Jennifer Pye and Bob Stahl will co-direct the Monhegan Museum.

Edward L. Deci, who helped transform the Monhegan Museum of Art and History from a tiny island museum that focused on local history into a regional destination for fine art associated with the remote Maine island, announced his retirement Monday after 36 years as director.

Deci, who filled the position on a volunteer basis, will remain active at the museum as president of its board of trustees. The museum’s chief curator, year-round island resident Jennifer Pye, will expand her role and become co-director with Robert Stahl, who is the museum’s associate director, treasurer and director of the James Fitzgerald Legacy. Fitzgerald was a prominent island painter whose home and studio are owned by the Monhegan Museum. Part of Stahl’s work will involve fully integrating the Fitzgerald collection and properties into the museum’s operation. Pye will become sole director in 2021.

Monday was the last day of the season at the museum, which attracts about 6,000 visitors during the three-plus months that it is open during the year. It has about 35,000 objects in its collection, including 2,000 works of art, and an annual budget of $378,000.

Pye said Deci is responsible for the museum becoming an art destination. “He has really created the museum that is here today,” she said.

Edward Deci is retiring after 36 years as director of the Monhegan Museum. Photo courtesy of Monhegan Museum of Art and History

When Deci began his duties in 1983, the budget was $200. He had studied art in college, but didn’t fully understand its importance to him until he arrived on Monhegan. He became enthralled with the history of art on the island and began volunteering at the museum after becoming a summer resident more than 40 years ago. “One of the things I understood is that if you are going to be a part of a community, you have to accept responsibility for doing something for that community to help it survive and thrive,” he said. “For me, I thought, this is it – I could work on the museum, which in those days was very small, just three rooms in an old house with no emphasis on art at all.”

Given the parade of famous painters who made the journey to Monhegan since the mid-1800s – Robert Henri, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper – it made sense to Deci to emphasize the important role of the arts in Monhegan’s cultural legacy. “When you look across American art, you can pretty much tell the story of American art based on Monhegan art. That’s an amazing thing to have, and what makes it all even more amazing is that it all happened on a small island. That means you can go to the places where Edward Hopper did this or that painting and where Rockwell Kent did this or that painting, and so on. It all happened right here.”

Deci, 77, also has a home in Rochester, New York, where he works as a psychologist.

The new co-directors have 35 years of experience with the museum. Pye has worked there 20 years, beginning as an intern in 1999. She became a curator in 2003 and chief curator in 2015. In addition to managing the museum’s offices, she cataloged the collection and secured a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to improve the museum’s energy efficiency, and the environmental conditions for exhibiting and storing art. The museum did not disclose her salary.

Pye serves on the board of the Maine Archives & Museums and volunteers for the island library and a sustainable community association.

Stahl, a longtime summer resident who is volunteering as co-director, became involved with Fitzgerald and his art in 2004 and became the museum’s associate director in 2008. He managed the restoration of the Monhegan Light Tower and led the effort to get the Fitzgerald home and studio listed on the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program. He also co-curated this year’s Maud Briggs Knowlton exhibition and directed the Fitzgerald catalog project.

Pye credited Deci with preparing her for the job. “It’s just an amazing place to work under Ed’s leadership. Everything is done without any personal agenda and with a thoughtful approach to what is best for the museum and what the long-term impacts are of every action we take,” she said. “On an island, seemingly simple actions can have a big impact. Ed has been so thoughtful about that, as he took this place from a house of three rooms for exhibits to what it is now.”

Stahl, a medical doctor by training, said his involvement with Fitzgerald and the museum are a direct result of Deci’s encouragement. “He turned to me and said, ‘I’d like you to take on the leadership of the Fitzgerald estate,’ and I am eternally grateful to him for his faith in me. It had an impact on my life, and I cannot even begin say how fruitful it has been,” he said, adding that he modeled his volunteer work at the museum after Deci’s. “Monhegan is a small community. Getting things done requires people to step forward, and people do step forward in a variety of ways.”

The museum is in the midst of a fundraising campaign, with a goal of $8 million. Part-time island resident Jamie Wyeth and his late wife, Phyllis, donated a $1 million challenge grant to the campaign and also promised the museum their private collection of Kent’s Monhegan paintings. The museum will share that collection with the Portland Museum of Art.

As he prepares for his departure from the island for the season, Deci said he is looking forward to his return next spring.

“I love the museum, and I will continue do this and that with it. I am retiring as director, but will continue with my role on the board and do fundraising and other things of that sort,” he said. “Plus, just sticking my nose and fingers in here and there and maybe work an exhibition or something.”

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