One of Miami’s best kept secrets is this museum — and it’s ready to break out

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A report by Andres Viglucci for the Miami Herald.

For years, one of Miami’s best-kept secrets has been cloistered away inside what may be the city’s most conspicuous landmark — the Freedom Tower. But now it’s ready to break out.

Closed a year for an overhaul, Miami Dade College’s Museum of Art + Design, or MOAD, will reopen Saturday with a sharpened focus on design and a new goal that’s unique among the town’s burgeoning range of cultural institutions: to descend from the (ivory) tower and bring art and “cultural action” to the streets and neighborhoods of the city.

It’s what new MOAD director Rina Carvajal calls “a museum without boundaries.” Rather than just waiting for people to show up at its refurbished galleries, the museum will take “happenings” — like participatory events, films and performances — to where the people are. Five events are set for April, including a Biscayne Bay cruise with readings by acclaimed Miami poet Richard Blanco and, at the North Beach Bandshell, a free performance by radical San Francisco poet Jack Hirschman backed by Italy’s Terni Jazz Orchestra.

“This is going to be a different thing, a museum that’s alive and kicking,” Carvajal said.

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Artist Eleonora Fabiao performs a piece on a Miami sidewalk in January

Not that visitors to the Freedom Tower will be stinted. Those who go can look forward not only to an ambitious international slate of exhibits and performances, but also to viewing some of the city’s grandest interiors — the tower’s ornate Mediterranean lobby and vaulted main floor.

In May, that main floor will reopen with a pair of companion galleries. The long-established Cuban Exile Experience and Cultural Legacy Gallery will debut an improved and expanded permament exhibition, including new immersive elements. Another permament new gallery will show pieces from the renowned Kislak Collection of artifacts, books and historic documents from the early Americas.

But Carvajal did not wait to reopen to launch MOAD’s Living Together series. Starting in January, the museum brought famed performance artist Karen Finley to Wynwood and sent Brazilian performance artist Eleonora Fabiao out to Little Havana’s Calle Ocho, downtown Miami and Lincoln Road to sit barefoot in a folding chair and invite passersby to have a conversation about any subject they wished.

In February, a food-centric work by conceptual artist Antoni Miralda outside Exile Books’shop in Little Haiti turned into an impromptu street parade led by a Haitian Rara band when neighborhood residents, invited to the event, brought their own food and drink to share and got everyone dancing.

Carvajal, a veteran curator and administrator, said she has an overriding goal for MOAD that stretches beyond its walls: to make Miami a better place to be. That dovetails nicely with the college’s mission of providing higher education and culture to the masses, she said. MDC not only enrolls 160,000 students at its eight campuses, but also hosts the Miami Book Fair and manages the Tower Theater in Little Havana.

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Rina Carvajal, the new director of Miami Dade College’s Museum of Art + Design

As the title of its new series suggests, Carvajal said she wants to help bind Miami’s disparate populations together through the museum and its events, especially people who don’t often go to museums. Because Miami lacks a central public square where people gather, she would like the museum’s events to serve as a substitute.

At the same time, she hopes to burnish MOAD’s reputation.

“I’m trying to put it on the map of university museums in the country,” Carvajal said. “It’s interesting to work for a place, Miami Dade College, that does so much for the people of Miami. It’s a priority for me: How do we make Miami a place that’s more humane?

“I’m interested in activating public space in Miami, to return the public square to the people.”

MOAD’s new mission, she said, is to focus on the intersection of design and exploration of social issues germane to Miami, such as immigration, race and inclusion. The exhibit with which it will reopen — “By the People: Designing a Better America” — is very much a case in point.

Organized by the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt design museum, the exhibit documents innovative and collaborative civic and economic improvement projects from disadvantaged places around the United States. A key element in the exhibit, Carvajal said, is a citizen design lab in which visitors will be invited to identify Miami-centric issues and develop possible solutions.

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A piece titled ‘Greenprint,’ one of the works in the exhibit called ‘By the People: Designing a Better America.’

The exhibit will be accompanied by a series of public events, including talks and discussions, focused not just on Miami but the Latin American region.

A second exhibit, “This Situation” by Berlin-based conceptual artist Tino Sehgal, features six “interpreters” continuously moving around in a gallery while reciting scripted lines and engaging visitors in conversation under projections of clouds and seagulls. MOAD recruited 20 professors from local colleges and universities to perform in the piece.

MOAD’s ability to host shows like these is thanks to the $245,000 renovation, the bulk of which will be invisible to visitors. The project enhanced net and audio-visual connectivity in the museum’s 17,000 square feet of gallery space and boosted the power capacity to handle contemporary exhibits that depend heavily on sound, light and video. An entrance for the disabled was also added. MDC has been gradually upgrading the 1925 tower, built for the Miami News, since it was donated to the college in 2005 by the family of developer Pedro Martin.

The museum will exploit its new capacities to the fullest in May, when a second special exhibit, a 130-foot long, eight-channel video and sound installation by noted South African artist William Kentridge, will open. The exhibit will occupy MOAD’s soaring Skylight Gallery, the vast space once taken up by the Miami News’ printing press.

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The Skylight gallery is shown in the final stages of preparation for the museum’s opening.

“We didn’t have the technology to do a show like that before, and now we do,” Carvajal said. “Now we are equipped to do any kind of show. It was very challenging before.”

One thing that will remain challenging is funding, Carvajal said. The museum will operate with a tiny staff on a small budget of $950,000, and extending the event series will depend on expanded fundraising, paid admissions and memberships, which start at $45. (Entrance is free for MDC students and faculty.)

“It’s a process in crescendo,” Carvajal said. “Hopefully we will get better and better.”

IF YOU GO

Miami Dade College’s Museum of Art + Design, at the Freedom Tower, 600 Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami, will reopen to the public at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 7. For exhibition hours go to mdcmoad.org.

Admission is free for MDC students, staff and faculty and children 12 and under; $5 for other students with ID; $12 for adults and $8 for seniors and members of the military.

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