NSU Art Museum Director Bonnie Clearwater Saw Fort Lauderdale’s Potential—And Wasted No Time Bringing The Arts Scene North

Art enthusiast and curator Bonnie Clearwater is redirecting the arts scene north to Broward County, garnering international attention for exhibits at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale.

When Bonnie Clearwater walked into NYU’s Grey Art Gallery in 1976, her life was forever changed.

She was volunteering to help set up the exhibition, “1976,” for the U.S. bicentennial. In the gallery, a man was holding onto a ladder as a younger man was above installing lights.

The man on the ladder, Jim, became her husband. And decades later, the NYU gallery director helped her secure the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibit at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale.

“Making that decision to volunteer was pivotal for my career, but also for my life,” Clearwater says, who now serves as the director and chief curator of the NSU Art Museum in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

Clearwater took on that role in September 2013 after 18 years as the executive director at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami (MoCA). It was a decision that some in South Florida questioned since she was already such a pivotal part of the Miami arts scene, she says. But she quickly proved them wrong.

“People know that I am willing to put myself out there and I don’t follow what prevailing opinions are,” she says. “If someone says, ‘I don’t see it,’ I say, ‘Don’t worry, you will.’”

That outlook applies to both her career choices, and the confidence that she instills in artists. Under her direction, photographer Zoe Leonard celebrated her first museum show at MoCA in 1997. Today, Leonard shows her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Clearwater also saw potential in Albert Oehlen, giving him his first solo U.S. museum show at MoCA in 2005. Since then, his work has been exhibited at the New Museum in New York.

In her two years at NSU Art Museum, she has raised its notoriety within Broward County, and throughout the world, garnering international attention for exhibits she has curated. With help from the former art director at the Grey Art Gallery, Clearwater was able to loan works from the prestigious Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection for the museum’s “Kahlo, Rivera + Mexican Art” exhibit. In three months, that exhibit drew 49,000 people to the museum.

But she didn’t stop there. Her timing was perfect—the New York Botanical Garden and the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum were also showcasing Kahlo’s work, helping Clearwater land the NSU Art Museum on the front page of the New York Times style section for a feature on “Fridamania.” And recently, the museum’s exhibit on Haitian photography drew nearly 700 people on its opening night.

Growing up just north of New York City in Rockland County, Clearwater was surrounded by the arts. Her father was a musician and her grandfather was a sculptor. At age 8, she took private art lessons and soon moved into the adult classes. She remembers having arguments with her parents on conceptual art—she was inspired by a story on Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s Bed-In for Peace. “I immediately knew that that was an artwork,” she says.

After graduating from NYU with a degree in art history, she continued her studies at Columbia University and was immersed in the world of art. She became a private curator and also wrote the best-selling book Mark Rothko: Works on Paper in 1984.

She bounced between the arts scene in California and Palm Beach before she was asked by developer Craig Robins to help improve South Florida’s contemporary arts scene. She moved back to the East Coast and took the helm at MoCA under the condition that she could run it “the way it needed to be done.” During her tenure there, she saw great potential in the NSU Art Museum.

“This place opened with enormous promise,” Clearwater remembers of NSU Art Museum’s opening gala in 1986. “I knew Fort Lauderdale was not Miami, and I think that was an important distinction, and to realize it has its own dynamics.”

Now up in Broward County, she is putting Fort Lauderdale on the international map by bringing art enthusiasts north from Miami. Last year, she hosted a closing Art Basel brunch at the museum, with painter and old friend, Julian Schnabel, leading guests through his latest exhibition.

In the fall, she’s excited about the “The Indestructible Lee Miller” exhibit—photographs taken by the first female combat photographer, as well as “Bellissima” in February—a showcase of how the fashion industry brought Italy back on its feet after World War II. For the next two years, Clearwater wants to continue growing the institute’s name, and continue its scholarship with Nova Southeastern University.

“I didn’t leave Miami—I just moved the South Florida arts scene northward,” she says.

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