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.
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."
While she often pushed the envelope, Harleman is also proud of the crowd-pleasing exhibitions she mounted. One featuring the work of French impressionist master Camille Pissarro was popular and critically well received, as was "Palace of Gold and Light: Treasures from the Topkapi, Istanbul," the highest-grossing show in the history of the museum.
Harleman deserves credit for such diverse offerings, says Fort Lauderdale painter Madeline Denaro. "She had more of a contemporary, global vision for the museum. She used her vision to bring shows that blended that plus more of what the public would wish."
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Still, Harleman might have been too sophisticated for an area in which public art consists primarily of blue bicycles and yellow shoes. "The viewing public is an entirely different animal than those who may appreciate art," says Sue Buzzi, executive director of the Broward Art Guild. Buzzi worked with Harleman when the BAG took over the Hortt from the museum. "Maybe the community wasn't ready," Buzzi says of Harleman's vision, "but we certainly need to open our eyes more."
For Buzzi, Harleman's stint at MoA was successful, if brief: "I think three years is not really enough time. To be fair to yourself, you really have to give it two contract sessions."
Although turnover can hinder fundraising efforts, museum board president Louise Dill isn't concerned. She says the ability to obtain grants hinges largely on the museum's programming and curriculum, which are already set for next year. "We had really wanted her to stay," Dill adds.
Harleman's decision to leave is now a done deal. "I've learned a lot," she says in a whispery voice that belies a steadfast will. "You have to listen, and you have to be prepared to make some tough decisions and take the heat for them. It's really OK ," she says contentedly, "for people to disagree with you."