In a coup for Broward County cultural life, the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale has ended a year-long nationwide search for a new director by naming Bonnie Clearwater, whose innovative 18-year tenure at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami has brought that institution international acclaim.
The move, which caught museum staff and the South Florida arts community off-guard, was revealed in a midday announcement at the museum by George L. Hanbury II, president and CEO of museum owner Nova Southeastern University. Clearwater, who attended the announcement, will begin her position as director and chief curator on Sept. 3.
David Horvitz, chairman of the museum's board of governors, said he had considered Clearwater "untouchable" at MOCA and called the hire "spectacular."
"I have felt for many years that [MoA] is the best museum in a three-county area in terms of the facility, yet it's been under-recognized. Hiring Bonnie gives us a chance to realize that amazing potential," Horvitz said, who acknowledges the MoA has been “uneven in programming.”
Clearwater is an acclaimed curator and administrator with extensive experience in the South Florida art community, and has a wealth of connections among art collectors and patrons locally and internationally. A New York Times profile of Clearwater pegged to a 2008 MOCA expansion ran under the headline "A Director With an Eye for the Fresh and the Local."
But she's also a scholar, who studied modern and medieval art in graduate school at Columbia University. And that may have been the tipping point in her decision to move to the Museum of Art.
"Museums are educational institutions. The challenge of integrating the museum with Nova Southeastern and the university with the museum is very exciting to me," said Clearwater. The museum became part of NSU in 2008.
Hanbury said the Clearwater hiring will put the partnership between the museum and NSU, a not-for-profit institution with more than 27,000 students, on the map. He said collaborations such as the Nasher Museum at Duke University, UCLA's Hammer Museum and the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State are "where we want to go as a university."
Calling the museum "a phenomenal structure with wonderful collections," Hanbury said its days as an institution under-appreciated by residents, tourists and donors should be at an end.
"[Clearwater] is definitely well-known in the art community and in the museum community, and her coming to Broward and Nova Southeastern University is a good move on her part and on our part," Hanbury said. "It's indicative of the quality [the school and museum] are devloping not just in Broward but across the state of Florida."
For much of the past decade, the Museum of Art has tried to broaden its audience in a variety of ways, from a complete remodeling of its street-side patio to offering exhibits on Princess Diana’s gowns and such regular-guy interests as lawns, cars and bodybuilding. The effort did little to clarify the museum’s aimless reputation.
Martin Z. Margulies, one of Miami's most influential contemporary art collectors, said he was surprised by the news he got from Clearwater on Wednesday, but called the move "good for Lauderdale and good for her."
Describing Clearwater as "a builder," Margulies said a museum director with curatorial experience is a rare find, and the Museum of Art offers a rare opportunity to "build a brand."
The Museum of Contemporary Art has about 7,400 square feet of exhibition space, while the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale is roughly 25,000.
"It's a natural venue for her. It's a beautiful museum designed by a world-class architect with a lot of very good works in their collection," Margulies said. "She will institute very good programs. She will bring in heavy-duty artists and great shows. She will excite the community."
Long a fan of its COBRA and Glackens collections, Clearwater is no stranger to the museum, having attended the opening of the Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed building in 1986. She's also been a frequent presence on the Broward art scene at favorite stops including the Art and Culture of Hollywood and the Girls Club Collection and FAT Village in Fort Lauderdale.
MOCA has been well-regarded for its community outreach, including frequent free or low-budget music and film series. Clearwater said she hopes to use MoA's "perfect" location, its 250-seat Horvitz Auditorium and the Books & Books Café (she and owner Mitchell Kaplan go way back) to integrate the museum into the downtown Fort Lauderdale scene as a "cultural hub."
"I see a lot of elements coming together that will make the whole scene thrive and be a real place for creativity to develop and be appreciated," she said.
One Miami art curator taken by surprise by the announcement on Wednesday nevertheless called it "a win-win."
Not wanting to be identified for fear of hurting feelings at MOCA, he said, "It's a great day for the Museum of Art. But it's good for everyone. We thought we might lose her to somewhere else, somewhere out of town."