Since 1986, Young at Art has been the lone children's museum in Broward County. But now, the beloved institution is getting the boot because of mounting debt it owes the county in rent, maintenance, and operations costs.
At a meeting yesterday, the Broward County commission voted to end its lease with Young at Art, saying the museum has been mismanaged for years. By the county's tally, Young at Art (YAA) owes Broward a total of $803,932.
All seven commissioners who attended the meeting voted to have YAA removed from its building in Davie, which is owned by the county. (Commissioner Beam Furr was absent.) Vice Mayor Steve Geller called the relationship between the two parties "irretrievably broken."
"I wish them well, because it's been a great museum," he said. "It's just, they've been difficult — very, very difficult — as a tenant."
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, members of the public were allowed to provide comment by telephone. Over the course of several hours, dozens of parents, teachers, and artists called in to express support for the museum, noting its importance to thousands of children in Broward County.
"There is no other place like YAA," resident Emily Deacon told commissioners. "I'm disgusted in Broward County to take away this cultural staple."
YAA started as a "museum without walls," with exhibits that traveled around South Florida to educate children about the arts. The museum's first permanent location was in Plantation, where it was named the best children's art museum in the nation by Child magazine in 2002.
In 2004, Young at Art entered into an agreement with Broward County to construct a new state-of-the-art building in Davie. YAA agreed to pay the county $1.2 million per year for 11 years for its share of the construction costs. After 11 years, the museum would receive a 40-year lease at a cost of just $1 per year.
During the museum's capital campaign, Young at Art was able to raise $5 million in pledges. But when the 2008 economic recession struck, some donors backed out, hurting the museum's chances of living up to its end of the deal.
"Most landlords understand it is a reality, [but] not Broward County commissioners, not our county," Zack Spechler, Young at Art's executive director and director of exhibitions, tells New Times.
Young at Art's new building officially opened in 2012. In 2014, the deal was renegotiated after the museum could not meet its rent payments. But the museum's financial struggle continued, leading the county to attempt to seize the building. YAA then filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging that Broward took advantage of Young at Art when setting up the deal.
"Upon the execution of the Initial Agreement, the County knew or should have known that YAA would not have been able to make the annual payments pursuant to the Initial Agreement," the lawsuit claimed. "In fact, Commissioner Lois Wexler...stated, 'I don't believe that anybody could have paid back a million one every year for — for 11 years, and then at the end of the deal, we own the building completely again. OK? So it was a hell of a deal for the county, also.'"
"The county knew we couldn't do it, but they went forward with this plan intentionally to take over our building one day," Spechler says. "They knew what they were doing, and we have Lois Wexler saying this."
As a result of the lawsuit, the two parties renegotiated the lease in 2018, relieving YAA of the debt it owed the county.
According to the county, the museum failed to get back on track after being given a clean slate. A memo from September 3 of this year says YAA has not paid operations costs since June 2019 and stopped paying rent in March 2020. The total debt to the county amounts to $422,708 in pre-COVID costs and $381,224 since the pandemic hit Florida in March.
"We recognize that Young at Art provides a valuable service to the community," Assistant County Administrator Alan Cohen tells New Times. "We also recognize that we have been unable to maintain a constructive working relationship with them in any form to date. At this point, we prefer that they locate somewhere else in our community."
Spechler, YAA's director, contends that the county failed to provide services to maintain the building. Among other complaints, he says the county waited eight years to add a sign to the building and did not properly paint the structure. According to Spechler, that left the museum unable to secure a naming-rights donor, which could have been a financial boon.
"Who is going to name a building without a sign, or that is decrepit?" he says. "The lawn and maintenance looked so bad."
Throughout the course of the pandemic, the county did not allow YAA to fully operate. But the museum was still responsible for paying for rent, which Spechler calls constructive eviction.
"We are on the side of being as safe as possible with COVID, but the point is they are our landlord and they told us we cannot operate and, to date, have limited us on 90 percent of what we can do...but they are still charging us," Spechler said. "No people can go in your doors, no fundraisers can take place, no facility rentals can take place. We were struggling pre-COVID because the county was such a bad partner."
At yesterday's meeting, Broward County commissioners said they had given YAA one chance after another, describing a pattern of "mismanagement" by the museum's leadership.
"YAA has had an enormous amount of time to correct this situation and to get to where the county's trying to get them to," said Commissioner Barbara Sharief. "The issue there is not that Broward County does not want art in Broward County. The issue here has been mismanagement for a long period of time.... We've given you life support for many, many years."
To drive home her point, Sharief read an anonymous letter from a YAA employee who said the museum was not being run efficiently.
"This has been going on for too long," Sharief commented.
County Administrator Bertha Henry also addressed rumors that Broward planned to use the Davie building for a private-sector factory or warehouse.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," she said. "There have been a number of arts folk in the community who have reached out to say if something were to happen with that relationship [with YAA], we would be happy to come in and work with the county and the community to provide quality artwork and art programming for our community."
The separation agreement approved by commissioners once again relieves YAA of its obligation to pay what the county says it owes, so long as the museum vacates the building per the agreed-upon terms. Broward County will negotiate the specifics with YAA's attorneys.
David DiPietro, a lawyer representing the museum, said at yesterday's meeting that YAA is amenable to leaving but may request moving costs or extra time to pack up its exhibits and leave.
"We're willing to move on," DiPietro said. "We really don't want to litigate this any more."
Spechler says the museum, which partners with Broward County Public Schools, is looking to expand into Miami-Dade County to provide arts education and a platform for artists throughout South Florida.
"We are begging the county to not bleed YAA dry," Spechler says. "We are asking they do not kill us as a program so we can go to our fourth building and continue to serve."
Supporters of the museum hope it can find a new home to provide programming for children. Miami drag queen Queef Latina, who has participated in events at the museum, fears the South Florida community would be at a loss if the museum were to permanently close.
New Times news editor Jessica Lipscomb contributed to this report.