Racist Taunts Escalate MOCA North Miami Feud

City-appointed director Babacar M’Bow sent staff members racially charged messages.

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

The ongoing dispute between the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami and North Miami city officials may have reached a boiling point in a heated email exchange over an unsanctioned symposium hosted at the institution by Babacar M’Bow, the city’s choice for director, whose nomination was recently rejected by the museum administration (see artnet News report). In response to incendiary emails sent by M’Bow, the museum’s attorney has asked the city to investigate the incident, suspend M’Bow’s employment, prohibit him from contacting anyone at MOCA, and discipline him appropriately.

Despite the museum’s refusal to instate him, M’Bow has been portraying himself as the institution’s director based on the city’s nomination. The latest clash began May 15, when he sent an email to interim director Alex Gartenfeld explaining that M’Bow had made arrangements for the museum to host “Beyond Unicentricity: Race, Class and Power,” the annual symposium for the Florida Africana Studies Consortium (FLASC), as per the request of the organization’s chair and director, Carole Boyce Davies.

The Opening Shots
In the email, M’Bow cited FLASC’s “long tradition with MOCA under Director Clearwater” (referring to former director Bonnie Clearwater, who left the museum last fall), adding that “we are excited that this organization with such an international network chose MOCA once again for its annual event.” However, there appear to be no records of any event involving FLASC being held at the museum. A press representative for the museum speculated that M’Bow might have been referring to his participation in “Culture After Disaster: Haiti After the Earthquake,” a panel moderated by Clearwater at MOCA in May of 2012.

M’Bow went on to express his hope that “we all will be ready in a cooperative mind to welcome the 15 panelists for some of whom this is the first time in Miami,” and signed the email “director, Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.”

The Museum Responds
In a response dated May 19, the museum reminded M’Bow that he was, at the time, only a candidate for the position of director, and as such it was “presumptuous to say the least for you to plan and sign letters as if you are already MOCA’s Director.” The letter invited Boyce to submit a formal proposal for her symposium for the museum’s review, pointing out that this was normally a three month process but promising that “we will be sure to do what we can to expedite the process.”

On June 5, Gartenfeld received another email from M’Bow, this one extending an invitation to participate in the still-unapproved event as part of a panel, “New Curatorial Practices,” that M’Bow was chairing. Gartenfeld replied the next day:

The “Beyond Unicentricity” symposium you propose recalls recent MOCA programming and seems to be in keeping with the museum’s ongoing investigation of polyvocality, theories of alterity and transculturalism. It is especially unfortunate, therefore, that you have acted unilaterally, without respect or regard for the museum’s protocols related to staffing, funding or hours of operation, even as we have offered our assistance in this matter. For this reason, MOCA cannot support or participate in the event. This is simply not how an internationally renowned institution—or any institution for that matter—is run.

Meanwhile, another museum employee, who prefers to remain nameless, went about informing other participants in the event that the museum had no intention of hosting the symposium. The email explained that M’Bow was not a museum employee and that MOCA’s “standard application procedure that all outside 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.” The missive concluded by apologizing and assuring the prospective panelists that “we look forward to engaging you and your colleagues in programming at MOCA in the future.”

M’Bow Fires Back
From there, the situation at MOCA North Miami quickly degenerated. Said email was forwarded by Cornell professor Satya P. Mohanty to M’Bow. The latter responded by emailing the following message to Gartenfeld, the unnamed museum employee, Boyce Davies, Mohanty, and three other professors who were presumably participating in the event: “I will now leave you to put [name removed] back to his place as he believe his skin privilege is enough to qualify him as an ‘overseer.'”

M’Bow also sent a message only to Mohanty and the museum employee, citing his battle experience in his native Senegal and offering the following challenge: “Let see if little [name removed] will show up Saturday the 14; That is the ultimate field where I am waiting them.”

In a third email, likewise riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, M’Bow went on to say that the museum employee’s email to Mohanty had “already provided you with enough reasons why this symposium is necessary.” He claimed that for the employee in question—”who doesn’t even deserve sit in the graduates studies class you teach”—to “[dare] to address us as if we were his drinking buddies is symptomatic of the contemporary irony of history in Miami.” The employee’s “‘voice of the master’- posturing seems of another epoch we all have though vanquished for ever in these United States,” he added. M’Bow described North Miami as a “graveyard of a dying skin privilege paradigm.”

When asked by artnet News to clarify these statements, M’Bow explained that he was drawing on a “literary and historical  tradition” of post-colonial “academic and popular discourse.” He said he was using the term “overseer” to mean “one who inflicts violence without holding any power.” M’Bow went on to explain that the email from the museum employee “seemed to literally try to shut down intellectual discourse and the free flow of ideas” and represented “a narrative of dominance and power.”

M’Bow expressed his desire to minimize conflict with museum staff, pointing to a personal history of mentoring young people in South Florida and promising that he “will certainly not entertain any hostility toward young employees” at MOCA.

In his correspondence with artnet News, M’Bow continued to refer to himself as the museum’s director, explaining that he had not yet moved into the museum offices “just not to increase the tension between the city and the Board.” He cites the rules governing MOCA, which allow the city, not the museum board, to nominate candidates for the position of director. Museum bylaws and city ordinances appear to be in disagreement on this point, but both indicate that both parties must give approval before a new director can be confirmed.

The Fall-Out
The museum ultimately opted to allow the unapproved event to move forward, albeit with a written disclaimer warning museum visitors that the symposium was not an official event. The letter expressed their disappointment with the city’s decision to ignore “all public programming protocols in terms of staffing, funding, and hours of operation,” while pointing out that “we have sought to make accommodations to enable FLASC participants to have a productive afternoon in the museum’s galleries.”

In response to M’Bow’s emails, which the museum sees as inflammatory and threatening, its lawyer has sent a letter to the city’s legal representation, appraising them of the situation and stressing that “MOCA is shocked and confused by Mr. MBow’s highly aggressive, antagonistic, and vicious statements directed against [name removed].” The letter, which the museum claims the city has not acknowledged, requests that the incident be investigated, and M’Bow suspended, disciplined, and prohibited from speaking with MOCA staff.

Outside of this incident, the museum board has filed suit against the city for breach of contract. MOCA, which alleges it has been denied funding by the city, wants to merge with the Bass Museum in Miami Beach. City officials have accused the museum of trying to steal an important cultural institution from the racially diverse North Miami and object to the proposed move to wealthier, whiter Miami Beach. The case is currently undergoing mediation.

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