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Trustees quit art museum board

Four trustees of the Springfield Museum of Art resigned this week out of disagreement about the museum’s new operating strategy, which included the firing of its curator.

The museum, home to a highly respected collection of American art valued at $6 million, will rely on contracted personnel to install exhibits and develop the key component of its new strategy — a slate of educational programs designed to lure more people into the museum than the roughly 13,000 who came last year.

Ann Fortescue, the museum’s executive director since 2011, said the financial problems that preceded her tenure haven’t resurfaced. The museum is supported by two endowments valued together at about $2.3 million, she said.

“This is an action the organization has needed to take to right-size itself for its current resources,” Fortescue said.

The museum will operate within its means, while also striving for fuller engagement with the community, according to Fortescue.

“We’ll do that through art education activities at the museum,” she said.

Charlotte Gordon, who had been the museum’s full-time curator of six years until her position was unexpectedly “dissolved” last week, is skeptical of the plan.

“If you don’t have someone knowledgeable about the collection, how do you educate around the collection?” Gordon asked.

A year’s worth of data showed that museum attendance increased whenever an educational activity was held, Fortescue said.

Gordon said that education always has been a primary mission. During a major show that opened last fall by Ohio ceramist Jack Earl, Gordon said she single-handedly created nine such activities.

The shift in strategy prompted four of the museum’s 16 trustees — Claire Houghton, Bob Huston, Tim Keny and Carol Nathanson — to quit this week.

They, “felt this was a direction that they personally weren’t comfortable with,” Fortescue said.

In an email on Friday, current board president Deborah Hill-Grimes wrote, “It is their prerogative.”

Three of the four trustees contacted by the Springfield News-Sun declined to comment about their decision to step down.

Keny, co-owner of Keny Galleries in Columbus and a trustee for more than eight years, nevertheless called the local museum “a fine institution.”

“I have enjoyed my association with the Springfield Museum of Art very much,” Keny said.

The museum’s new strategy came about during the past several months and went into effect May 1, Fortescue said, coalescing around a $10,000 gift from Ruth Kunkel Bayley dedicated to art education for disadvantaged youth.

The board of trustees then matched the gift 100 percent, Fortescue said.

Gordon said the decision to build a new strategy around a seemingly small gift, “seems extreme and excessive.”

The curator position wasn’t the only one eliminated. Also eliminated, Fortescue said, were a full-time security manager and part-time membership coordinator.

The museum envisions rehiring lost positions in the third year of its new strategy, Fortescue said, “as resources come online.”

The security manager, who manned the front desk and also provided visitor services, had been hired in January to replace a longtime security manager who was terminated.

A custodian also was let go at some point, according to Gordon.

The museum is left with two full-time employees.

“Over the last two years, I have seen all of the positions and staff be let go under various circumstances,” Gordon said.

Because the museum building at 107 Cliff Park Road is owned by Wittenberg University — part of a 2010 deal that alleviated some of the museum’s financial burdens — the museum works collaboratively with the university to supervise an OIC employee who provides housekeeping, Fortescue said.

After experiencing a projected $380,000 budget shortfall in 2009, things seemed to be back on track for the museum.

Leadership Clark County on April 18 recognized Fortescue and the museum board with its top honor, the 2012 Leader of the Year Award, for efforts to successfully win re-accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums and for becoming an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

The museum had to meet certain standards to become a Smithsonian affiliate last year. Affiliation carries a $2,500 annual fee.

Fortescue said the museum has a lineup of exhibitions planned through August 2014, and the permanent collection will be maintained “according to professional standards.”

“This in no way jeopardizes our accreditation with the American Alliance of Museums,” she said.

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