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Modern day art heist?

North Miami City officials in bitter legal battle with MOCA to foil scheme to remove artworks

Erick Johnson | 5/8/2014, 9 a.m.
Many of MOCA’s after school programs that benefit Black youth and teenagers may disappear if the museum relocates to Miami Beach.

City officials are calling it a “modern day art heist.”

A group of frustrated art lovers, who sought to remove 600 pieces of exquisite works of art under the nose of their landlord, devised a scheme to carry out their mission.

Masterpieces by Félix Gonzáles-Torres, Gregory Crewdson, Ernesto Neto and Philippe Parreno were among the many prized works that would be hauled away as part of the secret operation. But before they could pull it off, the plan was uncovered when North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau received a call from a reader in London who wanted to know if the city’s world-renowned Museum of Contemporary Art, known as MOCA was closing its doors after 17 years. The rumor was part of a secret plan to merge with the even bigger and more prestigious Bass Museum on Miami Beach. The reader learned of the plan from Art Newspaper, an influential and leading publication about high-end contemporary art and museums. MOCA is adjacent to city hall at 770 NE 125th St.

Before Tondreau learned of the plan last November, rumors were already swirling about the proposed merger. Those talks began a feud that snowballed into an explosive legal battle between MOCA and its landlord, North Miami’s predominately Haitian city council along with several artists who paint an unflattering picture of museum officials, accusing them of creating an elitist atmosphere that does not include Blacks.

TOP INTERNATIONAL ARTISTS

In recent years, MOCA has built a reputation for featuring the top international artists known for their cutting edge artworks and collections. Amid the mom and pop stores that lined the street, MOCA in previous years teamed up with Vanity Fair to host exclusive Art Basel parties for Hollywood “A” list celebrities at its award-winning facility.

But when voters in 2012 rejected a $15 million bond referendum that would have tripled the size of the facility, the museum’s future grew uncertain. A year later, the museum’s dynamic executive director Bonnie Clearwater, who was credited with raising MOCA’s profile during her long tenure, left to serve as director at Nova Southeastern University’s Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. Alex Gartenfeld, a rising young critic and curator was named interim director.

RUMORS CONFIRMED

Sources say that is when MOCA’s board of trustees began talks with Bass Museum officials about moving its art, sculptures and exhibits to the Bass Museum. Tondreau confirmed the rumors after meeting with MOCA board members who said they were in the final stages of moving the collection to Bass Museum. A new contract was also being drafted but would take 90 days to complete.

KEEP MOCA FROM LEAVING

In response, the North Miami City Council voted to direct the city manager and city attorney to do “whatever is necessary” to keep MOCA from leaving. On April 8, hours before approving a new rule that would give the city more control over MOCA by appointing and removing trustees from the board, the museum slapped the city with a 23-page lawsuit. The complaint alleges that North Miami was in breach of contract for failing to pay Gartenfeld, the interim director. In the lawsuit, they also accuse city officials of other violations, including failing to repair the museum’s roof and air conditioner.