The Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St. in North Miami
The Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St. in North Miami (AM Holt)

Auto mogul Norman Braman leads a list of wealthy donors who say they want their art back from the Museum of Contemporary Art if a judge eventually rules that the permanent collection belongs to the city, not the museum.

The claim was made in a motion filed Wednesday to intervene in the lawsuit brought by MOCA against city of North Miami, Mayor Lucie Tondreau and council members.

Tondreau was suspended by Gov. Rick Scott last month after she was indicted for mortgage fraud.

Braman and his wife, Irma, along with Ray and Allan Yarkin, Estelle and Pauk Berg and the Martin Z. Marguiles Foundation filed the motion to intervene. Braman owns a number of South Florida car dealerships and previously owned the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.

“The donations made by the intervenors were gifted intentionally to MOCA—not to the city of North Miami,” according to the motion filed by attorney Miami attorney Manuel Kadre, who is representing the intervenors.

Attorney Alan Kluger, partner at Kluger, Kaplan, Silverman, Katzen & Levine in Miami is representing the museum and co-counsel to the intervenors.

He said the museum is a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation and that the art was donated to it in order for the intervenors to take advantage of certain tax benefits. “You can’t take a deduction for a gift to the city,” he said.

Attorney Olivia Benson, a partner with SquiresBenson in Miramar, was brought in by North Miami to represent the city at a May 23 court hearing in front of Miami-Dade Judge Norma Lindsey.

Benson had a different twist on the city’s position, saying it wasn’t arguing North Miami owned the art but that it belongs to “the people” because of the museum’s tax status as a non-profit, stand-alone corporation.

“The art is owned by MOCA. MOCA is a 501(c)(3) … MOCA owns the art, not the city,” she said. “A 501(c)(3) corporation means that it belongs to the people .”

Kluger said Benson is greatly confused upon the definition of a 501(c)(3), which refers to a portion of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code that allows for a federal tax exemption for nonprofit organizations, specifically those that are considered public charities or private operating foundations.

The intervenors say in the motion they would “suffer significant adverse tax consequences” if the court decides the art belongs to the city. Kluger said if the intervenors received their art back due to an adverse decision in the lawsuit, they would re-donate it to other museums.

Bond Derailed

Discord between museum officials and the city of North Miami started when the city failed to support a $15 million bond initiative to expand the 23,000 square-foot museum. The measure failed.

Kluger said the city has refused to repair the roof and has failed to provide adequate security, among other things.

The North Miami City Council stated it owned the art after reports that the museum explored merging with The Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach. In April, MOCA filed a breach of contract suit against the city. It claimed Tondreau made false statements that because the city owns the facility, it also owns its contents.

The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to prevent from the city from any unilateral action to terminate board members. The motion to intervene reiterates allegations against the suspended Tondreau.

“The mayor has continued making these false statements notwithstanding the donations forms, which clearly reflect that the art was donated to MOCA,” Kadre wrote.

Kluger said the art is depreciating in value because of the lack of financial and logistical support from the city for the museum, saying the buzz in the art community for MOCA has soured.

The parties have agreed to non-biding mediation scheduled to start June 16, but Kluger says it is very unlikely the museum will stay in North Miami. He said the city wants to turn it into some kind of community center where local art would be displayed.

The museum has had renowned shows by such artists as emerging and established artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Dennis Oppenheim, Jose Bedia, Alex Katz, Louis Nevelson, Gabriel Orozco and Nam June Paik.

“I don’t think there is an appetite to stay in this city,” Kluger said. “This city, they have brought it upon themselves. They have ruined a beautiful relationship.”