MOCA North Miami: A Battle Over Race

MOCA North Miami: A Battle Over Race
M'Bow: "I have a vision, the competency to conceptualize it, a plan to execute it."

No one better exemplifies the chaos at North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) than local artist Pablo Cano. The conceptual puppeteer, who has for 16 years staged wildly popular marionette shows for the museum, received a call from Alex Gartenfeld, the museum's current interim director. He told Cano this year's The Art of Play was cancelled.

"The city pays me $80,000 annually, which is way less than the annual salary of the previous director."

Shortly afterward, Babacar M'Bow called. He identified himself as the museum director, recently appointed by the City of North Miami, and advised Cano to continue working on the production for MOCA, leaving the artist feeling like a puppet himself being toyed with by opposing factions fighting over control of the museum.

"Right now, I feel like I am in limbo," Cano said, "and surprised."

Location Info


Museum of Contemporary Art

770 NE 125th St.
North Miami, FL 33161

Category: Museums

Region: Upper Eastside/Miami Shores/Biscayne Park

MOCA, which was founded in February 1996, is housed in a 23,000-square-foot building designed by internationally acclaimed architect Charles Gwathmey.

Now, as Cano's case illustrates, it's in the middle of a tug of war between the museum board and the city. The squabble revolves around who controls the museum's collection of 600 works by greats such as Louise Nevelson and Jose Bedia and whether those works will be relocated to Miami Beach's Bass Museum of Art.

The bad blood began in 2012, when taxpayers torpedoed a $15 million expansion. Last year, Bonnie Clearwater, who had been MOCA's executive director and chief curator since its inception, left to take the reins of the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.

Gartenfeld has been serving as the museum's interim director since Clearwater's departure. Pointing out that much of North Miami is Haitian-American, the city — which contributes a quarter of the museum's budget — hired M'Bow. He was born in Dakar, Senegal, and received a doctorate at the Sorbonne, where he specialized in the sociology of the image.

Both sides have filed lawsuits.

So who's really running the museum? In an interview with New Times, M'Bow responded to the controversies — including claims of racism and mismanagement — engulfing the museum and his plans to lead the institution forward.

New Times: What is the status of the lawsuits, and when will a judge issue the final decision?

Babacar M'Bow: A lawsuit is like a Burmese python; it always starts inoffensively, allowing you to feed while its sole purpose is to eat you. I hope all parties are conscious of the ultimate outcome — the swallowing of all of us. MOCA is currently under the charge of Circuit Court Judge Norma S. Lindsey, who has sent both parties to mediation.

So who is in charge of MOCA? If a janitor at the museum were caught smoking marijuana today, who would be responsible for the firing, you or Gartenfeld?

Actually, that duty would fall to the North Miami city manager... A board that has expressed the desire to leave MOCA and merge with the Bass no longer has a right to influence decisions. Bonnie Clearwater, MOCA's former director, was an employee of the City of North Miami — as am I — and it's the city, not the board, that pays the salary. The first question that Irma Braman, the board's chair, asked when I was hired was if I would keep Gartenfeld on staff. The second question was whether I felt I had the authority to fire him. I responded that I indeed have that authority but have not made any decisions pending my move to the museum. But Gartenfeld seems a promising, upcoming curator.

What is the status of MOCA's Pablo Cano marionette production commission?

A scheduled exhibition is a commitment. I plan to reschedule the Pablo Cano show and make no apologies for that.

Has MOCA's other programming been affected by the lawsuit?

The education programs at MOCA have recently been moved to the Joe Celestin Center. How can you develop artistic sensibility in the youth by exiling them eight miles away? What Eastside single mother will drop her child so far? The museum has not scheduled exhibitions beyond July.

When were you hired by the city, and when will your appointment become official?

I was hired in mid-March by then-City Manager Stephen Johnson. He left the city before I began as director. As to when will my appointment become official? The city sees it that way already. The question that perhaps confuses the public lies in the ordinance: The city appoints the director of MOCA, who is a staff of the municipality, and presents the appointment to the board for approval. But how can a board that is moving from the city, entering into a partnership with another city without approval of the government that created it by ordinance, still retain the privilege of approval? I consider my appointment as official and have begun to attend city commission meetings. I am discharging my duties.

When are you moving into the building? What is the city paying you to take charge of MOCA?

My presence on the premises would confuse the wonderful staff that is working under great uncertainty. But my move into the building is a few weeks away. The city pays me $80,000 annually, which is way less than the annual salary of the previous director. This is my city. Serving it is in my self-interest.

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Dr. M'Bow is very well qualified for the directorship of MOCA. Not only his educational background but also his international experience in the world of art and also his understanding of the people of North Miami. It seems Mrs Braman just wants to use her considerable influence to dictate her own desires and ensure that her incompetent puppet, Mr Gartenfeld, keeps his place as loyal lap dog.

The situation is already more than pathetic and it is sickening to see how the city and the taxpayer (who Mr. Braman usually seems to show such support for) are being treated like second class citizens.

I don't think this fight is about race but rather social class with the Board thinking that the citizens of North Miami do not deserve to have MOCA or it's art collection since they seem incapable of appreciating it and therefore did not agree to the expansion. Also the Bass seems most happy to appropriate the art collection for their "enlightened and entitled"  community, who cares about the taxpayers of North Miami, they do not have the money or influence to matter.

Hopefully this situation can be corrected soonest and Mr M'Bow installed to his rightful place. If Mrs Braman thinks so highly of her little Gartenfeld then maybe her husband can get him a job selling cars, I'm sure at least he might be qualified for that.


I disagree with the suggestion that the city hired Dr. M'Bow because of his race. He is better educated and has more professional experience than the current interim director. That being said, it's great that someone like Babacar can become a cultural leader in South Florida. He has already demonstrated grace under pressure an has a strong vision. I believe him when he says he wants to work for all Miamians. I am tired of seeing exhibits that are effectively being "curated" by New York dealers and that appeal to the superficial interests of the Art Basel crowd. I weep to think that MOCA might perish. But out of the ashes some bold exhibits will arise.

Why has no one criticized the board and director of the Bass Museum for participating in this destructive process in secret and without prior full disclosure to the city commissioners and mayor of Miami Beach? There is a crisis of leadership at both of the museums.


I disagree with the implication that the city hired Dr. M'Bow primarily because of his race. He is more educated than the interim director and has more life experience. That being said I think that it is high time that a person like Babacar can become a cultural leader in South Florida. He has expressed his desire to serve all Miamians and he has strong vision. I for one am tired of seeing exhibits that are effectively "curated" by New York dealers and are aimed at the superficial Art Basel crowd. It makes me cry to think that MOCA might die. But out of the ashes some truly amazing and bold exhibits will take place. Why has no one criticized the board and the director of the Bass Museum for entering into this destructive process in secret without prior full disclosure to the city commission or mayor of Miami Beach?