March 17, 2010

PMA director moves on to new project


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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Tues., May 6, 2008.Dan O'Leary has resigned as Portland Museum of Art director and is taking a job as director of the Winslow Homer Studio.

Staff Writer

Daniel E. O'Leary, director of the Portland Museum of Art for 14 years and a major player in the museum's financial growth and expansion, has resigned his post, but will continue working for the museum.

O'Leary, 64, will assume the newly created position of director of the Winslow Homer Studio Project, said Hans Underdahl, president of the museum's board of trustees. The project will restore the Prouts Neck studio to its original condition when Homer painted there in the late 1800s.

''His job right now is to ensure the financial success of the Winslow Homer studio. It's a full-time job for the next couple of years,'' Underdahl said.

The museum announced O'Leary's resignation, effective immediately, on Tuesday. Trustees will form a search committee within a month and begin advertising for a successor.

Deputy director and Chief Curator Thomas Denenberg will serve as acting director until trustees hire O'Leary's replacement.

O'Leary is credited with restoring the museum's standing in the community by giving the institution financial stability, increasing attendance and membership, and leading historical restorations of the McLellan House and Sweat Galleries.

Before his arrival, the museum operated with deficits and its historic buildings were in disrepair.

O'Leary also helped the curatorial staff mount many of the museum's most successful exhibitions, including the just-closed exhibition by Harpswell sculptor John Bisbee, ''Bright Common Spikes.'' The show, which closed in March, was the most financially successful winter exhibition in museum history -- a fact that made O'Leary especially proud.

''I see it as a great indicator that the museum has reached its potential, and we did it with a living Maine artist. I cannot imagine a better show to go out with,'' O'Leary said.

O'Leary's resignation means the city's major arts institutions -- the PMA, Maine College of Art and the Portland Symphony Orchestra -- each has had a change in leadership within the past two years. Maine College of Art and the symphony both hired new top-level managers in 2006.

Betsy Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., said the museum vacancy will attract highly qualified candidates.

''Portland is one of the most desirable posts in the country, for several reasons. Thanks to Dan O'Leary, the museum is in great physical shape, great financial shape and has a reputation for excellence,'' she said.

O'Leary, who came to Portland from Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1993, balanced the budget in each of his 14 years as director. He helped increase attendance from 88,000 in 1992, the year before he arrived, to an annual average of 150,000 today.

During his tenure, the museum budget increased from $1.8 million to $4.6 million, and the endowment grew from $3.4 million to $33 million.

Underdahl characterized O'Leary's new position as a lateral move. The museum did not release information about O'Leary's salary.

Several factors contributed to the timing of O'Leary's departure, Underdahl said. The museum recently acquired the Clapp House next door on Spring Street, previously occupied by the Maine College of Art. It also purchased the former YWCA property at 87 Spring St. and razed the building. It now is a vacant lot.

The museum is in the process of doing a historic-structure report on the Clapp House, built in 1832. The report will determine the condition of the Greek Revival building and help the museum identify its best use.

Similarly, the trustees will soon debate the best long-term use of the lot at 87 Spring St. In the short term, the museum has hired a landscape architect to improve its appearance.

O'Leary's replacement will lead the planning for both projects, Underdahl said.

The properties could provide the museum with expansion opportunities similar to those presented after Charles Shipman Payson left the museum his collection of Homer paintings and the money to build a wing to accommodate them.

That bequest led to the opening of the Payson wing 25 years ago this month.

''The YWCA lot doubles the size of our precinct,'' Underdahl said. ''Perhaps there is another Charles Shipman Payson out there who will take the museum to another level in the next 25 or 50 years.''

In the meantime, the museum wants to dedicate its resources to finishing off the Homer studio in seaside Scarborough. Noted architect John Calvin Stevens built the studio for Homer in 1883.

The museum acquired the studio in 2006 and has worked to raise money for its restoration. The goal is $8.3 million; the museum has raised more than $5 million in gifts and pledges.

O'Leary called the Homer project ''the crowning career opportunity of my life. I will begin immediately. I will spend most of my time on the road talking to people or giving tours to potential donors. The Homer studio, in my belief and in my heart, is the most important place in the history of American art. I want it to be a tremendous success.

''To be able to focus all my attention on it is a tremendous opportunity,'' he said. ''I think that's what it deserves.''

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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