David R. Brigham, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts president and CEO whose tenure has brought both growth and controversy to the venerable school and museum, is stepping down.

He isn’t going far. Brigham, 56, will leave the post Nov. 30 to become CEO of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, HSP has announced.

Both the institution Brigham leads now and the one to which he is going have been the focus of controversies in the past year and a half.

Under financial pressure, HSP has laid off staff and sold off items in its collection. At PAFA recently, a group of alumni and students have called for Brigham’s firing amid anger at the lack of diversity at the institution and school policy relating to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Brigham was also criticized after a 2019 Inquirer story that detailed the accounts of two former PAFA students who said the school mishandled complaints they filed in 2016 that they were raped by another PAFA student. At a subsequent school town hall, Brigham vowed that the school would “do better.”

Brigham took over as PAFA president and CEO in 2010 after serving for a few years as the academy’s museum director. His nearly 11 years there were marked by profound change: acquisitions of art by contemporary artists, women and artists of color; a series of ambitious renovations to both the historic Frank Furness-designed structure as well as the newer Hamilton building; the opening of a new performing arts space and an art-storage facility; and the launch of an undergraduate program in illustration and a low-residency MFA program.

During his leadership, PAFA closed the street between its two buildings to create Lenfest Plaza, a pedestrian mall crowned at one end with a towering Claes Oldenberg sculpture of a paintbrush with a large glob of “paint” below.

It was all of these accomplishments that made Brigham want to move on, he said Monday.

“I think that’s exactly why I am ready for a new challenge,” said Brigham, adding that he had been a researcher at HSP since he was as a graduate student at Penn in the 1980s (his Ph.D. in is American civilization). “I feel like there is so much untapped potential at HSP.”

Asked whether he had any regrets about his handling of either the Black Lives Matter issue or the rape complaints, he said: “It’s been an amazing 13 years at PAFA, and in the course of a long tenure like that there are going to be bumps in the road." He went on to cite a number of specific institutional changes made in response to those controversies, including the hiring of a new director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The historical society conducted a national search for a new leader, said HSP board of councilors chair Eric Noll, and the search firm identified Brigham as a potential candidate. Noll said that Brigham’s qualification as a scholar was appealing.

“Most important for us, he is a dedicated and imaginative leader and manager who knows how to build an organization,” said Noll. “One of the things that most impressed us was that he has delivered balanced budgets for many years and has raised a tremendous amount of money for the mission of PAFA over the years.”

It was a plus, he said, that Brigham already knew Philadelphia’s philanthropic community.

“Our sense was that he was going to hit the ground running, and that makes a difference,” Noll said.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, at 1300 Locust St. in Center City.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, at 1300 Locust St. in Center City.

HSP’s finances are now stable, Noll said, but for the fiscal year that ended in June the organization ran a $300,000 deficit on an operating budget of about $3 million. In April of 2019, the group laid off nearly a third of its staff, and in November of that year it quietly sold more than 1,100 George Washington-related medals in its Baker Collection, bringing in about $2.2 million while drawing criticism.

The society, at 13th and Locust Streets, counts among its more than 20 million items the first two drafts of the U.S. Constitution, an original printer’s proof of the Declaration of Independence, and the papers of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

At PAFA in June, a petition that ultimately gathered more than 1,200 signatures from alumni and students called for Brigham’s “immediate termination” while advocating for greater diversity in the institution’s curriculum, staff, and faculty. The issue swelled up after the academy sent a memo to faculty and staff “reminding” them not to state an affiliation with PAFA in petitions and protests supporting Black Lives Matter.

Brigham offered his resignation, but the board declined and instead offered support of its president and CEO.

PAFA’s board leaders are now discussing how to proceed with a search for Brigham’s replacement and whether an interim executive will be sought, said board chair Kevin F. Donohoe. “David was amazing, just terrific to work with,” said Donohoe. “He accomplished many things, he’s a very bright, caring, kind and capable guy and always handled a challenge very well.”

In announcing Brigham’s appointment, HSP noted that Brigham had doubled the academy’s annual operating budget, increased annual giving to $5 million from $2 million, and raised $24.5 million to fund the campus master plan.

During his time, the collections grew through gifts and purchases by 25%, said the HSP announcement, with particular emphasis on contemporary art; works by women, LGBTQ artists, and artists of color; as well as works by Hudson River School artists.

PAFA has acquired pieces by female artists at a rate of five times the national average, according to a study of data from 2008 to 2018 at 26 U.S. art museums.

Noll acknowledged HSP’s selling off of the Washington medals as well as talks with Drexel University about a potential partnership or merger. He said, however, that he did not see the society selling any additional items, and said that while he did not want to rule anything out, it was not the “aim right now to pursue a merger.”

Instead, he said, Brigham and the board will set out to develop a new strategic plan for the organization.

“Bringing in David really marks a turning point for us," said Noll. "We want to continue to build.”