Monday, December 7, 2009

Charity Governance Squabble in the News

The Boston Globe recently reported in an article entitled, Nightmare at the Museum, that the director of a prominent museum, The Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art,resigned (or was ousted, it depends on who you talk to) from her position as director of the museum.  It is reported that John Maeda, the new president of the affiliated school of the same name, The Rhode Island School of Design, seemingly clashed with the outgoing director.  The squabble raises the question of the role charity governance  and the board of trustees play in quelling such disputes before donor relations are disrupted, organizational missions are compromised and public loyalties wane.  The story is excerpted below, in relevant part:

They were 200 of this city’s biggest names in arts and philanthropy, gathered on an early fall night to celebrate Hope Alswang, the departing head of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art.

.  .  .

After all, Alswang was leaving after a feud with the new president - a tense battle that left them both smarting, and many more, on campus and off, wondering how things got out of hand so quickly and what it all means for one of the cultural jewels of the city and region.

.  .  .

Few there knew what had really happened between Maeda, who started at RISD last year, and Alswang, who had been at the museum for four years. Her public resignation occurred only weeks after a private letter from the president labeled “final warning.’’ At the tribute dinner, held at a historic venue called, as it happens, the Hope Club, observers wondered whether Maeda understood how many people would be upset by the loss.

.  .  .

The new president had taken office at RISD on a wave of positive buzz, a daring and exciting choice. Proudly declaring in interviews that he did not own a suit, Maeda, then 42, had a Mensa-worthy résumé, capped by a stint as associate director of research at the prestigious MIT Media Lab. Esquire magazine had named him one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century.

But Maeda and his museum director clashed from the start; their personal styles could not have been more discordant. Alswang, tough and sarcastic, knew how to work a cocktail party. Maeda, slight and cerebral, seemed more comfortable Tweeting than speaking.

.  .  .

Indeed, tension between the museum and school didn’t start with these leaders. Some professors were pleased that Maeda was taking a harder line with the museum.

“We have a new museum building on our campus that cost a hell of a lot of money and that took the attention away from maintaining buildings and raising money for financial aid,’’ said Henry Ferreira, printmaking professor and president of the faculty association.

But the blowup between Maeda and Alswang seems to be as much about personal temperament as professional mission.

.  .  .

“It came to the point where they just couldn’t get along and the disagreements weren’t helping anyone,’’ said Paula Granoff, a museum donor who has served on RISD’s board of trustees and currently is a member of the museum’s board of governors.

.  .  .

Her supporters say the rift with Maeda went beyond personality and stemmed, in part, from the school’s financial crisis.

The financial meltdown hit RISD’s endowment hard, and Alswang believed Maeda wanted to cut disproportionately from the museum, according to a museum staff member speaking anonymously because the staff had been ordered by RISD not to discuss Alswang.

In the end, this staff member said, Alswang fought to reduce the amount cut from the museum’s budget, though ultimately it had to close for all of August to save money.

For the full story, please click here.


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