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Bonnie Clearwater, the recently appointed director and chief curator at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, met Whitewall with a warm smile and an upbeat manner when we interviewed her for the winter 2015 Luxury Issue of the magazine (out this week). After working for around 18 years at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, she has been called the main driver of that museum’s growth; her development also had rippling effects and has contributed to the bustling contemporary art scene in Miami, including the global event Art Basel Miami Beach. And she is already propelling major changes in her new position.
WW: How did you make the transition from Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami to Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale?
BONNIE CLEARWATER: After a little over 18 years at MOCA and bringing it to an amazing and successful international reputation, it now has an outstanding collection and exhibition program. Leaving was one of the hardest decisions of my life because I did put half of my life into it, and I was also very committed to the South Florida art scene. There are so many amazing artists there and that museum became a catalyst for the Miami art scene, so I really never wanted to leave that area. Over the years, I was approached by the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale… The board was very persistent and really encouraged me to take a look at everything, including the university.
WW: When you finally took a look, what stood out to you and made you consider the move?
BC: Before I worked in contemporary art, I was originally a medievalist. I’m an art historian, so I’ve also worked on Abstract Expressionists, particularly Mark Rothko. There was the desire for me to do more than contemporary art. Though I do everything from a contemporary perspective, it is from the theory and perspective gained from working in contemporary art for 30 years. I realized that this was an exciting opportunity to be part of a wonderful team; there is this beautiful building with great, unique collections, alongside a great university and basically, what they needed was my skill set to help it grow. I saw that I could help this institution achieve what it was meant to be all along.
WW: How has it been going since you’ve made the change?
BC: It’s amazing how fast the time has gone and how much we’ve done. I had specific mandates to accomplish, among them establishing an identity for the museum that went beyond the immediate city of Fort Lauderdale. I wanted to raise the profile of this amazing museum [Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale], which was designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes. The museum houses a collection with over six thousand pieces of work.
I’m also working on spreading awareness that there is no actual border between Miami and Broward County, and now we fulfill the role of being the bridge between the two counties that unifies the entire art coast of South Florida. To do that, we had two openings in the middle of the summer [of 2014]. The first was “The Miami Generation: Revisited,” which was about the groundbreaking show from the 1983 exhibition that brought together the first generation of Cuban artists. The opening started an Art Talk, and our auditorium was standing room only; the room was filled with the “who’s who” of the Cuban Miami art scene from of all over South Florida.
WW: There has been hype about the upcoming “Café Dolly: Picabia, Schnabel, Willumsen” show. Can you provide any specifics?
BC: Julian Schnabel told me about this show a year or two ago with the French artist Francis Picabia. Then, I saw one of the craziest paintings ever by Willlumsen, and I went to Denmark just to see if this painting held up in real life, and became completely obsessed with the show. We are now the only other venue to host that show, and it will take up our ground floor and upper gallery.
WW: Are there any other shows that you are particularly excited about?
BC: The “American Scene Photography: Martin Z. Margulies Collection” has such depth, rarity, and importance, and to be able to make it available to the public was very important. This group of work has two narratives: One is about how he shaped his collection and the personal meaning; and secondly, how these images were inspired by photographers like Lewis Hine and interpreting social movements like child labor and society’s concern, and Martin’s concern for the human condition. It’s a very moving exhibition, just looking at the photography, but also thinking about what the photographed person is thinking. To me, that became an interesting double narrative.
This article was originally published in Whitewall‘s winter 2015 Luxury Issue.