MOCA North Miami Closes in Controversy

After feud with the city, staff and board members flee to start new museum.

Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. Photo by ©Javier Sanchez, 2014.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in North Miami is no more. After months of lawsuits and name-calling between the museum’s administration and the city of North Miami, the institution’s staff have moved out of the non-profit museum’s city-owned building, and will reopen as a new entity, the Institute of Contemporary Art, in Miami’s Design District, the Miami Herald reports. Members of the museum’s board announced the decision on Wednesday, August 6, making good on a frequently reiterated threat to take the institution elsewhere.

Relations between MOCA and North Miami have been growing increasingly tense for years. Alex Gartenfeld, who took over after the sudden departure of Bonnie Clearwater, has been serving as the institution’s director and chief curator since September 2013, but the city has refused to pay his salary. After North Miami failed to maintain and secure the museum building, and never came through on promises to expand it, MOCA sued the city for breach of contract. The city later attempted to appoint a new director for the museum, Babacar M’Bow, an appointment the museum’s board rejected. M’Bow’s refusal to comply with MOCA’s institutional protocol resulted in a flurry of racially-charged emails from the would-be director to museum staff.

“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,” explained a statement from MOCA board co-chairs Ray Ellen Yarkin and Irma Braman. “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.” Since its founding in 1994, MOCA had amassed a permanent collection of about 600 artworks. Its 23,000-square-foot building, designed by New York’s Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects and local firm Gelabert-Navia, had just 7,500 square feet of exhibition space.

The new Institute of Contemporary Art will benefit from 12,500 square feet of exhibition space on the second floor of the Moore Building in Miami’s Design District, a space for which it will not pay rent. Roughly a dozen staff members from MOCA are moving to the new organization, including Gartenfeld. It’s still unclear what will become of the building that housed the North Miami museum, and the institution’s permanent collection, although a group of donors recently reiterated that the artworks gifted to the institution were intended for the museum, not for the city of North Miami (see artnet News report).

The MOCA board had for a long time been pursuing a merger with the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach (see artnet News report), much to the dismay of the city of North Miami. That deal fell through due to the litigation spawned by the dispute.

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