President of Museum of Latin American Art resigns unexpectedly after less than two years

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Giving little notice and surprising its board co-chairs, Richard P. Townsend has stepped down as president of the Museum of Latin American Art after less than two years in its top spot, the museum announced Tuesday.

It’s the third change at the top for the Long Beach museum in little more than 3 1/2 years since completing a $15-million expansion and renovation in 2007. ‘It caught us a little bit by surprise’ when Townsend said he was resigning about a week and a half ago, said co-chair Mike Deovlet. ‘It isn’t anything we’d had discussions about.’


‘He met with us and said he wanted to pursue other opportunities,’ said Burke Gumbiner, the other co-chair. ‘It was voluntary. We thanked him for his contribution. We like the artistic program and are going to continue the artistic program.’

Townsend could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

The museum will engage a search firm and begin hunting soon for its next leader. ‘Our goal is to recruit a president who will stay longer than two years,’ said Gumbiner, whose father, physician and hospital builder Robert Gumbiner, made a fortune in managed health care and was the museum’s driving force, key funder and provider of the core of its art collection from its inception in 1996 until his death two years ago at 85.

Townsend arrived in May 2009 after working as deputy director for external affairs at the Miami Art Museum and director of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Price Tower Arts Center in Bartlesville, Okla. Within two months of his arrival, in what the co-chairs cite as a ‘critical move,’ he hired another Miami art administrator, Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, as chief curator. She had been running the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation there after previously directing a contemporary art space in Caracas, Venezuela.

Emphasizing that the museum is not in the throes of instability despite the rapid changes in its top executive position, Gumbiner said that Fajardo-Hill and the museum’s head fundraiser, another Townsend hire, ‘are staying and are happy here.’

Gumbiner and Deovlet, longtime business manager of the elder Gumbiner, have been on the board since the museum opened. Together with a number of longtime staffers, they said, they ensure continuity and a strong institutional memory.

Gregorio Luke led the museum from 1999 to August 2007, when he left as director to pursue a career as an independent scholar-lecturer who brings his illustrated art and culture talks with large-scale projections to the museum and other Southern California venues. His successors, under the new title of president, were Robert J. Myers, former head of the city of Torrance’s cultural services division, and Townsend.

The hope, said the co-chairs, is to find a new president who has an art background and strong managerial credentials, who can work with what they feel is a strong existing curatorial staff. The museum attracts about 60,000 visitors a year, offering three major shows and three smaller ones.

One possible attraction for a new president could be its solid financial footing, thanks to a $25-million bequest from Robert Gumbiner that has been about 80% paid as his estate is settled. Operating expenses were $4.4 million in 2009, according to the museum’s most recent audited financial statement. Expected earnings from the endowment cover about a quarter of that.

‘Dr. Gumbiner had tremendous vision, and when he set up the museum he wanted to make sure its financial security would be ensured,’ Deovlet said.


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-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Richard P. Townsend. Credit: Stephen Holman