Walters avoids suit, pays off director it almost hired Letters show an abiding bitterness

November 20, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

The saga of Michael P. Mezzatesta and the Walters Art Gallery, which announced him as its new director in June only to withdraw the offer last week, now includes lengthy letters on both sides trading charges of "insensitive," "inappropriate," "misconstrued" and "untrue."

A threatened lawsuit, however, has been avoided.

Mr. Mezzatesta and the Walters, one of Baltimore's premier arts institutions, reached agreement yesterday on a financial settlement, according to Gil A. Abramson, a lawyer representing the Walters.

However, both he and Mr. Mezzatesta's lawyer, Edward J. Gutman, declined to name the amount of the settlement.

Behind the charges and counter-charges that have been leveled, the picture emerging is one of a conservative institution that hired itself a mover and shaker and then -- when he began to move and shake -- got cold feet.

To what extent there may have been a genuine misunderstanding about how much Mr. Mezzatesta, the 45-year-old director of the Duke University Museum of Art, wanted to change things may never be known.

Mr. Mezzatesta blames "people who wanted to maintain the status quo" for causing the split.

Some have suggested that he came on too strong too soon and should have been more sensitive to the institution.

In a letter to Mr. Mezzatesta, Jay M. Wilson, the Walters' board president, charged him with wanting a $50,000 discretionary fund for his personal use and with making contemporary art too large a part of his agenda, among other things.

These actions, the board president concluded, "would certainly constitute cause for dismissal had you taken office."

But it seems clear that the Walters should have known more about Mr. Mezzatesta before hiring him after a nine-month search to replace Robert Bergman, who left the gallery to become director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in May.

It's also clear that Mr. Mezzatesta was asked to withdraw without being allowed to talk directly with either the board

president or the board.

In the opinion of some observers, he was treated so poorly that the 60-year-old Walters may have trouble finding a top-flight director.

While the former director-designate and the Walters board president disagree on many aspects of the break, some facts are clear.

The search committee and the board interviewed Mr. Mezzatesta earlier in the year, the full board offered him the job on June 28 and he accepted.

He was to assume his position in November.

But over the summer certain issues surfaced about which Mr. Mezzatesta and Mr. Wilson have very different opinions.

On Oct. 21, Mr. Wilson and Adena Testa, the board's vice president, met face-to-face with Mr. Mezzatesta and asked him to withdraw as director-designate.

In a board meeting Nov. 9, without discussing the matter with Mr. Mezzatesta, the board withdrew its offer of employment.

Mr. Mezzatesta says he repeatedly asked to talk directly with Mr. Wilson, even asking Robert Bergman, a former director, to act as intermediary to arrange such a meeting. But he was rebuffed.

Sought interview with board

Mr. Mezzatesta also says he asked to talk directly with the board but also was turned down.

Mr. Wilson says once Mr. Mezzatesta engaged a lawyer, "dialogue without counsel was impossible."

But it was a week after the encounter Oct. 21 that Mr. Mezzatesta hired a lawyer.

Mr. Wilson says, "I don't feel it appropriate to comment on that at this point."

On Nov. 5, Mr. Wilson sent Mr. Mezzatesta a letter citing four reasons why he was being asked to withdraw:

* Salary. That Mr. Mezzatesta had asked for more "compensation" than was originally agreed to, and had sent Mr. Wilson a letter Oct. 12 "shocking me with the statement that you had never accepted the original compensation offer."

* The special fund. That Mr. Mezzatesta had demanded "a special fund of $50,000 for your personal use and exempt from accountability."

* Contemporary art. That he had "set a contemporary art agenda in conflict with the mission" of the Walters, including the desire to bring in future exhibitions of contemporary Russian and Venezuelan art.

(Although Mr. Wilson's letter states that "an initiative in contemporary art raises serious questions about our relationship with the Baltimore Museum of Art," the board president says there have been no discussions between the BMA and the Walters on the matter.)

(James S. Riepe, BMA board chairman and president, also said he was not aware of any such discussions.)

dTC * Lending artwork. That he had scheduled discussions with an outside museum director about the loan of a Walters painting, "View of an Ideal City," without proper consultation with curatorial and conservation staff. This the board president termed "insensitive and inappropriate in the extreme."

'Red herrings'

Mr. Mezzatesta not only disputes all of these charges, but says they amount to "red herrings."

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