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Women are now at the helm of PAFA, charged with steering the institution back from its many woes

After protests, petitions, and resignations, women are in the top positions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and they are looking to steady the ship.

Elizabeth Warshawer, interim president and CEO at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, photographed at PAFA's Cast Hall.
Elizabeth Warshawer, interim president and CEO at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, photographed at PAFA's Cast Hall.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

It’s been a rough few years for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Highly charged issues related to student rape allegations in 2016, complaints involving censorship of faculty voices in support of Black Lives Matter, and subsequent protests by students have roiled the leadership of the institution, all exacerbated by administrative and management failures amid a grinding pandemic.

Last summer, a petition with about 1,000 signatures circulated in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests calling for the ouster of longtime PAFA president and CEO David Brigham, the focus of student and staff ire for management miscues and efforts to distance PAFA from BLM.

Several students boycotted the Annual Student Exhibition.

Now, as the new academic year looms, some change can be detected at PAFA, located at North Broad and Cherry Streets, most notably in a shift in the gender of power.

Women are fully taking the PAFA helm for the first time in its 216-year history — at a time when at least some students and staff seem weary and wary, and financial issues related to declining enrollment and changing demographics present a growing challenge.

Brigham is gone after resigning in October to become the head of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. A search has been mounted for his successor.

Brooke Davis Anderson, director of the museum, suddenly resigned in May. PAFA officials said she left to become head of the Via Art Fund in New York, and added that the position of museum director would not be filled until Brigham’s successor is selected and makes a choice. Neither Brigham nor Anderson responded to requests for comment.

Interim chief executive Elizabeth Warshawer, the second woman to head the venerable art school and museum (the first was Dorothy McKenna Brown in the 1990s), said the high-level departures “allowed us to promote two really capable women” to help run an institution currently without a permanent chief executive or museum director.

Veteran curator Anna O. Marley retains her curatorial duties and has been named vice president of museum research and scholarship, and Monica Zimmerman, vice president of public education and engagement, has had museum operations added to her portfolio.

Most significantly, at the beginning of July, Kevin F. Donohoe, chair of the board of the trustees, rotated out of that position and was replaced by Anne E. McCollum, whose affiliation with PAFA stretches back two decades to when she entered museum life as a docent.

McCollum, a financial consultant with a deep interest in contemporary art, is the first woman to chair the trustees in PAFA’s history and has been on the board for about a dozen years. In 2014, after spending considerable time with a PAFA student, McCollum engineered the Fine Arts Venture Fund, PAFA’s first program that introduces students to the world of grants, encouraging them to develop unique projects, write grant proposals, and present work to funders.

Warshawer and McCollum said PAFA is now focused on the future, regardless of the missteps of the last few years. All the recent promotions, Warshawer noted, have been women. Two major exhibitions currently on view also focus on women — “Taking Space: Contemporary Women Artists and the Politics of Scale” (through Sept. 5) and “Women in Motion: 150 Years of Women’s Artistic Networks at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts” (through July 24, 2022).

“This has not necessarily been a place where there were a lot of women in senior leadership roles,” Warshawer said. “I think having ‘Women in Motion,’ having new people in leadership roles here is a positive.”

Transparency first

McCollum said “the need for transparency” was the “big takeaway” from last year’s woes.

Those entering PAFA in 2021 are entering a culture many feel was tainted last summer by PAFA’s handling of a Black Lives Matter petition signed by some faculty members who added their institutional affiliation along with their names.

The administration said that was inappropriate. The ensuing uproar and cries of censorship were capped by the boycott of the Annual Student Exhibition and the petition demanding the ouster of Brigham as CEO.

Students and faculty members contacted for this article are still leery of the institution and almost entirely declined to speak on the record.

McCollum and Warshawer say PAFA is seeking to address all concerns.

“What we discovered was that we weren’t communicating as best we could be,” McCollum said. “We have committed to a cascade of communications throughout the year with our team, our students, our alumni, and we have made it clear to the search firm that we’re working with to hire the CEO that we’d only like a leader who can continue with that deep and transparent communication. It doesn’t serve anyone to limit communication.”

The PAFA administration and board are clearly making a conscious effort to reset the institutional narrative and create some sense of comity. The first staff-wide pay raise in five years is also part of this effort.

The raise is “not a big one,” Warshawer said. “But it’s a vote of confidence. Looking ahead, I don’t think it’s one thing that makes for reset and redo; it’s everything from communication and creating some transparency around the search [for a permanent CEO], around the budget, around general communications about how we’re going to come back to work and how we’re going to ensure a safe work environment.”

As of this writing, students are scheduled to begin orientation on Aug. 30, and the fall term commences Sept. 1. The museum is currently open Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Danger: ‘Enrollment cliff’

Despite the difficulties of remote learning, and they were legion, McCollum believes both the museum and school showed dexterity in switching over to all-digital programming at the onset of the pandemic. This, she said, will prove valuable as PAFA braces to weather college enrollment storm clouds gathering all across the country.

Educators believe 2025 represents an “enrollment cliff” — the number of students matriculating in colleges across the country, declining since the Great Recession, is expected to fall into a black hole.

“The broader context has overall made it incredibly challenging to operate very small institutions, and by that I mean those with an enrollment under 300 students,” said Deborah Obalil, president and executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design.

“Based on the research we’ve done within our membership, the financial balancing at that scale, it just becomes out of whack,” she said.

PAFA enters 2021-22 with 185 students, according to Warshawer — 70% are bachelor of fine arts degree candidates, 30% are master of fine arts and postbaccalaureate students, according to a PAFA spokeswoman.

McCollum said part of PAFA’s answer to the enrollment cliff is to better integrate and utilize the school and museum. Beyond that, she sees PAFA enticing students with cradle-to-grave programming, from summer camp classes to adult learning.

Digital offerings help extend the reach. But will it be enough to survive the demographic cliff of 2025? After all, PAFA received nearly $3.9 million in PPP loans to help it weather the pandemic without a deficit. There are no more PPP loans in the foreseeable future.

‘This is where we’re at’

“We learned a lot of things during COVID, a lot of positive things,” said Reginald Browne, vice chair of the board of trustees and chair of the college board of governors. “We have 185 students coming into the fall. We have a new teaching modality. We’ve learned a lot around delivery of education electronically and digitally. You know there’s elements for future growth. And this is where we’re at.”

When asked about lingering student unease about recent controversies, Browne said the issue had been addressed by a clarification of PAFA’s free-speech policies.

He said that PAFA stood behind unfettered freedom of speech, adding that those who maintain otherwise “have no idea.”

“I’m telling you [as] vice chairman of this institution, [it] means more freedom of speech,” he said, referring to the written policy. “We addressed it, we dealt with it, we moved on.”

The policy, viewable on PAFA’s website, bars employees from using “their relationship with PAFA to benefit candidates or public office holders.” It does not mention issues related to last year’s controversy.

Emily Cavanaugh, who has just been named a vice chair of the board, said staff could sign anything. But, she said, “speak on your own, we’re not going to censor anybody, but please like, just make it clear that you’re speaking as a citizen.”

The same questions, on repeat

Several students and faculty members said off the record that confusion over formal policy underscored PAFA’s major problem: poor communication and the absence of any kind of platform to exchange views.

There is no community-wide forum, they said, questions are not answered, and, as one student said, “a new batch of students comes in and starts asking the same questions, and it seems like they get the same answers.”

Faculty members, speaking off the record, said the board never directly engaged the school community — even during much-touted “listening sessions.”

“Yes it is true that now we have more Black and brown people on staff and that is progress in its own way, but that was not the core of our problem at school,” said one teacher who declined to be named for fear of reprisal. “The core of our problem was that there is no real community.”

Currently there are six trustees of color and 15 women (out of a total of 46 trustees), according to a PAFA spokeswoman. The faculty for 2020-21 consisted of 22% people of color. PAFA’s fall 2020 survey showed 26% students of color.

Are the board and staff changes meaningful?

“Yeah, absolutely,” said Dori Miller, a 2020 master of fine arts graduate who protested the student exhibition “from within” last year, donating proceeds from art sales to “three relevant organizations” — #SayHerName, The Okra Project, and The Navajo Water Project.

Miller said Brigham’s resignation and the appointment of women and people of color to the board were all positive steps.

“My hope is that, and you can understand why I’m living in yellow on this, I don’t trust it,” she said. “I’ll believe it when I see it. But at least they’re trying. They should have adapted all along the way, that’s my opinion, but they haven’t, so maybe they are now. I have hope. I hope. I hope it works out, I really do.”