Community petitions to bring Riley back to the Nassau County Museum of Art

Community petitions to bring Riley back to the Nassau County Museum of Art
Nassau County Museum of Art director Charles Riley discusses the works with a group of visitors in 2017. (Photo by Amelia Camurati)

The decision not to renew Charles Riley’s contract at the Nassau County Museum of Art has sparked an uproar from community members who cherished the former director’s larger-than-life personality and contributions to the museum. Now a fellow local arts director has taken matters into his own hands and launched a petition to bring Riley back.

Riley served as the museum’s director for six years. He is known internationally as an expert on the economics of the arts and has authored numerous books and articles. He has been involved in the founding of multiple museums and curated exhibitions in Taiwan, Berlin, Amsterdam and New York.

“He’s extraordinarily knowledgeable, he’s got vision, he’s got commitment and he’s very personable,” David Bernard said.

Bernard, who grew up in Great Neck but lives in Manhattan, is the music director of the Massapequa Philharmonic Orchestra. He has been music director since 2016, previously serving as the music director of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in New York City.

He has worked with Riley for the past couple of years, starting their working relationship during the pandemic when the philharmonic partnered with the museum to bring socially distanced live music to Long Islanders.

In the wake of these performances, he said the philharmonic also became the orchestra in residence at the museum and has continued to play concerts there.

Bernard said in partnering with the museum for the past three years, the philharmonic has become “integrated with Dr. Riley’s amazing conception and vision for the exhibits and the art and all this that’s happening at the museum.”

“He’s very open, personable,” Bernard said. “Not everybody who’s that driven and successful is that open, but he is. He’s a consummate educator. It looks like he made the museum thrive.”

Bernard said he found out about Riley leaving the museum when he read Blank Slate Media’s story breaking the news on Sept. 6.

The museum’s interim director, Fernanda Bennett, said that Riley’s contract was not renewed in August as Riley and the museum’s board of trustees did not “see eye to eye” on the museum’s future goals and activities.

Bernard said upon reading the Blank Slate article, he found the whole situation “crazy” and had to do something about it.

So he started a petition urging the museum to reinstate Riley in his director position.

“If there’s any way of keeping him there, for all of us, we should do it,” Bernard said.

Bernard said he’s hoping that Riley returns to the museum, but he’s unsure how that would happen.

Efforts to contact Riley were unavailing. Blank Slate Media contacted the Nassau County Museum of Art for comment but did not receive a response prior to publication.

The petition, which has a goal of 500 signatures, has drawn 431 in the four days it has been active. Bernard said he has not spoken with Riley recently and has not informed him of the petition.

“Anybody who’s been to that museum and has talked to Dr. Riley knows how committed he is and the quality of the exhibits that he brings,” Bernard said. “The quality of the exhibits, how he infuses this vision across the entire facility, all of this is palpable. You get it when you go there. Everybody’s touched by it.”

Steve Walk, a Great Neck resident and member of the museum, said he has witnessed the museum transform over time. With Riley’s introduction to the museum, Walk said he brought energy and expertise to the organization.

“He stimulated, he entertained, he energized and he was informed,” Walk said. “He was not just role-playing.”

Walk said that some of his fondest memories of Riley were when he would jump onto the piano in the spur of a moment to have his music waft through the museum.

“Just born excitement, born vitality,” Walk said.

Walk learned of Riley’s departure from the museum when he visited a few weeks ago and asked to see him. He said he was in shock when the museum staff informed him that he no longer was working at the museum.

“The buzz in the museum was just tremendous,” Walk said.

While he acknowledged administrative “glitches” with the museum, such as repeated mailings about renewing his museum membership after he had already done so, Walk said something like that would not warrant not renewing Riley’s contract.

Walk said he was not aware of the petition prior to speaking with Blank Slate Media, but he found the petition “soothing” in its efforts to bring back Riley.

“When he presented an opening lecture or a lecture on an opening exhibit, he just thrived,” Walk said. “He bounced around. You just were energized by his energy, his knowledge.”

Bernard said that as also a director of a cultural institution on Long Island, he understood Riley’s vision of bringing art culture to the community.

“You have a vision, you can conceive of what it is you want to bring to the community and you bring it,” Bernard said. “Charlie is no different than that.”

He said  the exhibits that Riley has brought to the museum are not just about the art, but a “vision for bringing culture” to the community.

He said it was lucky circumstances that drew Riley to the Nassau County Museum of Art, saying the museum should keep him for the positive attributes he has contributed.

“It’s just tragic and mind-boggling that this happened,” Bernard said.

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  1. Dr. Riley made the art alive and exciting. He interacted with museum visitors
    personally and made us feel part of this wonderful museum. It was my go to for stimulating art appreciation. I am so sad that he will no longer be part of my “home”.

  2. I am so sad and utterly stunned to hear the news about Dr. Riley being let go from the museum. I can recall many visits when he would talk with me about the art and why he selected different pieces. His enthusiasm for art was beyond refreshing, especially since I am an artist myself. While he was there over the past six years, the exhibitions were more interesting, I felt, and it just seemed to come to life under his guidance. Not sure why the museum would make such a horrible decision for the community by letting him go. He was the heart of the place. I hope they come to their senses and bring him back.

  3. Dr. Riley is that rare bird, a guy with a brilliant mind, great communication skills, and passion for what he does. The museum was lucky to have him and I hope will reconsider its position on not renewing his contract.

  4. Shame on the board
    Charles Riley has put the Nassau County Museum on the world map. He has opened up the museum to a very diversified population!
    No one has brought more interest to the museum since it’s opening!! What were you thinking?
    bring him back!!! I will seriously consider canceling my membership!

  5. So, this is the “new direction” the museum is taking? More Leonard’s of Great Neck than art museum. This weekend they closed the doors to the public to hold a wedding in the main gallery where literally hundreds of millions of dollars worth of paintings by Modigliani, Picasso and Matisse are hanging. We docents watched in mounting horror as guests were drinking (including red wine, a no-no) eating, vaping and cavorting in front of un-protected masterpieces, while paying visitors were locked out. If the lenders only knew the dangers their work was exposed to they would plotz. Who, in their right mind, will ever loan art works to this catering hall of a museum, ever? What a disgrace! No way this would have happened under Dr. Riley. We are so embarrassed to be part of this place now…. so so sad a place our beloved museum has turned into.

  6. I’ve been a member for 6 years. The museum becomes industrial leader after Charlie’s directing. His director’s talk taught so many people to love and understand art. I’ve been forwarding his online talk to many students and families. Even now, I receive essays and comments about Charlie’s talk. If the museum is looking for someone who can lift the aesthetics level, raise public awareness, expand membership, Charlie did it all.

  7. Below is the open letter cited in a recent Newsday report. So far there is no response from the Board of NCMA.

    Dear Board Members,

    Please permit us to send you this email containing a letter addressed to all board members, and kindly distribute this letter to each of them.

    During the week of remembrance, we seek to forge love and compassion in our country and community. It is in this spirit that we ask you to read this letter and offer us a reply. As a community, we wish the best to our beloved jewel of a museum whose future is teetering on the verge of distrust. It is also our hope that our contributions, participation, and love for the museum will be embraced by the board for a better future.

    We are a group of longtime members, volunteers, and supporters of NCMA. We were shocked to learn of the news of Dr. Riley’s abrupt departure. This is especially true when considering Dr. Riley’s significant contributions to the Museum over the past six years. It would help clarify confusion and restore the public’s confidence if the Board could provide more transparency regarding this decision.

    In our humble opinion, Dr. Riley has dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the museum over the past six years. He put a lot of enthusiasm and energy into each of the museum’s shows. Dr. Riley is also the most captivating and unparalleled tour guide, drawing visitors to museum exhibitions with his in-depth and easy-to-understand commentary. One memory that stands out is the “Blue Show” held during the pandemic in 2020. Not only was it one of the museum’s finest exhibitions, along with the Jazz Age and Energy shows, but our museum was the first and only public cultural institution open at the height of the pandemic in the Tri-State area. Dr. Riley’s catalog for Blue Show remains the best we’ve ever seen. It became the nexus of NY’s cultural elites at a time when people became homebound without a social center. The museum drew people from Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and even Connecticut and Dr. Riley was there in person every single day. No employee at the museum was laid off and Dr. Riley took a salary cut himself to keep the place afloat.

    If a director with such selfless sacrifice and pure dedication to public service is not what this institution values, we wonder what else the Board is looking for? Once a sleeping beauty known to a small circle of people, mostly senior citizens, the museum now is a popular stop in Nassau County. Its reputation under Dr. Riley’s directorship is circulated in social media across geographic borders, racial demarcations, and diverse social and economic groups. Once a dormant beauty, the museum was awakened by Dr. Riley’s unwavering commitment and turned it into a go-to place for the community residents and beyond.

    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, among others. We certainly hope that this momentum will continue. In this regard, we strongly urge the Board to provide more transparency regarding a decision that has drawn more negative attention to the museum. As taxpayers whose hard-earned money in tax form goes to fund the museum, we deserve and have a right to demand an answer from the Board on a decision that has flummoxed the entire community. Strollers, museum members, and sponsors sought answers from an equally perplexed volunteers and friends of the museum. We appreciate your quick response on this matter.

  8. Dr Reilly has brought new life to Long Island. The museum has become a beacon for art lovers. Dr Reilly has managed a difficult balance with the more established art and gravitation to art in this time. The exhibits have been, exciting and thought provoking. In addition Dr Reilly has exchanged ideas with viewers when encountering them at an exhibition and this has been exceptional and delightful . Please reconsider renewing dr Reillys contract. He has made the museum a Mecca for art lovers and his loss will be felt by many.


  9. I just got the news. Thanks to the article in Art news magazine, and I am very sad and disappointed because he was a larger than life, charismatic and energetic, approachable, friendly leader. He led with enthusiasm, and I loved his lectures. He was so knowledgeable and interesting. I sincerely doubt you’ll ever find somebody to replace him, and I don’t understand what kind of political dynamics or intrapersonal dynamics were at play on the board. I’m just imagining must’ve rubbed somebody important the wrong way because there’s no other explanation unless it was something far-fetched that is being kept a secret. I have to find it and sign the petition. Please bring Charlie back or you’ll be making a big mistake..


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