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Ousted curator wonders what his firing means for museum

By Ned Seaton

Bill North, who quadrupled the size of the collection at the university’s art museum, is out of a job.

North’s departure from the Beach Museum of Art has sparked questions about the museum’s future direction – questions that university officials say are off-the-mark.

North, the senior curator at the Beach since 1995, said in a recent interview with the Mercury that he was given his “notice of non-reappointment without cause” on March 9. It came from the museum’s director, Linda Duke; North says there was no explanation. He assumes his removal happened because K-State administrators, including Duke, want the museum to focus more on “programming,” rather than collecting art. As curator, North’s job was to collect the art of Kansas and the region.

K-State officials, starting with President Kirk Schulz, are adamant about two things:

First: “The museum’s direction has not changed a bit,” Schulz said in a recent interview. “We still want to focus on Kansas art and Midwest art.”

Second: North’s departure has nothing to do with any of this, Schulz and Duke said in separate interviews.

Duke, who took over at the Beach Museum midway through 2011 after a national search pegged her to succeed the retiring Lorne Render, says that better programming and marketing is a priority. “The Beach is a strong collecting institution,” Duke said. “The logical next step is to make more of an effort to share that with the public.

“But that is not to say that it should be done at the expense of other things that the museum has been doing,” Duke said. She said additional fundraising would allow both to happen.

North agrees that the primary mission of collecting Kansas and regional art remains. But without any other explanation, he figures that additional money and staff time could be allocated to programming rather than collecting if he’s gone.

“For whatever reason, I don’t fit into somebody’s plan for the future of the museum,” North said. “They clearly wanted me out.”

Duke, whose previous job was as the director of audience engagement at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has done more “reaching out” to involve other parts of the campus in the museum, Schulz said. Her marketing and programming focus wasn’t something that he intended to impose in the leadership transition. “It just happened to work out that way,” Schulz said.

Rumors of a shift in the museum’s focus have circulated since North’s ouster – one had the Beach turning into a science museum. Those rumors prompted a letter to museum supporters explaining North’s departure.

Signed by Duke and Jackie Hartman, K-State’s director of community relations and chief of staff, the letter indicated that North was taking a year’s sabbatical for research and then would be moving to a new phase in his career. The letter thanked North for his work and said he would be missed, and emphasized that the mission of the museum would not change.

North made clear in the interview – and in a letter he sent out earlier this month—that he did not want to leave, and that his “notice of non-reappointment without cause” was more or less a layoff.

He said he was told to come up with a research project that he could pursue for a year, and that he would continue to be paid during that time because his employment status as an unclassified administrative staff member contractually entitled him to a year’s compensation anyway.

He was told he could not represent the museum or the university in any way without prior written permission.

He says he’s pursuing the research and also hoping to find “a similar position at a similar institution.”

He’s not interested in suing or pursuing a grievance, saying that the university was meeting its obligations, and that further conflict would only hurt the museum. “Enough damage has already been done,” he said.

Schulz, Hartman and Duke declined to comment specifically on North’s characterization of the departure, saying it was a personnel matter and that they were bound to protect North’s privacy, among other reasons.

Schulz said there had been “a 9-month set of issues over operations” since Duke’s hiring, and “we made a decision about an employee.” He did not elaborate. North said he had no clue what that meant, saying that he had no performance evaluations under Duke and that all of his previous ones had been “more than fine.”

Render, the previous director who now lives in Washington State, said that it was “a bolt out of the blue” when he heard that North had been let go. “He was one of the most professional and passionate curators I have ever encountered,” Render said. “I have nothing but the highest regard for the man.”

The Beach Museum, which sits on the edge of the K-State campus near the intersection of 14th Street and Anderson Avenue, was opened in 1996. It was built entirely through private donations, prominently backed by then-KSU First Lady Ruth Ann Wefald. The driving idea was to have a place to show the university’s collection, and to continue building that collection, focusing on the art of Kansas and the region. Historically, a major part of that art is ink-on-paper, particularly drawing.

The museum has a half-dozen employees.  North, who had art degrees from KU, had been at a museum at Michigan State before taking the job here in 1995, before the building opened. He is an expert in the field of Kansas art and was essentially the number-two person at the museum.

He earned $55,563 in 2011, according to public records. Schulz said he did not know whether the Beach would replace North.

During his tenure, the museum went from about 1,600 pieces of art to 7,000. In addition to building the collection, he organized exhibitions.

The Beach Museum was set up to answer directly to the K-State president’s office. It has a “board of visitors,” who are essentially donors, as well as an advisory board that has no direct power. Members of those boards were informed of North’s departure after the fact, according to several members.

North said he has received scores of phone calls and messages supporting him and wondering what happened.

Among those regretting what has happened: Ruth Ann Wefald.

“I’m deeply sorry about his departure,” she said. “He has just done a fabulous job for the art museum. He’s extremely well-respected in his field, and he helped put us on the map with the collection.”

Wefald said she did not know exactly why the departure occurred, but noted that Duke had reached out to her to let her know. “I happen to like Linda very much,” Wefald said, and didn’t mean for her comments to be taken as “anything against the current administration or the new director.

“I just really, really hope the museum stays true to its core as a land-grand art museum to serve the state and region,” she said.

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