Elizabeth Warshawer, 70, a highly regarded arts consultant with extensive experience in the world of Philadelphia’s cultural nonprofits, will take over as interim head of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts beginning next month.
She is the second woman to head the venerable art school and museum, founded in 1805. (The first was Dorothy McKenna Brown, former president of Rosemont College, in the 1990s.)
PAFA’s former president and chief executive, David R. Brigham, stepped down at the end of November after 10 years, taking over as head of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
In an interview Friday, Warshawer said she would start next month, with a focus that includes “providing leadership and management guidance to the PAFA leadership team with respect to the execution of all their daily roles and responsibilities, importantly picking up on all the key strategic initiatives that are going on right now,” she said.
As an interim leader, she added, “you have to climb the learning curve really quickly, because you need to understand everything that’s already in place. I know there are a lot of efforts in place now to ensure that PAFA is a safe and inclusive environment for all, both internal and external constituents, so I need to get my arms around everything that’s currently going on.”
PAFA has been roiled in recent years by perceived mishandling of several matters, including rape allegations against a former student and charges of censoring staff who voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the former instance, two female students said they were raped by a male student in 2016 and that the school was slow in investigating and taking action. The male, who denied the charges, was eventually expelled, but the case echoes down to this day.
In the Black Lives Matter controversy, administrators told staff and faculty that they could not list a PAFA affiliation when signing protest petitions, as many had done in support of BLM in June. In the ensuing uproar, more than a thousand people signed a petition calling for Brigham’s ouster and a number of students refused to participate in the Annual Student Exhibition this fall — forgoing the pinnacle of their art school careers.
In response to the controversies, among other things, PAFA affirmed its support of diversity and equity and named Rónké Òké as director of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. She will also serve as an assistant professor in liberal arts and as deputy Title IX coordinator.
Warshawer said she was not given any specific directive by PAFA’s board of trustees or its chairman, real estate developer Kevin F. Donohoe, to address continued fallout from the rape allegations or BLM dispute. But there was discussion of PAFA’s problems related to racial and gender issues, she said.
“It will be my role to work with the students, the faculty, the staff, the board, and the public to really help PAFA in all efforts to make PAFA a safe and inclusive environment, free from discrimination of all kinds,” she said. “Now, to give you specifics, it’s a little premature for that, but I am intent on working with all constituents of PAFA to create a community that addresses all of these issues.”
Warshawer was an executive with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Curtis School of Music for many years. Since 2015, she has worked as an independent consultant and served in interim leadership roles with several organizations, most notably the Pennsylvania Ballet.
Officials at PAFA said a search committee for a permanent president and CEO is being formed; the hope is to have a selection in place before the start of the next academic year.