnie Clearwater, longtime director of MOCA, announces she is leaving to take over as director of The Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.
  • August 2013: MOCA’s board of directors appoint art critic and rising freelance curator Alex Gartenfeld as chief curator and interim director. [Interestingly, this announcement is still up on MOCA’s website.]
  • December 2013: Rosa De La Cruz, a collector and major donor to MOCA, ignites an art world scandal during Art Basel Miami Beach.In a vitriolic interview with with The Art Newspaper she claims that the museum is closing and their permanent collection is being transferred to Miami Beach’s Bass Museum, another institution jointly run by a board of directors and a (larger, wealthier) city government. (De La Cruz actually says a lot of things, all of them snarky and entertaining.) Interim director Alex Gartenfeld denies the allegations that the museum is closing, but states “There are ongoing internal discussions. They include lots of things including the scope of the collection and its location.”
  •  March 2014: MOCA officially announces that it is in the planning stages of a merger with the Bass Museum.The city council of North Miami vows to “do whatever is necessary” to keep MOCA and its collections in North Miami.Apparently, the merger had been discussed behind closed doors since the failure to secure funding for the North Miami facilities in 2012. One potential plan (which actually seems like it would’ve been a good idea) was to move the permanent collection out of storage to the Bass Museum’s larger, more frequented facilities (where it could’ve actually been seen) while retaining the North Miami site for education and other programming—an arrangement not so different from the Metropolitan Museum Art Center’s original relationship with the city.
  •  April 2014: MOCA sues the city of North Miami for breach of contract.The museum’s list of breachable offenses include the city’s lack of support for the institution’s growth, failure to maintain the building, and refusal to pay Alex Gartenfeld’s salary. MOCA’s attorney claims “The city’s shortcomings have diminished the value of the museum and its collection while hampering the institution’s ability to achieve its mission.”In an injunction filed by the city of North Miami, the city council names Babacar M’Bow the new director of the museum. The city does so without permission from the museum’s board of directors.
  • May 2014: A Miami Dade County judge orders the museum and the city to enter mediation and discuss alternatives to the merger with the Bass. The New York Times also reports on the totally surreal reality of one institution being fought over by two directors (Gartenfeld and M’Bow) with two backing entities (tbe board of directors and the city council), each claiming authority over the other.
  • June 2014: A group of MOCA donors file a motion in court to clarify “intent behind their donations, which was always to donate to MOCA, the 501 (c)(3), and not to the city.”
    It is also revealed that the Knight Foundation withdrew a $5 million endowment over the uncertain leadership and future of the museum. Court-ordered mediation begins.In another Times piece, with the fitting headline “Museum Power Squabble Borders on the Surreal,” a conflict over a symposium organized by M’Bow—and not approved by the board—crescendos into an embarrassing string of emails from both M’Bow and the board-sanctioned  MOCA employees being sent to invited speakers. The emails are truly bizarre and racially-charged and make headlines across art world publications.  (M’Bow likened his conflict with the board to “when as young Africans we stood weapons in hand to finish once for all colonialism in Africa.”)
  • August 2014: MOCA closes. @The Bass Museum merger now seems out of the picture, representatives cite the ongoing legal battle with the city of North Miami as the reason the deal fell through.The MOCA board decamps to establish the new Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami proper, occupying a much-larger historic building in the design district—and free of rent.M’Bow announces that the city-owned space will reopen as MOCA with a new board of directors, despite being left with a skeleton staff and the fate of the permanent collection still undecided.
  • September 2014:  MOCA relaunches with its first new show under M’Bow’s leadership, “Third Space: Inventing the Possible” with a focus on local and Latin American artists.Vanity Fair, however, pulls its sponsorship of the institution’s Basel programing.Suzanne Weaver is appointed as the interim director of the new ICA, though the institution retains Alex Gartenfeld as its curator.
  • October 2014: ICA announces its first new programming, a two-person show featuring Pedro Reyes and Andra Ursuta. They also express interest in maintaining a presence at the MOCA North Miami site in the form of a community arts center.
  • November 2014: A settlement is reached. MOCA North Miami (now fully controlled by the city council and M’Bow) is awarded the majority of the permanent collection, the rights to the MOCA name, and $1 million in grant funding. The former board members, now steering the new ICA, retain the remainder of the collection.
  • December 2014: The ICA officially opens its new location in the Design District during Art Basel Miami Beach week. It also announces plans to construct a new, 37,500 square-foot permanent home in that neighborhood. Artnet News names MOCA North Miami one of its “Art World Losers of 2014.”



Richard Haden April 23, 2015 at 8:50 pm
tara April 24, 2015 at 4:57 pm

thank you Mr. Haden. this is what should have been in the article. Hopefully, (but I highly doubt) the editor of artfcity.com will see your comment and add you well written comment as an editorial

Paddy Johnson April 24, 2015 at 5:20 pm

We have seen the comment Tara. Your feedback has been noted.

Paddy Johnson April 24, 2015 at 5:19 pm

All this is very useful background. Thanks for this!

Karlo Yaonnit April 24, 2015 at 4:55 am

im afraid no one is going to see your comment mr hadden

Richard Haden April 24, 2015 at 7:52 am

You might be correct Mr Yaonnit, yet somehow you found and read it.

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