Exits and Layoffs Plague National Academy as Museum Makes Way for New Creative Director

Pellegrin. (Courtesy RxArt)

Pellegrin. (Courtesy RxArt)

The National Academy Museum and School has let go several members of its staff, including both its registrars, the marketing director, the building manager and senior curator Bruce Weber. Dr. Marshall Price, the museum’s contemporary curator, left on his own volition in March to become a curator at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. According to sources with knowledge of the situation, the National Academy’s director, Carmine Branagan, told the museum’s board that the reason the employees were let go was financial, but the real reason stems from disagreements within the institution over its future direction—namely, the promotion of Maurizio Pellegrin, a member of the school’s faculty, to the powerful position of creative director of both the National Academy School and its museum, which are located in a townhouse on Museum Mile.

Mr. Pellegrin is an artist by trade, and has not previously held a curatorial role in a museum. Mr. Pellegrin’s friend, Filippo Fossati, the former co-owner of New York’s Esso Gallery and a part-time secondary market dealer, was also hired as a curatorial adviser, though his museum experience is limited.

“I was born in Venice,” Mr. Pellegrin, who is in his late fifties, told Gallerist through a thick Italian accent. “I’m still young and full of energy. I will take a chance. In two years I will change dramatically the place,” adding that “our job is to make this museum in a couple years one of the most intriguing in the country.”

Some of Mr. Pellegrin’s plans, he said, include bringing “the most important voices of the day” into the museum and “trying to investigate what is necessary at the moment.” He has aspirations for a more involved architectural program and to also include “cinematography” in future exhibitions. He listed “graphic design, furniture, relations between Asian and Western architecture” as points of interest.

He said, though, that there was no plan to hire another senior curator. “No, no,” Mr. Pellegrin said, “we don’t need a senior curator because it’s me. It’s my vision. Let’s look at Vogue. Who do you have at Vogue? You have Anna Wintour. You don’t need a hierarchy.” Instead, “I’ll have a team of six people working for me, and that is enough.” He added that the people who no longer work at the museum “left because of the restructuring” and not for any financial reasons. He said he did not want to produce shows just for the sake of producing shows because “the galleries in New York already do fantastic business.”

“We want to make this place alive,” Mr. Pellegrin added. “I want to have young people. This is a house. It has to be full of people. A house that isn’t full of people is sad.”

Mr. Pellegrin’s creative control comes after several years of scandal and difficulty at the museum. In 2008, in the midst of a financial crisis, the National Academy sold two Hudson River School paintings to help keep its doors open, a move that was frowned upon by much of the art world and resulted in official sanctions from the Association of Art Museum Directors, which halted loans between the Academy and AAMD members. Those sanctions were lifted in 2010. AAMD guidelines on deaccessioning state that “member museums should not capitalize or collateralize collections or recognize as revenue the value of donated works.”

Ms. Branagan, the director, could not be reached for comment. The museum is currently closed for the installation of “The Annual 2014,” the institution’s 188-year-old exhibition of American art, which opens June 11. It is subtitled “Redefining Tradition.”