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Painted from memory: The NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale looks at 60

Bonnie Clearwater’s phone rang one afternoon in 2015 with a surprising call from an artist she admired: minimalist icon Frank Stella, who wanted to know if the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale would host his exhibition.

The lure to Fort Lauderdale, Stella told Clearwater, was the Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed museum, a two-story, Florida Panhandle-shaped building that has overlooked the bustle of Las Olas Boulevard since 1986. “I said to him, ‘Of course, you love the museum, Frank. The building has spirals,” recalls Clearwater, the NSU Art Museum’s executive director.

The building also has history. On Nov. 12, Stella and Clearwater’s alliance will yield the ambitious new exhibit “Frank Stella: Research and Development,” which will anchor the museum’s 2017-2018 season, announced on Wednesday. Clearwater says the exhibit will be a fitting coup for the NSU Art Museum’s 60th anniversary in 2018, a blockbuster show aimed at bulking up the museum’s contemporary-art muscle. Stella’s works, tracing his 60-year odyssey as an abstract painter and minimalist sculptor, will fill almost every gallery on both floors. Even the artist, 81, will appear at the museum this fall, although the date is to be announced.

“Frank loves our building. I love our building,” Clearwater says. “The very first thing I did when I arrived was to reshape the museum’s identity, to build our position in South Florida, which has helped to catapult us internationally. And Frank Stella is the biggest risk-taker of any artist I know. Art is the place, he says, where he has the ultimate freedom.”

As the NSU Art Museum reaches its milestone birthday, the exhibit marks a creative upswing in the museum’s tumultuous history, defined over the decades by debt, cutbacks and dwindling attendance. (The 60th anniversary season will kick off Sunday, July 9, with “Human Animals: The Art of CoBra,” a roundup of works by post-World War II European avant-garde art clan CoBrA, part of the museum’s collection.)

Former and current members of the museum’s board of directors agree that Clearwater, an acclaimed curator with international clout among collectors and a wealth of connections in the New York and Los Angeles markets, has turned around the museum’s fortunes since taking over the job in September 2013.

“You mention [Bonnie’s] name anywhere in the art world, and people pay attention,” says Francie Bishop Good, a board member since 2003 and one of the museum’s biggest benefactors. “I love those types of shows Bonnie is doing now, using the museum’s own collections. It’s exciting to highlight the gems we already have. We’re not struggling anymore. We’re flourishing.”

That wasn’t always the case. In 2013 and again in 2016, Good and her husband, David Horvitz, donated $2.5 million in matching grants to charm donors into investing more with Broward County's biggest museum. Donor confidence had waned since the museum’s 2008 partnership with nearby Nova Southeastern University, a bailout that gave the museum access to the school’s fundraising power.

Before that, in 2003, the museum battled flagging attendance, debt and canceled exhibitions by presenting the first of several blockbuster exhibits: “St. Peter and the Vatican,” which featured religious and papal artifacts and drew some 150,000 visitors, a high watermark for the museum. More big-ticket shows and overflow crowds followed, including "Diana, a Celebration" in 2004, "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” in 2005 and “Vatican Splendors” in 2011.

“I like art that’s difficult and raises more questions than answers, and the blockbuster [exhibits] just didn’t do that,” says Horvitz, who retired from the museum’s board on June 30 but remains its chairman emeritus. “Princess Di’s gowns seemed to me most inappropriate. In an art museum? I didn’t get it.”

Clearwater agrees that the museum took a controversial direction a decade ago under former director Irvin Lippman, whom she replaced. (Lippman could not be reached for comment.)

“When we rebranded [as the NSU Art Museum], we put art in the beginning of the name. That might have gotten a little confused 10 years ago,” Clearwater says. “Those exhibits came in with built-in marketing and lots of attendance. When I first arrived, I heard visitors tell me, ‘I haven’t been here since Tut.’ That’s not a good sign. Now, they’re coming back. A couple of months ago — it was a Saturday afternoon in May for [the Marcel Duchamp exhibit] ‘Aesthetic Decisions’ — we had a room full of 500 people come to hear me talk about a 100-year-old urinal. Clearly, we’re reaching people.”

Founded by the city’s Junior League, the Fort Lauderdale Art Center first opened on Nov. 19, 1958, at 625 E. Las Olas Blvd. (until recently the site of Johnny V’s restaurant), inside a hardware store refashioned into two storefront galleries. But after a 1967 fire destroyed artworks by Diego Rivera and other contemporary artists, the museum moved two blocks down the street, to 426 E. Las Olas Blvd., and began what would become a 19-year hunt for a new permanent home.

Good has been a fan of the museum since the 1970s, when she visited its second location, and remembers visiting the current space when it finally opened to the public on Jan. 5, 1986.

“I remember it was a just a jewel, to have this new museum sitting in our front yard,” Good says. “I was thrilled to be able to see great art and have this gorgeous, architecturally outstanding building.”

The museum’s inaugural exhibit was “An American Renaissance: Painting and Sculpture Since 1940,” which featured one of the earliest donated works in the museum’s collection: a 1966 Frank Stella painting titled, “Fortín de las Flores.”

Over the next year, Clearwater says, museum staff will be harvesting archival photos from the museum’s past. The subject of the exhibit: the museum itself. Set to open August 2018, the show will trot out the museum’s permanent collection and fill every gallery with black-and-white images charting the museum’s evolution from hardware store to cultural hub.

“This hasn’t been done before with us, and it’ll take enormous research and documentation,” Clearwater says. “Our identity is our amazing collection, which is unique not only for the region but the world.”

The NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale will kick off its 60th anniversary season with “Human Animals: The Art of CoBrA,” opening Sunday, July 9, at 1 E. Las Olas Blvd. Admission is $5-$12. Call 954-525-5500 or go to NSUArtMuseum.org.

pvalys@southflorida.com or 954-356-4364

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