Spencer, fired director move on

Supporters' dedication to KU art museum tested by university's decision

They say life goes on. And it has for Andrea Norris, who six months ago was fired without explanation from her position as director of the Spencer Museum of Art.

It has, also, for the 26-year-old Kansas University institution guided by Norris for more than half its existence. And donors and longtime supporters are moving on as well.

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Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo

Andrea Norris, fired six months ago from her longtime job as director of the Spencer Museum of Art, says she will always feel a strong connection to the Kansas University museum.

But "moving on" is a relative term.

Steven Schmidt has gone so far as to alter his will since hearing how KU administrators handled Norris' dismissal.

"The way in which she was treated made me lose all respect for the university because she was a 15-year-long, enthusiastic, involved, dedicated professional who was treated very badly and arbitrarily in the firing," said Schmidt, a KU alumnus and past Spencer Advisory Board member who has lent art valued at thousands of dollars for Spencer exhibitions.

Schmidt had intended to leave a $340,000 print collection to the museum upon his death. That's not the case any more.

"I feel that I can no longer leave the artwork to the museum because I do not have respect for the university," the New Yorker said.

Schmidt is one of several Spencer faithful whose dedication to the museum has been tested by Norris' unexplained termination March 2.

That Tuesday, Norris was called to a meeting with Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor David Shulenburger and told she had until Friday to vacate her office. Her computer was confiscated but later returned. She remained on KU's payroll through June 30, when her contract expired, but was replaced by interim director Fred Pawlicki.

And as the search committee charged with selecting a new director continues sorting applications from those wanting her old job, Norris is left with more questions than answers.

Her only theory for the unceremonious discharge is academic politics.

"Whenever somebody is the director of a museum or the head of a major department, there are people at the university who don't like them or don't like what they do," she said last week. "And if those people are loud enough and those people have tenure, and the person who is the head of the department doesn't, it's easier to get rid of the director than it is to deal with the people who don't like you."

'No feedback'

It's unclear whether the university deviated from its own policy in dismissing Norris. The university handbook dictates that unclassified professional staff with three or more years of continuous service must be provided notice no later than Jan. 17 if they will not be reappointed the next fiscal year. Those employees may be reassigned to other duties during those remaining months.

However, employees with a "serves at the pleasure of" clause in their contract can be terminated at will by those they serve.

Ola Faucher, director of human resources and equal opportunity at KU, said that employees such as Norris, who have administrative or program responsibilities, often had the clause in their contracts.

Norris characterized her five-year performance review in 2003 as "nasty." She wouldn't comment further on the assessment, which is subject to confidentiality, except to say there were "some factual errors" in the review. She said that at no time had she been given any indication she would be dismissed.

"I had been asked to make some changes at the Spencer," she said. "I had initiated those changes. I had given a progress report on those changes, and there was no feedback about that progress report.

"No one said, 'You need to be taking the museum in a different direction,' or 'This is not the way we want it to go.'"

Museum status

In addition to diversifying the museum's holdings by adding more art by women, blacks and American Indians, Norris has been given credit for securing an $850,000 Mellon Foundation grant as an endowment for museum interns. She also had been working for several years on architectural and fund-raising plans for an expansion to accommodate the museum's ever-growing collection.

Only $1.6 million of the estimated $25 million needed for the project had been raised at the time of her dismissal. The estimated budget has since been revised to $14 million. John Scarffe, communications director for the KU Endowment Association, said last week that just less than $2 million had been raised.

Since Pawlicki, who also is associate director of the Lied Center, took over in March, several initiatives discussed during Norris' tenure have been put on the fast track. A part-time graphic designer has been hired full-time, and two high-quality printers have been added to boost the appearance of museum publications and promotions -- all part of an effort to improve the museum's public image.

Norris noted funding shortages were common during her tenure.

"I would say that maybe it was too easy for the administration to say no to me," she said. "I would ask for things and they would say no, and there was no way around it.

"Maybe with the kind of uproar this has caused and with people being distressed and the staff being somewhat distressed, maybe that's caused an attempt to put in some more resources to make the staff happier, to make the institution happy."

Filling her shoes

Of course, not everyone is happy.

"If someone serves in a position for 16 years, along the way they did many things right, and when someone leaves that position, they should be honored and celebrated, not capriciously dismissed," said Richard Nadeau, a longtime museum supporter whose wife, Virginia, serves on the advisory board. "They could have provided her a severance package. That's not the way you treat human beings."

Nadeau, who has donated 35 pieces to the Spencer's collection, said he was torn about whether to continue the support.

"Andrea was the individual who invited us into the Spencer family," he said. "The person who invited us in was arbitrarily removed, so there's no one there to greet us, metaphorically."

Nadeau, a psychotherapist in Kansas City, Mo., said the administration may have painted itself into a corner in terms of filling Norris' position with a qualified candidate.

"The museum directors are a small club," he said. "(The university) is going to make it very difficult for themselves to hire a good director because of what they did to Andrea and how they proceeded.

"Who wants to take a job where the previous director got fired capriciously with no severance?"

Kimerly Rorschach, director of the Nasher Museum of Art, which is set to open next fall at Duke University, said she didn't know the circumstances of Norris' dismissal and could not comment directly on the situation. But she praised Norris' efforts at the Spencer.

"I thought she did a terrific job at the University of Kansas museum," said Rorschach, who directed the University of Chicago's David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art for nine years before going to Duke. "I was surprised to hear that she was terminated."

Rorschach noted that museum director jobs are difficult to fill with just the right person because they are complex positions that require a specific background. She couldn't say whether the uproar regarding Norris' situation would make the Spencer job unattractive to other members of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

"Any candidate looking at this job or any job would want to understand the history of the institution, the accomplishments of the previous director and why they had left," Rorschach said. "They would evaluate those circumstances in thinking about whether to take the job."

Norris' annual salary was $92,885.

Bigger than any individual

Shulenburger has stayed silent on the reasons behind Norris' dismissal. He said Pawlicki's efforts had been positively received. Asked if he had any regrets about the way Norris' termination was handled, Shulenburger replied: "I'm always sorry when there's not an amicable parting. That I'm sorry about. But no, I don't want to comment."

The museum continues to receive support from the public. Attendance is up this summer, museum officials say, based on museum shop sales and donation box contributions. And museum staff expect revenues from the annual Friends of the Art Museum fund-raising drive, which launches this month, to be higher than ever.

"I just feel that the museum is reaching out to the community in ways that are being very effective right now," Shulenburger said. "I think Fred certainly has led a new surge of energy."

Gunda Hiebert, who sits on the museum director search committee and belongs to the Friends of the Art Museum, urged people to remember that the museum does not revolve around any one individual.

"I think that people should realize that pulling their support from the museum they might consider support for Andrea, but in fact what it's doing is hurting the museum, which is a real treasure for KU and the community," she said.

Larry Marshall, an advisory board member who donated more than $100,000 for the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures in the museum's Central Court, echoed that sentiment.

"The firing of Andrea has not impacted negatively my support of the museum because I think the museum's a really valuable institution," he said. "While I was sorry to see her go, that was not my decision."

Leaving a legacy

Asked whether she believed it counterproductive for her sympathizers to pull support from the museum she worked so hard to benefit, Norris said it was out of her hands.

"I think the university needs to follow procedures and deal humanely with people," she said. "If the donors are angry at the way the university behaved, it's not at my instigation; it's not my request."

Norris declined to comment on whether she would pursue legal action against the university.

She's attempting to focus on her future, searching a scant market for a museum director position elsewhere.

"I think I'm a pretty good museum director, and I have a pretty good reputation nationally -- at least I think I still do," she said. "If it's possible to get a position as a museum director, I still have a lot to offer in that area."

In the meantime, Norris and her fiance, Tom Beisecker, past president of the Spencer Advisory Board and KU associate professor of communication studies, have been traveling, both in the States and abroad.

Norris continues as vice president in charge of the annual conference for the 16,000-member College Art Assn. She's active on the board of the Kansas City Jewish Museum, where she organized an exhibition last spring. In two weeks, she'll attend the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.

Though her feelings toward the museum to which she once intended to leave her estate have changed, Norris said she always would feel a connection to the Spencer. She realized so much in mid-March while attending a memorial service at the museum for former KU Chancellor Clarke Wescoe, just days after her termination.

As someone spoke about Wescoe's lasting contributions to the university, Norris scanned the collection, noticing acquisitions the museum made during her tenure. A feeling of warmth washed over her.

"The Spencer is a wonderful facility," she said, "and I'm proud of the legacy I left it."

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