At MOCA North Miami, a Battle Over Race

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.

See also: MOCA Sues the City of North Miami, Charges Mayor Tondreau With Defamation and Conspiracy

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."

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.

See also: MOCA Board of Trustees Deny Support to North Miami's Museum Director Candidate

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.

Do some of the conflicts arising between the board and the city stem from ethnic and class differences?

This is an interesting question. At my first meeting with Chair Irma Braman, she began by saying, "I want this conversation to be civilized. We want to move to the Bass but keep the building for programming for minorities." Who is a minority in North Miami? The [board] had never been held accountable to the obligations of all public boards (archiving of minutes for public information, reports, public access to deliberations, etc.). Nothing is available today for citizens' information as to how their tax dollars were spent. The city just trusted [the board] to do the best for our citizens. A tiny minority, because of its wealth, ethnicity, and location, ended up believing that it is not subject to rules governing the board. Furthermore, the city has bet its future -- the downtown redevelopment -- on MOCA. To see a group destroy the interest of the whole is just not acceptable.

Is the board unanimous about moving the museum's collection from North Miami?

I do not believe that this project of moving the museum to the Bass is unanimously approved by all members of the board. And this is why I am not ready to throw the baby out with the bath water. Their businesses employ the citizens of Miami; their daughters and sons go to school with our sons and daughters. While we may be separated by race, class, residency, and so on, we share the common identity of citizenship; we are Miamians.

Why are you the correct person to take control of MOCA under these challenging conditions?

The museum was sliding toward fossilization. Nothing new or groundbreaking really came out of MOCA the past seven years. I have a vision, the competency to conceptualize it, a plan to execute it.

I love riddles. Here is one for your readers: Who do you know is leading when two people race around a tree and you have not witnessed the beginning? MOCA will provide the answer.

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus