We’ve only been talking for a couple of minutes when McHenley Castillo begins to tear up. He’s embarrassed about it, maybe because he’s sitting in the office of his unflappable boss, who’s sitting right across from him.
His boss, Bonnie Clearwater, the executive director and chief curator of the NSU Art Museum, runs out to fetch Castillo a box of tissues. He grabs one and dabs at his eyes.
“Sorry,” he says, “I wasn’t expecting that.” We had begun to talk about his grandmother. He’d see her when his family went to Colombia when he was a kid, and he would always marvel at her collection of art on the walls. It wouldn’t be until years later that he found out she had painted them. By then, it was too late.
“She hasn’t been well for some time,” Castillo says, wiping away a new round of tears. “I never got a chance to ask her about her paintings.”
Maybe, he wonders now, if his grandmother’s artistic side is what inspired his own. Growing up in Oakland Park, Castillo attended art schools starting with North Andrews Gardens Elementary through Dillard High, concentrating on the clarinet. He has an associate’s degree from Broward College, a bachelor’s in marketing from Florida International University, and is now working on an MBA at Nova Southeastern University.
While Castillo’s clarinet performances are behind him, he now spends his days planning the future of art in South Florida. He heads NSU Art Museum’s new young professionals group, the One East Society, which has plans to become a regional breeding ground for the artistic, the adventurous and the soon-to-be-if-not-already influential.
The organization is something Clearwater intended to create not long after she took over at the museum six years ago. She had done the same thing at her old job, running the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami and forming the MOCA Shakers. It’s not that young professional groups bring in money for museums—generally they’ll cost more to operate. It’s more about planning for the museum’s future. “You need to see it as the pipeline,” Clearwater says.
As she takes a seat again across from Castillo, she explains that it had to be executed perfectly if it were to succeed, so she let it percolate. Last year, with younger people filling the residential towers in South Florida downtowns and the Brightline trains connecting them, Clearwater says she realized it was time to act.
She hired Castillo, who had collected internships in the art world, government and marketing. Aside from experience, though, he has a quick-to-smile personality—the tears, for his grandmother, are rare—and exudes a charm about him that makes it seem like every person he meets is soon to become a close friend.
Among Castillo’s first tasks was to assemble a committee of young professionals, and he ended up with names you know if you run in South Florida art or real estate circles or maybe just business in general. There’s Andres Bonell from Bell Rock Capital; Brooke D’Avanzo from Chewy; Patricia Kneski from General Provision; and Megan Probst from Compass.
The success of putting together the committee resulted in a speedy jump in membership—more than 100 people are currently signed up. Castillo hopes those numbers will double by next year, with the short-term goal of expanding into Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.
Membership means access to social events that One East Society organizes and access to art-related events, like a recent talk with Doug McCraw, who co-founded the FATVillage art district in Fort Lauderdale. In December, Castillo is planning to organize a One East Society field trip to Miami Art Week, which will be the first of many organized activities for its members.
For Castillo, starting the group has been something of a culmination of all the things that got him here. Growing up, his parents emigrated from Colombia, his dad working construction and his mom cleaning homes. They didn’t understand his fascination with art at first, but now he is leading a group that could set the future for a museum.
“Coming from an immigrant family, it has always been about asking, ‘What can I do with my life that’s meaningful?’” Castillo says. “My whole life has been about how I can better not only my life, but the people around me.”