Museum watchers scratched their heads in July, when Bonnie Clearwater announced that, after 18 years, she would leave the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, where she was director and chief curator. She had recently hired A.i.A.'s Alex Gartenfeld for the newly created position of curator; he is serving as interim director. Clearwater, whom Miami art collector Martin Z. Margulies had called "one of the prime movers in the community," would leave to take the helm of the little-known NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, part of NOVA Southeastern University. (Established in 1964, the private, nonsectarian school has about 28,000 students.)
Clearwater helped to raise MOCA North Miami to national stature, as part of Miami's rise to an important city on the global art circuit. She organized the first U.S. museum solos of artists ranging from Albert Oehlen and Jonathan Meese to Shinique Smith and Ceal Floyer. As she told A.i.A. by phone in her first interview since announcing her departure, she now embraces a seemingly unlikely goal: doing for Fort Lauderdale what she and others did for Miami. She recalls that in 2001, Art Basel Miami Beach, now a mega-fair, seemed a risky venture.
The diversity of the NSU Museum of Art's collection, which comprises 6,000 objects, was part of its draw, Clearwater told A.i.A. "The opportunity to expand beyond contemporary art is a great plus. I've been involved with contemporary art for—well, for much of the history of contemporary art!" she said, laughing. She ticked off a long list of areas of the museum's collection that she aims to emphasize, starting with its holdings of the early American Modernist William Glackens and its collection of a Latin American art. She also touts its strength in photography.
In previous jobs, she pointed out, she had cultivated several areas of expertise: "Originally my specialty was in medieval manuscripts," she said. She studied modern and medieval art at New York's Columbia University, finishing her studies in the late 1970s. "As Leonard and Evelyn Lauder's private curator for some years, my primary focus was Cubism. Later, as the curator of the Mark Rothko Foundation, I was immersed in abstraction and the New York School. So I've had many ideas for exhibitions that couldn't be realized at MOCA."
As for her timing, Clearwater told A.i.A. that an expansion of the Miami museum by architect Charles Gwathmey is under review with the board of trustees and the city. She opted to get out while the getting was good. "While things are still under consideration, it was an opportune time," she said, since if she broke ground on the project, she would have been obliged to see it through.
The modernist NSU Museum of Art was designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes (1915-2004), who also built Minneapolis's Walker Art Center and the Dallas Art Museum, and additions to the Carnegie Museum of Art, in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Los Angeles's Hammer Museum. The 83,000-square-foot museum has nearly 30,000 square feet of exhibition space and a 250-seat theater, Clearwater said, touting large, flexible spaces that "seem to go on and on."
The first exhibition at NSU under her leadership, "Spirit of Cobra" (Nov. 8, 2013-May 14, 2014), draws on the museum's collection to focus on the post-World War II European avant-garde movement. Among the artists included are Karel Appel, Pierre Alechinsky, Constant, Corneille and Asger Jorn. "In the U.S., we really don't understand the full extent of what Cobra was," she said. "There isn't any one US museum that is addressing European postwar avant-garde art movements, and yet those are totally essential for us to understand what is happening in contemporary European art."
As this year's Art Basel Miami Beach approaches (Dec. 5-8), Clearwater hopes to take advantage of annual traffic to the area that she herself helped to cultivate: "Most of the people I know who fly in for Art Basel Miami Beach fly in via Fort Lauderdale." The NSU Museum of Art is just 10 minutes from the Fort Lauderdale airport, she points out.
"The South Florida art world just got bigger," she said. "It was the excitement of what happened in Miami that got people in Fort Lauderdale to say, ‘Wait a minute, we had a great museum in 1986, we want a piece of that!'"