UPDATE: More on this here.
We interrupt the upbeat program of the annual meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors to bring you some downbeat news from the National Academy in New York. As you may remember, that financially challenged institution had incurred AAMD’s wrath for its 2008 stealth deaccessions of important paintings by Frederic Edwin Church and Sanford Robinson Gifford to help fund operations and defray debts—a story that I broke on CultureGrrl.
According to Carmine Branagan, the Academy’s director, no subsequent art deaccessions have occurred, and no more are planned. But on Thursday, eight Academy officials were abruptly “deaccessioned,” effective immediately—Bruce Weber (above, right), senior curator for 19th- and early 20th-century art; Heidi Riegler, director of communications; two registrars; the head of facilities; the manager of artists’ membership (i.e., the Academicians); two administrators in the Academy’s school. (Branagan did not name them, but I knew the first two, neither of whom was a source for this story.) Weber’s swan song—the Anders Zorn retrospective, drawn from public and private collections from Europe and the U.S.—closed on May 18.
Marshall Price, the Academy’s curator of modern and contemporary art (above, left), had already left the building for an attractive opportunity before the ax unexpectedly fell: In March he became curator of modern and contemporary art at the Nasher Museum, Duke University.
In a phone interview with me on Friday, Branagan insisted that the staff firings and related restructuring were not motivated by budgetary exigencies. The driving force, she said, was the need to take a more “cohesive synergistic approach” to bringing together the Academy’s museum, school and its elected Academicians “in a symbiotic, revitalized way”:
This is an incredibily strategic and deeply considered move. It’s not ‘slash-and-burn, cut-and-let people go.’ It was excruciating. People here yesterday [Thursday]—the people that left and the people who are staying—have very heavy hearts…
The thing I really want to stress is that we are creating a more cohesive, synergistic, agile, innovative organization. The staff is streamlined….
We have six new and repurposed positions: Two are contract positions [i.e., not full-fledged staffers with benefits]. In addition to those positions, we promoted four people [giving them responsibility for the areas overseen by those who were jettisoned].
One of those promoted is Diana Thompson, formerly associate curator of 20th-century art, now a full curator with oversight of the curatorial staff. Branagan also plans to hire an assistant curator for modern and contemporary art. One new hire is Elvin Freytes, who becomes administrative director for the National Academy School (previously, director of student affairs, New York Academy of Art).
Whatever the professed motives for this “streamlining”—from 29 full-time staffers to 25 who are “full-time, part-time and contract,” according to Branagan—shoring up the Academy shaky financial foundation is undeniably one of the side-effects. Branagan told me that the staff restructuring would create savings “in the mid-six figures.” She also revealed that the exhibition program would be revamped to put less emphasis on expensive loan shows (like Zorn). More exhibitions will be drawn from works in the Academy’s permanent collection and from the output of its Academicians—distinguished art-and-architecture professionals designated as members of the Academy.
“We’re looking to present more interactive exhibitions and we’re going to look at not only the objects that artists and architects create but to look at the artists and architects themselves,” she told me.
Branagan acknowledged that her institution has run operating deficits since she became its interim director in 2008, but she asserted that the fiscal 2015 budget will be balanced. When I asked what the previous deficits had been, she stated: “I’m not going to tell you….Go find it.”
Here’s what it says on the Guidestar nonprofits website for the National Academy for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012 (the most recent available online):
All of which is to say that whatever effects the temporary expedient of monetizing art may have had on the National Academy (aside from causing it to be temporarily blackballed by AAMD and possibly keeping its doors open during a particularly difficult time), solving its long-range financial problems wasn’t one of them.