Sabotage and The (Almost) Miami Art Heist
This article is my personal take on the ongoing power struggle between the ex-Board of Trustees for the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the city of North Miami, who has since appointed a new, interim board. The city of North Miami–who appointed Babacar M’bow as the new director in May (after the ex-Board rejected the nomination)–are standing their ground against the ex-Board’s attempt to abscond with MOCA’s reputation and collection.
Like many of us, I enjoy a good corrupt fictionalized southern narrative, unfortunately though, the “Museum Power Squabble” between the ex-board and City of North Miami is non-fiction. It is an ugly, ongoing art circus that has been over-performed with surplus testosterone and adrenaline, powered by the politics of a privileged class which has unfortunately collided with a community’s governing body. At the circus’ heart, is the question of the role of culture.
Vultures: A group of vultures is called a wake, committee, venue, or volt. When circling, a group of vultures is called a kettle.
Sabotage: A deliberate action aimed at weakening a polity or corporation [in this case, a non-profit community art museum] through subversion, obstruction, disruption, or destruction. In a workplace setting, sabotage is the conscious withdrawal of efficiency generally directed at causing some change in workplace conditions. One who engages in sabotage is a saboteur. (Wikipedia)
There are several points that support my view of the ex-Board as cultural capitalists turned vulture capitalists, and that they have been cowering overhead, as a kettle, to create a dark shadow over MOCA by means of sabotage.
The ex-Board broke with MOCA in August and formed an independent institution they’re calling the Institute of Contemporary Art, temporarily housed in the Moore Building in the Design District. The reasons for the break are numerous: North Miami’s residents voted against a $15 million expansion in 2012, and the Board proposed merging with the Bass Museum on Miami Beach, which the city obviously opposed. After that, the now ex-Board started to make several claims regarding building maintenance that wasn’t being done (which was the city’s responsibility).
Legal mediation is still under way regarding MOCA’s permanent collection of over 600 works.
Following this departure of the ex-Board, we witnessed MOCA’s website, a city-owned website, blocked on behalf of the Board so that a message was displayed with news about the move. The rest of the website, with information about MOCA’s upcoming programming and educational programs, was rendered inaccessible.
As well, we saw MOCA’s Facebook page highjacked and renamed Institute of Contemporary Art, so that the over 30,000 “Likes” or followers appear to support the new entity, effectively abducting a significant marketing platform with a healthy audience.
These examples are basically against the rules, since the ex-Board of Trustees are in court mediation with the City of North Miami–which means both parties are to remain neutral until a mediated settlement is reached, or ended.
The ex-Board, operating as vulture capitalists, are attempting to steal and run with capital–cultural capital in this case–that was built up over the years at a public museum that was created for a specific community.
Despite the bewildering behavior of the outgoing board, MOCA has been recovering, reshaping, and eventually, hopefully, run in the spirit of meritocracy, by people whose progress will be based on ability and talent rather than class privilege, wealth, or art market calculations.
Fortunately, this sort of privileged econo-cultural power has been diluted by the presence of a stalwart body, namely by the new director Babacar M’bow, who seems genuinely unaffected by such questionable motives as those of the ex-board. Rather than inspired by a right-winged libertarian ethic of ownership and control of cultural capital (as though the community’s holdings privately belong to their auspicious oversight), Dr. M’bow is an outsider: a researcher and widely published scholar from Senegal, M’bow fought as a revolutionary fighter at age 17 in Amilcar Cabral’s successful anti-colonial uprising. He still occasionally sports a beret, and has permanent scars too.
Despite the fact that the ex-board claimed he was unqualified, M’bow received his master’s degree from Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, and then his doctorate at the Sorbonne, and served for 11 years as the Programs and Exhibits Coordinator for Broward County Libraries. The ex-board’s critique that he’s not qualified sits strangely next to the fact that Bonnie Clearwater, MOCA’s former director, also didn’t have experience running a public museum (she did, however, run a private non-profit foundation).
The Miami New Times asked M’bow: “Do some of the conflicts arising between the board and the city stem from ethnic and class differences?” And Mbow answered:
“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 [Museum] but keep the building for programming for minorities.”
Despite the confrontational attitude (and baggage) that Irma Braman brought to a civil meeting, I think it clear and ironic who the real minority in the City of North Miami was: Irma Braman and the rest of the now ex-board.
So once again, I see the proverbial plutocratic motif of powerful real-estate developers conniving to concentrate cultural assets. Steal the booty from one community to boost the prestige of another, and in this case, it is Craig Robbins’ Design District, the vapidly upscale and locally alienating luxury shopping enclave, and now in the form of a new museum called the Institute for Contemporary Art.
We also see Dennis Scholl, Vice President of Arts for the Knight Foundation who oversees the foundation’s national arts program, making the decision to take away MOCA’s $5 million endowment grant, which “was expressly made to develop cutting-edge contemporary art in Miami-Dade.” Scholl, through a spokesman, said: ”We decided the funds needed to be moved in order to preserve the purpose of the grant.”
This just reeks of cronyism. Dennis “The Menace” Scholl looks into his crystal ball and decides that Contemporary Art will no longer exist at MOCA? It appears to be an abuse by a power determined to not let an outsider fly in the the face of an elite plutocracy. Dennis Scholl, it’s important to add, is on the board of PAMM, MOCA’s competitor. Quite a conflict of interest, no?
And the same way that Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), another publicly owned museum, was allowed to relocate to a new home in the throes of a new real-estate bubbling boom in downtown Miami, where developers like Jorge Pérez benefit from the prestige of transplanted cultural capital, we see Miami’s art history orbiting closer and closer to the rich, capitalized commercial centers, and away from the communities that should benefit from them.
This post was contributed by Richard Haden.