Bonnie Clearwater just about capsized South Florida's cultural scene when the 18-year curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, announced she would be trekking north to become the new director of the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale.
"The timing was just right,” says Clearwater, whose start date was Sept. 3. "I can’t tell you how many head-hunters wanted me to jump ship over the years, saying, 'Please don’t hang up the phone!' But the Museum of Art really appealed to me.""
Part of that appeal was the museum’s Glackens and COBRA collections (on exhibit this fall), and the partnership with Nova Southeastern University. Clearwater’s immediate game plan: offering for-credit college courses at the museum and adding contemporary art exhibits.
"I have a backlog of ideas and can’t wait to get started," she says.
In a Q&A with SouthFlorida.com, Bonnie Clearwater outlines her immediate plans for the museum and reacts to criticism that the museum has lost its creative edge.
So how are you settling in?
Great! The staff here has really made me feel warm and welcome. They just had this big party for me, and about 500 people came. Some were from Miami, a bunch of local movers and shakers in the arts community. I think I’ve done three months of work this week.
Your appointment as the Museum of Art’s new director caught many in South Florida’s art scene off-guard.
There had been so much focus on Miami all these years, and with the announcement of me as director, people are saying that South Florida just got a lot bigger. That I’ve decided to take this position at all is what will also make people take notice, and that I wouldn’t take on something unless I saw great potential. One day I had this incredible meeting with Nova’s president, George Hanbury, and the opportunity to work with an encyclopedic museum that emphasized research and education was really attractive to me.
The calendar through 2014 is filled with exhibitions created before your hiring. How much hands-on involvement will you have?
A lot. I will start by identifying our strengths. The museum has over 6,000 works in the collection, and the COBRA collection has the largest selection of avant-garde, post-war art in the country. My friends say I really have a goldmine of under-recognized art here. And besides, I already know the people from Art Basel. Collectors, artists have already alerted me that they already want to see the COBRA exhibit (opening Nov. 8). We have a strong desire to pull the Basel crowd north of the county line.
What are a few exhibit ideas you’re considering so far?
My ideas are more contemporary and encyclopedic. I won’t start programming until next November, but I’ve done a lot of research. I’m tossing around a few ideas with the Board of Directors right now.
You've heard whispers that the Museum of Art is no longer the cutting-edge museum it used to be. Now you stand to give the museum more prestige. How will that happen?
I’ve heard it, and the museum was probably under-recognized before I came on board. First of all, there’s MOAFL. It’s not an acronym that works. We are the Museum of Art, and we are not a contemporary art museum, but contemporary art will be part of the programming. As far as prestige, well, we’re unique in the country in that we have the largest collection of American modernist art. We are organizing the first major [William] Glackens exhibition in 50 years (opens Feb. 23, 2014).
You're a fan of the museum’s partnership with Nova Southeastern University. Does that mean more educational programs are in the works?
I’m meeting with the education director of Museum of Art and staff at the university to create an NSU lecture series. It’s about how to boost creativity, and it’s not so much aimed at art students but the general student body. It will be taught in the Horvitz Auditorium. We’ve already stared for-credit classes for undergraduates, and we’re tapping into the business community in downtown Fort Lauderdale for a series of talks and activities meant to be creativity-boosters. We’re moving fast.
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