DENNIS — The plan in 2011 was to push the museum director out quietly, offering a severance deal and a cover story. But Elizabeth Ives Hunter, the executive director of the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis since 2003, didn’t want to go.
Instead, Hunter, 66 — known for her brassy personality, knowledge of Provincetown’s rich art history, and ability to keep the struggling museum afloat — hired a lawyer. She appeared to win, extending her tenure. Then, in July, she resigned.
Now the museum — one of the area’s most prominent arts institutions, with a collection that includes works by Hans Hofmann, Milton Avery, Robert Motherwell, and other famous artists who spent time on the Cape — is near collapse, facing the most public crisis of its three-decade history.
An interim director and skeleton staff keep it open on a reduced schedule. Two exhibitions have been postponed. And the local arts community is divided over, among other things, whom to blame.
The eight trustees who voted to remove Hunter in 2011 — against eight who voted to retain her — have resigned and have been criticizing the remaining trustees, Hunter’s supporters, in the local newspaper and at public gatherings.
Hrant “Hank” Russian, an attorney who is the museum’s current board chairman, likened his position to “the person who is trying to climb back in the rowboat, and there’s a person above them hitting them on the top of the head, knocking them down.” He says the former trustees are harming the museum with their public criticism.
Located on Route 6A, in the same complex that houses the Cape Playhouse, the Cape Cod Museum of Art has long struggled to balance its budget. In 2010 and 2009, the museum had deficits of $172,855 and $159,320, and a roughly $1.1 million budget.
The move to oust Hunter also took place on the inside; at least six of 10 museum staffers — including the curator, the business manager, the registrar, and education director — began meeting last summer with the trustees who also wanted Hunter out.
“She had a very extensive background in art,” said Pat Barnhart, a trustee at the time. “But she was not a successful fund-raiser.”
The staffers added fuel. They said that Hunter had treated them poorly, sometimes using vulgar language, and created a “volatile and toxic work environment that we felt we couldn’t ignore,” recalled Barnhart.
“I would walk on eggshells around her,” said registrar Angela Bilski, who resigned earlier this year because of Hunter.
Jim Godsill, a former trustee who served as the board’s treasurer, recounted a conversation with the director shortly after he joined the board in 2008. Godsill, a certified public accountant, suggested Hunter make changes in how she reported certain parts of her budget. She got angry, he said.
“The language she used with me was beyond the pale,” he said. “I turned to my wife afterwards and said, ‘This is a volunteer thing. I don’t know if I can continue with it.’ ”
Hunter, in a phone interview from her home in Walpole earlier this month, countered the complaints about her conduct. She accused the trustees who wanted her out of recruiting her staff into secretly meeting with them.
And she has supporters. Jacqueline Lane, the current vice president of the board of trustees, felt Hunter was unfairly blamed for the financial challenges.
“One person can’t do it all,” said Lane. “You look at the [Museum of Fine Arts] and they have all those deputy directors. When you’re running a small museum and don’t have senior staff, your director can’t have strengths in every area. . . . She brought that museum to a new level as far as its educational programming and missions.”
Hunter is unapologetic.
“I’m sure, as my children will tell you, I can be brusque,” said Hunter. “I am sure that in nine years I said something too sharply. . . . Of course, I could do things better. Everybody could do things better.
“But these were people meeting with staff behind my back,” she said. “I was never afforded the opportunity of facing my accusers. And interestingly enough, the whole thing sort of dried up and went away when I refused to resign. I said then, if you believe this is true and won’t give me a chance to refute, then fire me. Nobody did.”
Nine new members have been added in the last 18 months. But Russian admits he is board chairman only “because no one else wanted the damn job.”
Russian has earned praise for his willingness to devote endless hours to the museum and for helping raise more than $100,000 in August. But he has been criticized for his handling of the museum’s Friends group, which raises money for the museum. Earlier this year, Russian led a controversial effort to change the way the group operates. The entire 19-member Friends board resigned in March.
Ernie Oliveira, a former Friends member, has publicly called Russian “incompetent to lead the museum” and said he should resign. He has also said that museum supporters should stop attacking each other publicly.
But Russian says a plan is in place. Two shows deemed costly were postponed, but later this month exhibitions featuring the works of Milton Wright and graduates of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts will open.
“Every exhibition and every program must pay for itself,” said Russian.
Bilski, the registrar who resigned citing objectionable Hunter behavior, is back in the museum, paid an hourly salary out of Russian’s pocket. She said she is saddened by the dispute and feels torn between the two sides.
At a recent roundtable for female artists, Bilski arrived at the Chat House coffeehouse and art space to find the place packed with people looking to rail on the museum’s current leadership.
“When I walked in and saw a former staff member, the digruntled people frustrated from last year, I thought, ‘Oh my lord, here we go again,’ ” said Bilski.
The following week, Cindy Nickerson, the newly named interim director of the museum, showed up at the Chat House to take another slew of questions and criticisms from the group.
Bilski just hopes there will eventually be peace.
“I believe so much in the place. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be back here. If we work together, as a team and as a group and sometimes have to put our personalities aside as well, I think we can make this place great.”