As a new director prepares to take the helm of the Experience Music Project (Sci-Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, Technicolor blob, etc.), the Paul Allen-founded museum announces it will “proactively” jettison 16 of its 159 employees, says spokeswoman Maggie Skinner. EMP foresees declining individual donations and government grants, even though, she notes, the number of visitors are up from this time last year. She says the layoffs, which spread across every department, will cause no discernible changes.
But the new director, Christina Orr-Cahall, who will start before July 1, brings baggage to the building. In an excellent piece in this week’s paper, Jen Graves exhumes some bones in the wardrobe:
A press release detailed "Noted Museum Leader" Orr-Cahall's efforts in the last 19 years at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, where she more than doubled the size of the permanent collection, quintupled the endowment, built two new wings, and won a National Medal for Museum and Library Service. What it did not mention (and what the Seattle Times failed to report) is that Orr-Cahall is famous—or infamous—in the art world for quite another reason.
It happened overnight, on June 12, 1989, when her name hit the news as the Washington, D.C., museum director who shut down a traveling Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition rather than tangle with the religious right. The outcry made world news. Giant Mapplethorpe images—the most explicit of the more than 100 photos of flowers, celebrities, and homoeroticism in the show—were projected on the sides of the museum's walls at night, and the exhibition itself went to another venue in the city anyway. Artists who had been scheduled to show at the Corcoran dropped out in protest. Membership fell. The museum lost a $1.5 million gift, and its chief curator resigned. After six months of turmoil, Orr-Cahall finally resigned.
According to Graves’s report, EMP’s interim director took home a staggering $339,192 annual salary. Will Orr-Cahall’s salary be bigger, despite the slender revenue forecast? “I am not able to comment on that,” says Skinner.