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 change.org 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.