The Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville gives UNF a presence downtown again.
In the 1960s, when the University of North Florida was still a dream, the Jacksonville City Council debated whether Florida’s newest university should be part of downtown urban renewal or built beyond the city’s expanding suburbs.
Finances, space and time dictated the far-flung fringe, says Jacksonville historian Jim Crooks. From 1978 to 1987, UNF maintained a downtown center to make its courses more accessible to urban residents, Northside and Westside dwellers and major downtown businesses. But enrollment declined downtown as UNF rapidly expanded its 1,300-acre campus off Butler Boulevard 15 miles to the southeast, where more than 15,000 students now attend.
Today, more than 20 years after the university shuttered its urban site, a new partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville is bringing UNF back downtown — in the same historic, six-story Western Union Telegraph Building that once housed UNF classrooms.
Like other museums, MOCA is struggling in the economic recession amid decreases in both corporate donations and government funding, yet it “has seen admissions double as more people look for entertainment sources closer to home,” says museum director Deborah Broder. This spring, UNF’s board of trustees approved an agreement to take over MOCA and lend it up to $500,000, secured by the value of the museum’s artwork. If MOCA cannot become self-sufficient and repay the loan in 18 months, UNF can sell the art to recoup its money. The art was recently appraised at $2.4 million.
UNF President John Delaney wants to use the museum to re-establish the university’s presence downtown and give art students a high-profile location to exhibit their works. The university already is offering courses at MOCA. The acquisition, says UNF Vice President Sharon Ashton, “is a noble experiment at no risk to UNF.” Given economic realities and the university’s slimmed-down budget, she says, no other downtown opportunities are imminent. “But we remain open to hearing about them.”