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New director, new direction at Nassau art museum

Karl E. Willers wants to take the Nassau County Museum of Art in a new direction while holding onto its strengths. Now, as the museum's director, he'll get his chance.

It will be a year before an exhibition not already on the drawing board comes to the Roslyn Harbor space. But when that happens - "I can't announce it since I haven't even told our board yet" - that show may well be a traveling exhibition, which, in itself, would represent a new direction for the Nassau museum.

Willers comes to the Nassau job directly from the Newport (R.I.) Art Museum, where he was executive director. He directed two other regional museums before that. For 10 years, he directed the Whitney Museum's downtown branch and its workshop curatorial services. "We had 10 advanced grad students a year. So I have 100 former students who are now running the art world," Willers says with a smile betraying only slight hyperbole. "We keep in touch and trade ideas," he says, adding that he hopes to bring touring exhibitions to the Nassau museum, in addition to shows curated in-house.



Willers, 51, single and living in Glen Head for now, takes over after a period of upheaval at the county-owned museum. (It leases the grounds for $1 a year on a 99-year lease.) Willers is its third director since May 2009. Constance Schwartz, who remains in charge of the museum's capital campaign, stepped aside as director last spring, succeeded by Jay Kamm, former head of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tenn. He resigned unexpectedly after only two months. Schwartz filled in as acting director until Willers was hired in January.

"This is an amazing institution," Willers says, "one of the few public ones of its kind anywhere - a wildlife refuge, sculpture garden, historic home and art museum."



It bears an important imprimatur - a family name shared by the Frick museums in New York and Pittsburgh. The Roslyn Harbor estate was once home to Childs Frick, son of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick.

"But we're the only one with 145 acres," Willers says. He wants to capitalize on the museum's accessibility to New York City and eastern Long Island. "It's a 20-minute walk from the Greenvale train station. We'd like to create an inviting pathway," he says, "to make it a welcoming stroll in good weather."

Next up is a high-profile exhibit, "Miró / Dubuffet / Basquiat," opening Saturday with two other shows.

NASSAU COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART: 1 Museum Drive, Roslyn Harbor, 516-484-9337,

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