Bonnie Clearwater’s roots in South Florida run deep, but her love of visual art runs even deeper. “I was born into an art family and I’ve been making art since I was a child,” says the native New Yorker. “I’ve been working in the art field my entire life.”
After earning art history degrees from New York University and Columbia University, Clearwater embarked on a career path that would lead her to Miami at a time when the city’s burgeoning arts scene was in its infancy. Following a 16-year tenure at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, she turned her sights toward Fort Lauderdale, accepting the role of director and chief curator at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale in 2013.
While she hadn’t planned on making a move, she found the prospect of building the museum’s audience in Broward County and beyond too exciting of a challenge to pass up. She explains that she adopted the “idea that I hadn’t left Miami but instead had extended the South Florida art scene northward, spanning from Miami to Palm Beach with our museum in Fort Lauderdale in the center.”
When setting her goals for the NSU Art Museum, Clearwater decided to reposition it as both a community center and a visual arts mecca with international appeal. To accomplish the former, she introduced initiatives that engage area residents, such as field trips for Broward County public schools, a new educational program for teens, and free First Thursdays “Starry Nights” public events.
The South Florida arts community and its prominent collectors have also played a large role in growing the museum’s permanent collection, which Clearwater believes is one of its biggest draws within the global art scene. The NSU Art Museum, which relocated to its current, Edward Larrabee Barnes–designed building in 1986, boasts a diverse collection with highlights that include pieces by top Latin American artists and the country’s largest groupings of works by American realist William Glackens and the post-World War II, avant-garde CoBrA collective.
Given her dual role as director and chief curator, Clearwater has aimed to establish a distinct curatorial identity. “In meeting with our board and curatorial team, it was very clear that the collections were really what was unique about the museum,” she says. “The plan was not only to use our collections in our exhibitions, but to use the subjects of those collections to define the kinds of exhibitions we would present.”
The NSU Art Museum is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Please contact the museum directly for updates.) However, all of its special exhibitions can now be viewed virtually through its website. Just another example of how the museum is bringing much-needed art to its community.