Museum Director Hits Art World Stratosphere With A Subtropical Twist

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Chana Budgazad Sheldon, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.

A report by Michael Keller for Forbes.

For many of the art world’s most ardent climbers and strivers, arriving at the top is making it into the New York City scene. Curators and artists alike dream of presenting works on the hallowed walls of places like the Museum of Modern Art or one of the city’s elite contemporary galleries.

But for Chana Budgazad Sheldon, the pushes and pulls of life set her course in the exact opposite direction. The native New Yorker began her art career at the Casey Kaplan gallery, one of that city’s renowned spaces for emerging artists. She rose to become its director, a position that can influence tastes and drive the global art market.

But in 2009 her priorities shifted. Love drove her to relocate to the warmer environs of Miami, and she soon married. Embracing a new life in a new place, she grasped Miami’s art scene with both hands. Recognizing what they had in Sheldon, members of the Miami art community returned the affection.

Earlier this year, Sheldon was named executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, an institution better known as MoCA. With that title, she has been installed near the cultural pinnacle of the subtropical city, which has become one of the art world’s hottest destinations.

Fertile Soil For Art

Best known for its beaches and sunbaked beautiful people, it wouldn’t be surprising if Miami wasn’t in the first tier of cities to come to mind as an art juggernaut.

But with dozens of museums and galleries introducing the world to the current and future masters of art — and with the massively influential Art Basel taking up annual residence there since 2002 — Miami is perhaps the cultural world’s biggest tastemaker that you didn’t know.

Sheldon is plugged into all of it. And because of the area’s cultural momentum, she sees nothing but green fields ahead.

“It’s an exciting time in this city,” she said. “It’s like the Wild West — there’s opportunity here.”

Best known for its beaches and sunbaked beautiful people, it wouldn't be surprising if Miami wasn't in the first tier of cities to come to mind as an art juggernaut.
Best known for its beaches and sunbaked beautiful people, it wouldn’t be surprising if Miami wasn’t in the first tier of cities to come to mind as an art juggernaut.

The engine of that excitement, she said, is the uniqueness of the town’s makeup.

“Miami is so diverse, and that’s reflected in the artists and artworks that we see in it,” said Sheldon. “It’s a very nurturing place that appreciates and values culture, so there’s a lot of culture coming out of it.”

Often considered the crossroads of the Americas, Miami has long been a magnet for Latin Americans as much as Northerners hoping to escape frigid winters. In fact, the city and the county it’s in are majority-minority, with people who identify as Latino or Hispanic, Black or African-Americancomprising 90 percent of the population.

The diversity that inspires Sheldon is apparent throughout the broader creative community outside MoCA’s walls. It’s a place where art lovers can compare and contrast the works of Edouard Duval-Carrié, a master of Haitian art, with those of Ahol Sniffs Glue, who makes distinctive and beloved street art murals that appear frequently from Wynwood Walls to fancy museums.

A wide swath of styles and cultural influences is also on display in the various art spaces that focus on different communities. Galleries like Gary Nader and Latin Art Core specialize in contemporary Latin American work. Others feature work by Afro-Caribbean artists or by creators practicing in emerging markets.

“It’s a young city that can experiment and grow and not have the restrictions of history placed on how its art community is supposed to function. We’re constantly creating more spaces for art and culture to be more available to the public.”

Steeped In Local Culture

Her first job in the area, starting in 2009, was leading a nonprofit exhibition space called Locust Projects, whose mission is to free artists to produce work without the financial demands of commercial galleries. Over the course of eight years, she pushed the organization to grow by producing 70 exhibitions and launching public art and education programs. “My driving impulse was to support artists’ dream projects—risk-taking, immersive installations by emerging and mid-career artists,” she said.

In mid-2017, she moved onto a leadership role with an organization called ProjectArt, which awards artists residencies at libraries in exchange for teaching after-school art classes. But it wasn’t long before MoCA came calling—the executive director seat hadn’t been filled in two years. The hiring committee liked Sheldon’s track record building community programs, a major part of the 35 year-old museum’s mission.

“Sheldon is an accomplished visual arts professional and has a deep knowledge of contemporary art and artists, and a passion for Greater Miami’s cultural life,” Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, said when she took MoCA’s helm.

The museum’s role, as she sees it, is to plug into the city’s diversity, celebrate it and nurture the art that naturally flows from it.

“We want to understand what the needs are in the community and what best gaps we can fill in the region,” she told Miami Today News. “We want to show the best art, in whatever form it takes.”

She and others in the arts community have been getting a big boost from Art Basel Miami Beach, the cultural behemoth that focuses the global art world’s attention on Miami’s sunny shores every year. This year’s show runs Dec. 6 to 9.

Gas On The Fire

Sheldon credits Art Basel’s launch as a turning point for the city, fueling an art scene that was already on fire before it arrived. As evidence, she points to the number of art fairs and pop-up projects that run concurrently with the event, and how cultural happenings now span the entire year even after Art Basel’s annual frenzy ends.

The only North American offshoot of one of the world’s top art shows, Art Basel Miami Beach draws works from some 250 galleries around the globe. The four-day event attracts more than 70,000 visitors and produces an economic impact of about $13 million a year, according to one analysis, which also found that the event draws more private jets to Miami than those that land in cities hosting the Super Bowl.

She said that through the influence of Art Basel and programs that constantly spark cultural dialog, Miami has become synonymous with art. It’s a position she’s dedicated to keep building.

“I believe that art matters, that it can change people’s perspectives about themselves and the world around them, and can thereby change lives and communities. Engagement, particularly through art, can be transformational both individually and collectively,” she said.Michael Keller is an award-winning writer, producer and journalist. He reports from the frontiers of science, technology and international affairs.

Sheldon’s Short List For Art Basel Miami Beach 2018:

  • Prizm Art Fair features artists from the African diaspora and emerging markets who reflect global trends in contemporary art. Dec. 3 – 9.
  • Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami presents “AfriCOBRA: Messages to the People” to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a black artist collective formed in Chicago. Now through April 7.
  • Miami Beach Convention Center unveils a new mural by German artist Franz Ackermann. Dec. 4 – 9.
  • David Castillo Gallery presents “The Strangeness Will Wear Off,” a group show. Dec. 3 – Jan. 31.
  • Dot Fiftyone Gallery presents “Root/Route: A Personal Cartography,” an exhibition of Venezuelan artist Pepe Lopez. Dec. 1 – Feb. 10.

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