The February 15 announcement by SUNY-New Paltz provost Lorin Basen Arnold that Sara Pasti, the Neil C. Trager director of the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, was moving into a new role in charge of the museum’s external relations and advancement took the university community by surprise. The members of the museum’s Advisory Board hadn’t been sent the provost’s e-mail, which went to faculty members and college staff. When they got the message, board members expressed shock. Pasti had been director of the museum for a decade.
Arnold’s e-mail had noted that Wayne Lempka, the museum’s manager of art collections, was assuming the position of interim director. Curator Anastasia James, a year on the job, was leaving.
“The fact that the museum Advisory Board was not consulted or informed prior to the action, and that it was sent out to the college community in a mass e-mailing and not to the Advisory Board ahead of time, was very disturbing,” wrote board chair Ward Mintz in an e-mailed statement. “Since then we have received sincere apologies from the administration for what happened.”
President Donald Christian and provost Arnold have since had two meetings with the Advisory Board. Noting “the considerable financial support the Dorsky Advisory Board has provided to the college over the years,” Mintz concluded that he and his colleagues were “committed to continuing our constructive conversations with the administration and working together to assure the museum’s excellence.”
Statements from the college and Pasti herself indicate that she will now be working part-time for the museum in a phased-out retirement. Did Pasti choose to step down as director, or was she forced out? If Pasti stepped down, why wasn’t a succession plan in place? Was the concurrent departure of curator James, who left to accept a position at the Lucas Museum of Art in Los Angeles, a coincidence, or was it connected to some breakdown in relations with Pasti?
Pasti e-mailed a statement indicating that she was amenable to her new role focusing on museum development and external relations (“two areas I love”), and noted that her reduction in hours and pending retirement “allow me to slow down from the day-to-day rigor of administering the museum and allow me to use more of my expertise to support it,” as well as give her the opportunity “to return to the consulting practice” that she had prior to her tenure at the Dorsky.
SUNY-New Paltz spokesperson Melissa Kaczmarek sent an e-mail statement that the college plans to have a new director in place by the summer of 2020. In the interim, “We anticipate hiring a consultant with curatorial experience and perspective to assist with future major exhibitions, aid in facilities and other planning.” In addition, “Sara [Pasti] will provide information and consult with Wayne during this transition period and assist the campus as we move toward hiring the museum’s next director.” A part-time staff member will also become full-time, the e-mail noted.
Kaczmarek’s statement expressed thanks for Pasti’s service and credited her with advocating for the hiring of a museum educational director and her cultivation of “strong alliances with other arts organizations,” which “have expanded the museum’s impact…and positioned the Dorsky as a leading art museum in the region.”
Mending museum fences
The two meetings of the Advisory Board with Christian and Arnold resulted in a “robust” discussion, according to board member Arthur Anderson. There is now a better understanding about the crucial role played by the Advisory Board in the museum’s functioning. Anderson reported that the “venting” by board members at the first meeting was followed by more constructive discussion at the second session, focusing on “the direction we want the museum to take and defining the roles and responsibility of the Advisory Board.”
“After the sturm und drang, the good news is that, except for the limitation of what the administration could say about the personnel decision” – it is a unionized campus – “we have the opportunity to develop a more open and robust communication between the Advisory Board and the president and provost,” Anderson said. The provost, he added, was relatively new, “and we hadn’t seen much of her except at openings. Now we have a direct line of communication.”
Pasti previously dealt directly with the administration. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that the museum began reporting to the provost, according to Neil Trager, the museum’s founder and first director (he retired in 2008 and now lives in New Mexico). Trager said in a phone interview that he reported to the dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts when he was director. “There were six departments fighting for the same pool of money,” he said. “The provost has a bigger pool,” which means that reporting to her “in the long run is a good thing.”
For his part, Trager conceded that he had been “shaken a little bit” when he received the provost’s e-mail, especially since the directorship was endowed in his name. “It was a great honor when this board created that when I retired, and it’s my legacy,” he said.
The turn of events that transpired “seems a little strange, since there was no hint Sara was going to retire,” Trager added. Further, it had been “upsetting” that the curator, James, had left after such a short tenure. Trager believes, however, that the plan going forward is sound: “Wayne is a veteran, and the college is stepping up with more staff, which should get them through this.”
Time, talent and treasure
The Dorsky has a collection of 6,000 objects and is dedicated to showcasing both important contemporary and modern art, as well as the region’s historical legacy. Major shows have included retrospectives of Hudson Valley painter Jervis McEntee and Woodstock artists Eugene Speicher and Eugene Ludins, as well as work by Alice Neel, Judy Pfaff, the recently deceased Robert Morris and Carolee Schneemann and other distinguished contemporary, locally based artists such as Andrew Lyght and Linda Mary Montana. The museum has also had exhibitions of contemporary art reflecting other cultures, including Native American (with works borrowed from the New York State Museum), African and Tibetan. Its photography gallery, currently showing the recently donated collection of Marcuse Pfeiffer, has had several shows of photographs donated by Howard Greenberg, a major supporter.
Unlike most college galleries, the Dorsky is supported not just by a Friends group (although there is a such a group, which oversees membership), but also by the Advisory Board, whose members contribute what Trager said were “the three key Ts: time, talent and treasure.”
“Our purpose is to act as an external advisor and support group, to provide useful and independent expertise and perspective,” which touches on every aspect of the museum’s operations, said Mintz. It includes “long-range and institutional planning, advising and assisting the museum audience by building up the public relations, marketing, fundraising and programming. The Advisory Board endeavors to promote collaborative relationships between the museum, college, community and other stakeholders as a leading cultural institution.”
The Advisory Board includes museum professionals, collectors and members of the Dorsky family. It works with numerous committees addressing education, programming, exhibitions and fundraising. Outside participants include retired curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, El Museo del Barrio and the Jewish Museum, as well as experts such as Dr. Linda Ferber, chair of the American Art Department at the Brooklyn Museum and director of the museum division for the New-York Historical Society, and Tom Wolfe, who teaches at Bard College and is an expert on the early years of the Woodstock art colony.
“We’re unusual in that we’re so active and bring in a good deal of money. We’re also collectors and know collectors,” Mintz said. Mintz’s resume includes launching the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in Queens and founding the Nassau County Museum of Art. He was head of museum programming for the New York State Council on the Arts, and deputy director at the Newark Museum and the Jewish Museum.
The Advisory Board also attracts significant funds to the college. According to Mintz, in the last 20 years it has raised a third of the donations to the SUNY-New Paltz Foundation, the college’s main vehicle for attracting private money. Last year, the board raised more than $112,000, the bulk of it from its annual Art Uncorked fundraiser, with Karen and Noah Dorsky, two of Sam’s four children, playing a major role. (Brother David was chair of the board until recently, and sister Sara endowed one of the galleries.)
An opportunity for a reset
According to Kaczmarek’s e-mail, the college and state provide $600,316 in salaries and benefits for six staff positions as well as $55,000 in student employee salaries and other expenses. State funds funneled through the college pay additional expenses in excess of $1 million.
Last year the museum received a $1.5 million bequest from the Susan Wisherd estate, two-thirds of which will be put in an endowment fund. The remaining third will pay for an upgrade of the storage facilities for the Dorsky’s collection, to be completed this summer. Anderson is hopeful that the storage upgrade will enable the Dorsky to receive accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums. Membership “is a seal of approval, and it could help attract funding,” he said. The initiative has the support of President Christian and provost Arnold.
Trager is also supportive: “The museum is approaching its 20th anniversary, and this would be an important recognition that implies a major commitment to best practices in the field.” Mintz noted that the other three art museums in the SUNY system – the Neuberger at SUNY-Purchase, the University Art Museum at SUNY-Albany and the Museum at FIT at the Fashion Institute of Technology – are all accredited.
“We will continue our conversations with the administration, and we have offered our help and expertise as the museum goes forward,” concluded Mintz. “We want to be of use in a really substantial way, as has been the case in the past. We’ve made a lot of suggestions about what steps to take as far as the staffing is concerned. The president is committed to good communications and having the best relationship with the Advisory Board.”
What happens next? “We’ve asked for the provost to get back to us in a couple of weeks with suggestions on how to move forward in all these areas, including the direct involvement of the Advisory Board in defining the role of the new director and curator,” Anderson said. “We will be involved in that process, rather than have it be primarily an academic decision. It’s an opportunity to reset how we want the museum to move forward. Neil initially did everything; he was the director and hired independent curators. Sara came in with more administrative experience. Now we’re beginning the third chapter.”
The founding: Neil Trager’s dream
The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art started out as a dream. It was a dream that Neil Trager had shortly after he was hired to direct the college art gallery at SUNY-New Paltz, in 1982. Trager was a photographer who had left New York City to work as a curator and teacher at the Catskill Center for Photography (now the Center for Photography at Woodstock), which led to a position teaching photography at SUNY-New Paltz, which in turn led to the gallery gig. Trager discovered that he really liked running the gallery, and got a certificate in museum management. In the mid-1980s he met Samuel Dorsky, who’d made a fortune in the garment industry and ran a gallery in the City. After the two men became good friends, Dorsky started loaning work to the college gallery.
Trager was frustrated that the gallery didn’t have enough space to show the permanent collection on a regular basis. Nor could the art be used for teaching purposes. “Five or six years into my tenure, I went to the college president Alice Chandler and said, ‘We need to change the name to the College Museum, because we have a collection of 1,500 good-quality objects.’ She said, ‘It’s not a museum,’ and I said, ‘We are.’ I thought, ‘We’ve got to build a museum.’ It’s like a spirit went through me.”
After introducing Dorsky to Chandler, he and the president “decided to cultivate Sam further and invited him to a dinner. Alice made her pitch, and then he turned to me and said, ‘If I gave you a lot of money, what would you do with it?’ I told him, ‘I have a dream for a museum.’
“A few months later, at the gallery’s annual fundraising gala – it was in 1993 – Sam called me up before the event and asked to go for a ride in the countryside. He said, ‘I know you want money, but if you want to build this wing, you have to prove three things to me: that the college wants it, the college will support it and the community will support it.’ I didn’t answer him at the time, and at dinner I told the president the three conditions he’d asked for. She responded, ‘I’ll swim to Great Neck [where Sam lived] with the contract in my teeth.’ She asked what I needed and I said a curator and she said, ‘You got it.’ To prove community support, I suggested starting a Friends group.”
That night, Dorsky pledged $350,000, but unfortunately he died before the contracts could be drawn up, which meant that Trager had to get his four children on board. “While we were negotiating, the college’s vice president of finance discovered a state initiative to promote public/private partnerships for construction, resulting in a seven-to-one matching grant for Sam’s money.’ The wing was now a 9,000-square-foot museum, but other challenges arose. The contractors walked off the job in the middle of construction, and the architect’s design resulted in a building $1 million over budget. Trager raised a third of the money “pretty quickly,” and the college came up with the remainder.
The museum opened in November 2001, and to commemorate 9/11, one of the exhibitions featured a series of lithographs by George Bellows called the War series, recalled Trager. He served as director, hired a curator, collections manager Wayne Lempka and in 2007, an assistant, Sara Pasti, who became director after he retired in 2008.
The Friends morphed into an Advisory Board “that was directly related to museum management and programs. I recruited people for the board I knew through the art, university and business worlds, trying to build a diverse group with expertise to share.” Six of the original members continue to serve today. “I established a really solid foundation,” Trager said. “Sara did a good job and built on that foundation. I’m proud of what the museum has become, and I just hope it continues to grow.”