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At St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts, CEO to step down after turmoil

At the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, a period of tension and upheaval seems to have culminated with the staggered departure of its current executive director and CEO.

A news release on the museum’s website announced a “leadership transition” in which executive director and CEO Anne-Marie Russell will step down on March 1.

Anne-Marie Russell is stepping down as The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg’s executive director and CEO. [ Courtesy of Matthew Holler ]

The release says that the board of trustees and Russell came to this agreement. It also said the board has already initiated the process of finding her replacement.

While Russell will stay until March, she will not handle the daily running of the museum. Those duties will be led by chief curator Stanton Thomas and chief strategy officer Darcy Schuller. Russell will “focus on collections stewardship and programming while continuing to advise the MFA on special projects.”

Russell came to the museum as interim director in September of last year, just weeks after former executive director and CEO Kristen Shepherd resigned. Russell got the official position in March.

The release said that Russell “took on the leadership role at MFA with a clear mandate from the board to elevate the museum’s operations to the highest industry standards and best practices to prepare for reaccreditation,” and said that she implemented those initiatives successfully.

Under her leadership, the museum presented programs like films about art, artist talks and lectures by experts. In the museum’s conservatory, artist Christian Sampson’s “Tempus volat, hora fugit” brings a colorful tint on the windows, which people bask in as they do yoga there, another program implemented by Russell.

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The art installation, “Tempus Volat, Hora Fugit,” which translates from Latin as “Time Flies, Hours Flee,” by artist Christian Sampson, uses light and color to communicate the passage of time and the power of the natural world, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Friday, June 23, 2023 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

In a news release found on the museum’s website in September, there was an announcement about the expansion of the Museum Studies Institute, under which objects from the permanent collection would be carefully evaluated. This led to the reattribution of an 18th-century work to a female artist.

But there has been upset at the museum, including the June firing of Michael Bennett, who was the museum’s senior curator ancient art. A New York Times article detailed Bennett’s departure after the provenance of some ancient Greek artifacts in a traveling exhibition he organized — which had been on display at the MFA and two other museums — were called into question by the Denver Museum of Art, where it was scheduled to open this year.

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Bennett says he was never given a reason for being fired, which happened a month after he was placed on administrative leave and refused to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Museum officials declined to comment to The New York Times on the reason for his firing, and an email from the Tampa Bay Times to Russell asking for comment went unanswered.

Other critical staff members have left this year, including most recently Jane Aspinwall, senior curator of photography and her partner, Paul Churchill, who was the museum’s lead preparator of exhibits.

Jorge Vidal, who was the museum’s senior manager of special projects, also left this year to become the executive director at Florida CraftArt.

It had been standard practice for the museum to present special exhibitions in the galleries of the Hazel Hough Wing. “True Nature: Rodin and the Age of Impressionism” and “Tom Jones: Here We Stand” were shown there earlier this year.

But since the Tom Jones show closed in August, the only show programmed for that space is “The Nature of Art,” which opened Oct. 28 and draws from the permanent collection.

The upcoming exhibitions page on its website is currently blank.

A schedule of events, including artist talks and yoga, appears on the calendar through December.

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