Contemporary Arts Museum Houston director Bill Arning
Bill Arning, Marilyn Minter at the Marilyn Minter Opening Night at CAMH, April 17, 2015 (Photo Jay Tovar)
Bill Arning and Michael Stipe at the Marilyn Minter VIP evening at the home of Lucinda and Javier Loya, April 19, 2015 (Photo Ozieren)
The gathering at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston on Friday night was supposed to have been an early celebration of the museum’s 70th anniversary. Instead, it was an unsettling post-mortem on the shocking departure of director Bill Arning, discovered only hours before.
In an unorthodox form of resignation, Arning announced the end of his nine-year tenure on his own Facebook page on Wednesday. Museum forces did not learn of the move until Glasstire sent it out in an email post on Friday afternoon.
Early Friday night, Arning told Catherine Anspon, PaperCity‘s arts and features executive editor, “I have loved my 10 years at CAMH and getting to know the vibrant Houston arts community, but moving on makes sense for me now.”
On Friday afternoon around 2 pm, Arning posted on Facebook “Loving the two hour midday gym sessions followed by long lunches that being between jobs allows me.” Arning’s Facebook post on Thursday was curiously resigned to world forces. “A beautiful before bed Cantata when I have given up fighting everything and everyone.”
Word of Arning’s departure had spread throughout the CAMH community before the 6 pm start of the cocktail reception, that will be followed in April by a full-blown gala celebrating seven decades of spotlighting contemporary art. Thus, the timing of Arning’s departure could not have been more curious, particularly considering the long-planned festive cocktail reception.
Reached by telephone, art insider and Artnews top collector Lester Marks, a former CAMH board member whose family underwrote admission at the museum for more than a decade, said he was “speechless” after Arning’s abrupt resignation, which was totally unexpected.
The atmosphere in the basement floor of the museum, where the cocktail party was held, was somewhat unnerving considering the shocking news. Silvery decorative curtains shimmered and balloons floated on waves of air-conditioning as a DJ spun tunes. The bar was open and the 100 or so guests quietly schmoozed.
“This party is bizarre,” observed one guest. “It’s the weirdest party I’ve ever been to.”
As former board member Liz Glanville said, “Well, we can look at this as a new beginning.”
In remarks to the gathering, board chair Jereann Chaney, sans emotion, thanked guests for joining in this night “to celebrate the anniversary of our 70th year.” She read a brief review of the museum’s history and thanked donors before addressing the elephant in the room.
“And therefore our final note,” she said. “I want to let you know that Bill Arning decided to leave the CAMH this week. He was a force of energy. He was a visionary and he brought CAMH much recognition not just in Houston, but really nationwide.
“You know, he put us on the map. His leadership of the last nine years has been extraordinary. He will be missed.”
CAMH director of communications and marketing Kent Michael Smith told PaperCity, “The board leadership along with some different parts of the community have put together a committee to immediately launch a search for a replacement. In the meantime, CAMH deputy director Christina Brungardt is stepping in as our interim director.”
Additional reporting by Catherine D. Anspon.