A director is abruptly out of a job at one of Long Island’s leading art museums, and no one is quite sure why. In August, the Nassau County Museum of Art’s board of trustees opted not to renew the contract for Charles A. Riley, who has led the Roslyn Harbor institution the last six years.
“We wish Dr. Riley every success in his future endeavors,” board president Angela S. Anton said in a statement provided to . “Every decision made by the trustees is made in the best interest of the museum, including the difficult decision that, for a variety of reasons, a change in leadership and direction was warranted.”
In the wake of the termination, Fernanda Bennett, a 38-year veteran of the museum who most recently served as collections manager and deputy director, has been thrust into the role of deputy director.
The sudden decision came as a shock to many museum visitors, prompting the creation of a Change.org petition calling for Riley’s reinstatement, as reported by Island 360, a website for six local Long Island newspapers published by Blank Slate Media. As of press time, it has close to 750 signatures.
“We all saw Dr. Riley at work one day and the next we receive a letter stating that he is no longer the director,” a staff member wrote in the petition, praising the ousted director for having “curated high-caliber art shows that raised the museum’s reputation” and calling his departure “a great loss to the museum and our community.”
“The Nassau County Museum, under Dr. Riley has blossomed into an important cultural institution over the past six years,” David Bernard, the music director of the Massapequa Philharmonic Orchestra and the author of the petition, said in a phone interview. “He clearly has a vision.”
But it appears that there was tension between Riley and the museum board that led to his dismissal.
“Riley and the museum’s board of trustees did not ‘see eye to eye’ on the museum’s future goals and activities,” Bennett told Island 360.
Bennett declined to comment for this story, but Michael Gurtowski, the museum’s chief development officer, also spoke with Island 360 about how the institution’s priorities moving forward prompted the decision to let Riley go.
The article described “a difference in opinion about the museum’s priorities between Riley and the board,” which “was looking to take a more holistic approach to directing the museum” with an increased focus on “venue services and the cultural landscape of the museum’s land.”
Riley’s strengths lie in his passion for art history, according to his supporters.
“He has brought important art to Long Island,” Bernard said. “And Long Island needs art leaders to bring culture.”
The museum’s current exhibition, “Modigliani and the Modern Portrait” (through November 5), features seven original Amedeo Modigliani works, including one once owned by the late Greta Garbo—something of a coup for the institution. (It was curated by Kenneth Wayne, who hails from nearby Huntington and is the founding director and president of the Modigliani Project, which has been compiling a new catalog raisonné for the artist since 2013.)
“It’s unprecedented,” Riley told on the occasion of last month’s opening, predicting record attendance for the show. “People have come in from Italy and France and said, ‘I’m just amazed that I’m seeing this here on Long Island.’ It just doesn’t happen.”
But not all visitors are necessarily impressed.
At the Modigliani exhibition this past weekend, “the back room was very sparse—you could hear people going, ‘oh, is this it? Where’s the rest of it?’” a museum-goer named Julia said in a phone interview. She’s been visiting the museum for “well over 30 years,” and feels like the “highly promoted exhibits lately are very limited in size, with fillers.”
Though Modigliani was the headliner, the exhibition also featured portraiture by other historic artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marie Laurencin, and Kees van Dongen, as well as more contemporary figures with connections to Long Island, including Andy Warhol, Eric Fischl, Ray Johnson, Amy Tiffany Hemingway, and Marybeth Rothman.
All in all, Julia wasn’t convinced that the exhibition felt substantial enough. She also felt that the museum facilities “definitely need TLC,” including fresh paint and new lighting, as well as repairs to uneven brick pathways. “There’s an area that they rent out for events, and I kind of looked at it and thought, ‘ugh no, I don’t think so,’” she added.
“It’s difficult to maintain someplace as big as this, but maintenance has actually gotten better under Dr. Riley,” Bernard countered. “It’s a gem of a place.”
Riley’s supporters believe he has only brought good things to the museum, citing an Island 360 article from February 2022 that praised the outgoing leader for successfully shepherding the institution through the pandemic.
The grounds and garden remained open throughout lockdown, staff kept their jobs, and the museum reopened in July 2020—among the first in the state to do so. During his tenure, Riley “turned around [the museum’s] finances, balancing the budget for the first time in history, built attendance, expanded the programs both in-person and online, and created a master plan for its future, including a cultural landscape plan for the nationally listed arboretum.”
This isn’t the first time there has been an unexpected changing of the guard at the Nassau Museum. When Riley was appointed in 2017, local news outlet The Island Now reported that the museum hadn’t announced that it was looking for a new director, surprising everyone by replacing Karl Willers, the director of seven years, effective immediately.
Riley came to the museum from an art journalism background, having worked as an art market reporter for Time Inc. and authored more than 30 books.
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