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A Director With an Eye for the Fresh and the Local

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Bonnie Clearwater recognized Miami's potential to become an important arts center as far back as 1990, on a visit from Los Angeles. At the time, South Beach was a somewhat desolate spot on the cusp of revitalization, and a local collector and developer enticed Ms. Clearwater to work her magic discovering new talent in Miami as she had done on the West Coast.


"Craig Robins, who was just starting to develop the area, encouraged me to move to Miami Beach with the idea that my husband and I would help be catalysts to develop an art scene here," said Ms. Clearwater, who with her husband, Jim Clearwater, had started the art-book publishing company Grassfield Press, which he still operates.

They made the move, and nearly two decades later, as the director and chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Ms. Clearwater continues to animate the scene in this eclectic area, capitalizing on a lively community of artists and collectors as well as the crowds that the Art Basel fair brings every December.

Her work at the museum has been recognized most recently by a $5 million grant from the Knight Foundation, which will be used to endow the exhibition program of emerging artists. The money is part of $60 million that the foundation, based in Miami, is investing in the local cultural community. The foundation hopes to build on the enthusiasm generated by Art Basel, which began in 2002 and attracts about 8,000 of the museum's 70,000 annual visitors as the international art world descends en masse on the city.

MOCA, as it is known, is also poised to break ground on an expansion with a concept design by Charles Gwathmey, the architect of the museum's first building.

"In my eyes, Bonnie's one of the prime movers in the community," said Martin Z. Margulies, who has one of Miami's foremost contemporary art collections that is open to the public. "She's built that museum from the ground up with a constituency and collection."

Ms. Clearwater has been a prominent member of the art world since she finished graduate school at Columbia in the late 1970s, where she studied both modern and medieval art. She was the personal curator for Leonard A. Lauder, the cosmetics magnate and chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, for six years while she also ran the Mark Rothko Foundation in New York. She moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s to direct the Lannan Foundation and then run the foundation of the collector Peter Norton. In both these jobs, she identified and supported emerging and underrecognized artists.

Originally from Rockland County, N.Y., Ms. Clearwater had found it eye-opening to be in Los Angeles during a pivotal time in the city's cultural development, and she and her husband were game to try another city with a fresh perspective.

In Miami, she found a vibrant community of artists invigorated by the influx of internationally recognized Cubans — including José Bedia, who moved to the city in the early 1990s — as well as a few of the top collectors in the world, including Mr. Margulies and Irma and Norman Braman, Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz and Paul and Estelle Berg.

What Miami did not have was a contemporary museum to galvanize the collectors and create connections.

MOCA originated in 1981 as a modest alternative space for local artists; Ms. Clearwater was hired as chief curator in 1994. Plans were already under way for a new building — Gwathmey's first design for a freestanding museum — and a mandate to become a collecting institution focused on local and international artists. The new building opened in 1996, and Ms. Clearwater became director the following year.

"I wanted to prove that you could do an institution in which everybody mixed at the same level, particularly with a population that is so culturally diverse and greatly itinerant as in Miami," Ms. Clearwater said. "One of my concerns about the art world is that, due to fund-raising needs, museums are offering people exclusivity to the point where donors and top members never intermix with artists anymore, let alone people from the neighborhood."

Ms. Clearwater said that her education in medieval studies has influenced her holistic approach to running the museum. "Medieval methodology is actually perfect for what I'm doing today with contemporary work, because it takes the position that art is interconnected with all aspects of life — society, beliefs, economics, politics," she said, pointing to a recent exhibition of Jorge Pardo's work, which embodies this approach. "It's not this rarefied object."

From the start, the museum has been a part of the City of North Miami, which paid $3.75 million for the 1996 building and continues to provide a third of its annual operating budget.

"The city sees the museum as the anchor of its downtown corridor that's being redeveloped as an arts and entertainment district," Ms. Clearwater said, adding that freedom from the financial burden of maintaining the museum had given her more agility with collecting and exhibitions.

The city will also pay for the $18 million expansion, due to be completed in 2010. In turn, residents of North Miami — predominantly Haitian, African-American, Hispanic and Anglo populations — receive the same privileges as members, including access to openings and Art Basel events. "The idea is to find ways for people to enter and engage at whatever level they're at in relationship to contemporary art," Ms. Clearwater said.

MOCA's expanding education programs, aimed mostly at teenagers, have helped involve the community. Teaching students skills they can use in school and their careers is a commitment of Ms. Clearwater. For instance, the junior docent after-school program trains teenagers how to give tours to their peers, and a summer journalism institute teaches them how to write about art.

An innovative outreach program called "Women on the Rise" uses the work of contemporary artists like Louise Bourgeois, Ana Mendieta and Kara Walker to help teenage girls at six juvenile centers in Miami-Dade County explore female sexuality, body image and ethnicity. It is the first time many of the participants of these programs, who come mostly from low-income families, have been to a museum.

Irma Braman, chairwoman of MOCA's board, said Ms. Clearwater's most excited calls to her would usually be "about a letter from a student that says, 'I'm teaching art now,' or 'I was just accepted at the University of Miami with a full scholarship and this never would have happened had I not wandered into the museum.' "

In January, MOCA announced a museum-studies partnership with the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, financed partly by a $10.4 million grant from the United States Department of Education. MOCA educators will train teachers to use objects and artifacts in their curriculums from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Students will also come to the museum for exposure to contemporary art and artists.

"It's a completely integrated approach," Ms. Clearwater said. "Seven thousand students will have this as part of their entire ongoing curriculum."

With MOCA about to more than double in size, Ms. Clearwater has been concentrating on how to retain this kind of open-door policy.

"There's been a trend nationally that as contemporary museums expand they find that their overhead is too enormous to sustain a program of emerging and underrecognized artists, because without name recognition it's hard to get the substantial funding you need," Ms. Clearwater said.

So when the Knight Foundation asked MOCA what the museum needed to ensure its longevity, Ms. Clearwater decided it could use an endowment devoted to showing experimental multimedia artists and new talent.

As chief curator, Ms. Clearwater has a record of giving solo museum debuts to artists who are now internationally recognized, including Matthew Ritchie, Inka Essenhigh and Roxy Paine, as well as artists from Florida like Teresita Fernández, Mark Handforth and Hernan Bas.

The Miami artist Daniel Arsham, who was part of an alternative space run by artists called the House, got his first museum exposure in 2001 at age 20, when Ms. Clearwater organized "The House at MOCA," showing him and 15 of his peers. "For a lot of the people involved in that exhibition who have since gone on to show in Miami and elsewhere, that was their first museum show," Mr. Arsham said. "She put all this faith into us, which seemed like a bold move at the time."

"When people would come to town, especially for the art fairs, she pushed them to go see work that was being made here and come to our openings," he added. "As an institution, MOCA has this dual purpose of showing our work and showing us the work of other younger artists from elsewhere."

As Ms. Clearwater said, "There is so much momentum now in Miami institutionally." Her current show, "Pivot Points," highlights important gifts to the museum from Miami collectors. "The community has embraced the arts, particularly contemporary art, and now with the aid from the Knight Foundation we have the opportunity to get to the next level."

By The New York Times




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