Last fall, Bonnie Clearwater moved into her new position as the Director and Chief Curator of Nova Southeastern University’s Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. This was after 18 years as director of MOCA North Miami. We spoke with Clearwater yesterday, as part of our series of interviews with women in the arts at the Riviera South Beach during Art Basel Miami Beach week.
We were interested to hear from her about her new position, her plans for the museum’s future programming, and how Fort Lauderdale’s art scene compares to Miami.
WW: This week your last show at MOCA North Miami (which you curated before become the Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale) opened, an exhibition of Tracey Emin neons. How did you feel about that as your final show at the museum?
BONNIE CLEARWATER: It was kind of like coming full circle. I was the first to buy the neon work for a US museum back in 1998. That work pretty much inspired this exhibition. She came to Miami three years ago and fell in love with Miami. When she conceives and works on an exhibition it’s conceived as an artist installation. And that’s why she only works on one show at a time because she gives it her all. She doesn’t allow her shows to travel because of the amount time and effort and she wants it to be a surprise, an exploration for herself. So the show doesn’t travel and that’s fine because I think everyone’s here this week.
WW: What prompted your recent move to the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale?
BC: Well 18 years at MOCA…it was years of making sure it would be on the best footing, building up the reputation, really giving it an identity regionally and internationally. When we opened the museum in 1996, we were filling a void. There were no museums focusing on contemporary art, so this was the museum of contemporary art. Obviously, the interest in contemporary art has built up enormously since then, and MOCA played a big role in that.
I was originally a medievalist and a modernist. The first collection I was a curator of was the Evelyn and Leonard Lauder collection. Gerhard Richter once said, “All art is contemporary if we’re looking at it today.” We have our perspective of our own interest and it’s going to resonate in a different way. At Fort Lauderdale, there’s a certain feeling of zeitgeist that contemporary artists I’ve worked with bring to the forefront. I try to really tune into what’s bubbling to the surface. And that inevitably leads me back to something in the past that resonates and brings it forward. Therefore, even a show that we’ll do that is historic resonates today and becomes part of our current times.
WW: Can you tell us a bit more about the history of the museum?
BC: The museum is an absolute gem. Edward Larrabee Barnes was the museum architect. It opened in 1986 to great fanfare. It was the first big museum to open in South Florida. The Center of Fine Arts which became MAM which became PAMM, opened the same year. The difference being they were a kunsthalle and the Museum of Art was a collecting museum. So consequently, at that time if a collector wanted to give works to a collection, it went to Fort Lauderdale. So Fort Lauderdale, as a result, has these great collections. That’s how we ended up with the great Cobra collection, we have the largest collection of Cobra in the country.
We have fantastic Latin American collections in Fort Lauderdale, given to the museum. We have the largest collection of William Glackens in the country. Not only do we have it, but were creating a study center, and are co-organizing with the Barnes’ collection a survey that opens in February at our museum.
Another area were able to focus is photography. One show we are doing is the about the history of photography in Haiti, from the advent of photography to today. And a good deal of the collections are coming from outside of Haiti, because basically that’s all that’s left. So this is the remaining photographic record of Haiti. One of the things we’re doing is having a section focusing on the role the Miami Herald’s photographers played in documenting this period, including Bruce Weber.
WW: Wow, so as a curator who worked strictly with contemporary art, it must feel like there are no limits to the exhibitions you can work on.
BC: I’m like a kid in a candy store! How I’m establishing the limits is saying these are the strengths of the museum, and these are the areas that will help us define ourselves as an institution regionally, nationally, and internationally. A good deal of what I’m known for is doing things out of left field. And therefore it puts the artist in a different light. And what happens, concentrating on the lesser-known work of the artist, you actually learn a lot more about the artist.
WW: Is the collector community any different in Fort Lauderdale?
BC: They’re quieter. A lot of them were actually involved at MOCA. The Goodmans, who gave their Latin American collection, were always at MoCA. There’s amazing other collectors that nobody knows about. Everyone is very conscious. They want their city to be great. They looked at what was happening in Miami with contemporary art and how it transformed Miami, and they literally said we want that to happen in Ft. Lauderdale.