End of an Era

When the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach announced at the end of March that its CEO and director, Christina Orr-Cahall, would be leaving in May, I was as stunned as everybody else. I have a close friend who works at the Norton, and there had been none of the rumblings of discontent that become common when a director has overstayed his or her welcome. "I have a rule," Orr-Cahall told the Palm Beach Daily News. "Never stay late at a party." In her case, the party lasted an astounding 19 years, an unusually long tenure at the average South Florida arts institution. What's all the fuss about a museum director? you may well wonder. Simply put, directors indelibly stamp museums with their vision, which matters a great deal in an area where the major museums have come to be identified with the directors who are their public faces and de facto curators. Think of George Bolge at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, Barbara O'Keefe at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, and more recently Irvin Lippman at the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale. In Orr-Cahall's case, the legacy will be one of enormous expansions: one that took the museum from 33,000 to 77,000 square feet, and another that brought it to its current 122,000 square feet. It's almost enough to make you forget that, as president of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., before coming to the Norton, she courted controversy by canceling a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition. One possible candidate to replace Orr-Cahall is Roger Ward, the Norton's chief curator and curator of European art, who will take over as interim director upon his boss' departure. Not that I have a vote, but Ward should get the job permanently — there's no better person to lead one of South Florida's premier museums than a veteran curator who is clearly devoted to the Norton.

 
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