Short Timer

Kathleen Harleman's vision for MoA was perhaps too bold

For her curatorial debut as director and CEO of the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, Kathleen Harleman chose a show about lawns -- lawns as nature, lawns as artifice, lawns as refuge, lawns as rebellion.

"I remember being excited to see "American Lawn' in a city like Fort Lauderdale," recalls Margi Nothard, adjunct professor of architecture at Florida Atlantic University. "I was happy to see that."

Indeed, to see "American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life" in a place like Broward County was to see art in daily life and vice versa. By taking its cues from a familiar landscape, the September 1999 show, which was created by New York experimental architects Diller + Scofido, hit South Florida residents precisely where they live.

Harleman's tenure at MoA speaks volumes
Joshua Prezant
Harleman's tenure at MoA speaks volumes

It was a fitting beginning for Harleman, who came to MoA with the goal of connecting the venue with the public by combining innovative programs with familiar, accessible works. As head of one of the most important art institutions in the area, Harleman was poised to bring Fort Lauderdale's arts community in line with those of other major cities. Facing the end of her three-year contract, Harleman surprised and perplexed both colleagues and the community when she declined to sign on for another term.

"This just sets us back," says Cynthia Miller, director of the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. "Dade County is moving in the right direction, and Broward seems to be standing still."

Harleman, who leaves the museum October 26, says she began to think about whether she'd stay only a couple of months ago. She concluded that she had accomplished what she set out to do and didn't want to commit to another three years, so, even without another job lined up, she decided to move on. "I am a person who doesn't plan her whole life out," she says nonchalantly. But like the lawns she made us ponder, Harleman's decision involves more than the surface suggests.

Nothard, who is president of Glavovic Studio, an architectural firm, and sat with Harleman on a public art council, said "American Lawn" brought the museum in step with the country's leading art centers: "I've worked a lot in L.A. and New York. I just saw that as bringing something of that caliber. To have that quality of work in our museum was just fantastic."

In retrospect, though, a show about lawns might have missed the mark with mainstream museumgoers. "Maybe it was too theoretical too soon," muses Miller. "I think people just want Monet, Renoir." Still, Miller says, Harleman realized institutions can't always give the public what they want. "[Harleman] has a responsibility to educate, and that's what she did. She didn't just pander to public taste."

Indeed Harleman's strong convictions became clear early in her Museum of Art tenure. Formerly the associate director of the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Harleman joined MoA in October 1998, just in time for the 40th annual Hortt exhibition, a juried show of local artists. The show provided Harleman with a visual introduction to the area, and it was thought-provoking: "I guess what was going through my mind is, Is there some other way to do this?"

When the next Hortt rolled around, Harleman radically altered the show, securing a Flagler Heights warehouse as an additional venue and renting shuttle buses and port-a-potties. First prize went to Charles Westen's "The Lintball Project," a working dryer that produced laundry fluff studded with hospital waste. The choice angered some artists, who felt it was proof that painting had been overlooked in favor of trendier, conceptual work.

Resentment lingered. In February 2000 MoA offered "Do It," a traveling collection based on instructions from an artists' collective. Museum staff issued a call for works illustrating a crime. One submission was a computer-enhanced picture in which the front of the museum had been spray-painted with the words "Hortt 41 sucked."

In the face of such criticism, some new museum directors would've backed off. Harleman took the opposite tack. In August 2000 she announced her decision to cancel the show altogether. However, she affirmed her commitment to area artists by replacing the Hortt with five new programs to showcase the works of 40 local professional artists.

Nonetheless Harleman's decision prompted speculation over her motivation for canceling the Hortt. Some said the show had simply run out of money -- an assertion that would have let the museum director off the hook -- but Harleman herself put the rumor to rest. Ordinarily the museum could cover the costs of the show, she boldly explained, but she had wanted to change it. The changes she had made the previous year upped the price of the exhibition, putting it in the high-$20,000 range. The museum had recouped only $12,000. Harleman simply didn't want to go back to a conventional Hortt, and she didn't apologize for that fact: "I prefer, and I think it's appropriate, if the blame comes back to me."

In hindsight Harleman has softened her stance a bit. She cites the Hortt as one of the things she could have handled better: "[M]aybe the changes and decision could've been more fully discussed."

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