Nassau County Museum of Art director Charles Riley, who spearheaded popular high-profile exhibitions devoted to artists like Andy Warhol and Amedeo Modigliani during his six-year tenure, has been replaced by an interim chief.
The board's decision to replace Riley with interim director Fernanda Bennett and seek new leadership and direction has led to consternation, including calls for his reinstatement overseeing the well-visited Roslyn Harbor Museum.
Often, visitors to a museum know a good deal about art, but little about the director of the institution. This hasn't been the case at the Nassau County Museum of Art. Riley frequently greeted the public and discussed the art on the walls.
“During his tenure, Dr. Riley’s docent lectures and director’s seminars were always well attended and both exciting and informative. His enthusiasm for art, music and education has been a positive influence on all who interacted with him. We wish Dr. Riley every success in his future endeavors,” said Angela S. Anton, president of the museum’s board of trustees, in a statement Wednesday. “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.”
Neither Anton nor anyone else connected with the museum offered a specific reason for Riley’s replacement.
"Sometimes, even if you're the best person, and Charlie was an excellent director, and very intellectual and an excellent curator, but sometimes it’s time for a change, a change of leadership,” board member Harvey Manes said. “Somebody new might bring different ideas, go in a different direction. … But Charlie did a very good job."
Anton also stated that in the museum’s 40-year history, there have been eight museum directors.
Riley declined to comment on the situation.
"I was shocked when I heard about this," said David Bernard, music director of the Massapequa Philharmonic Orchestra, whose organization has partnered with the Nassau County Museum since 2020, bringing live music to museum visitors. "He is 100% committed to building culture on Long Island."
Bernard created an online petition requesting that the museum's board reinstate the director that went live Sept. 15 on Change.org and has accumulated more than 500 signatures toward its goal of 1,000. It includes comments like this from a poster who said she was a Manhasset resident: "I feel that the museum became more approachable and relevant during Charlie's tenure. His enthusiasm for the shows he curated was so genuine it was infectious."
A group of more than 50 people describing themselves as "longtime members, volunteers and supporters of NCMA" in an open letter to the board requested an explanation and more transparency from the board, stating "We were shocked to learn of the news of Dr. Riley's abrupt departure," adding, "Under Dr. Riley’s leadership and with the support from the Board, we've witnessed that the museum has undergone significant transformation over the past six years with more visitors, a diverse range of events, broader media attention, and a more significant impact on the community."
Riley, who holds a doctorate and has authored more than 30 books, guest-curated shows on Surrealist art and on Picasso before serving as director. During his tenure, the museum presented important exhibitions like the current "Modigliani and the Modern Portrait”; brought in corporate sponsors like Bank of America, which lent works for an Andy Warhol exhibition; introduced live music; and kept the grounds with its sculpture collection open to the public during pandemic closures.