After the Fall

Weeks after firing a popular curator, the Tucson Museum of Art hires an employment lawyer.

In the wake of the highly publicized firing of a popular curator, the Tucson Museum of Art board voted this week to consult an attorney to look at the museum's employment and human relations practices.

The board voted unanimously Monday to retain employment attorney Sally Simmons.

"Because employment law is so complex and constantly changing, she will help us look at that, to promote legal practices," new board president Don Luria said after the meeting. "We want to put employment issues in the hands of a specialist. It's like going from an internist to a cardiologist."

Luria would not say whether his efforts were related to the dismissal of curator Joanne Stuhr, but added, "You can read between the lines."

Museum executive director Laurie Rufe fired Stuhr precipitously on Aug. 4, giving the longtime curator neither notice nor severance pay. A 13 1/2-year veteran of the museum, Stuhr was ordered to be out of the building by the end of the day. Stuhr had organized dozens of well-regarded exhibitions, including last winter's critically acclaimed show of Casas Grandes pottery, and she oversaw installation of the popular Palice Pavilion of American Art in the historic Stevens-Duffield house.

Rufe, who has been on the job just over a year, has declined comment on the reasons for the firing, citing the privacy required by personnel issues. The dismissal has triggered negative publicity for the museum and inspired numerous donors to withdraw art valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, or to cancel planned future gifts. The curator's supporters have initiated a lively letter-writing campaign to the board and to Rufe, and last month about 60 of them crowded into the museum's annual meeting to demand an explanation for her firing. None was forthcoming.

Stuhr, who recently joined the board of Tucson's Museum of Contemporary Art as an unpaid trustee, also declined comment.

In any case, the museum is moving ahead in its search for Stuhr's replacement. TMA posted a lengthy ad for a new curator of the art of Americas on the Western Museums Association Web site just two days after Rufe fired Stuhr, and the director reported Monday that she had received 18 applications.

"The four top candidates were interviewed by phone" earlier this month, she told the board. Three of them have master's degrees and one has a Ph.D., and all have expertise in colonial, Latin American or pre-Columbian art.

"On Oct. 30 and 31, a candidate will be brought in for a two-day interview," she said, and invited board members to meet the candidate at a reception on Oct. 31.

Rufe also provided board members with a sheaf of critical letters she had received from art lovers angry about Stuhr's dismissal, as well as copies of the letters Rufe wrote in response. Rufe repeated the same sentences in letter after letter.

"I understand your frustration regarding the recent departure of Joanne Stuhr," she wrote again and again. "I only hope that time will abate your discontent with me and the Tucson Museum of Art. I assure you that the Museum remains committed to the continued cultivation of our Latin American collections."

In one letter, Rufe departed from that script to defend the treatment meted out to Stuhr. Debbie Goodman Butler, CEO of Long Realty, a major contributor to the museum, wrote that she wanted assurances that Stuhr had been treated fairly.

"I assure you that this decision was a personnel matter that was dealt with according to employment law," Rufe wrote back, "and with the utmost regard for the employee and her privacy."

At the board meeting, Luria also pushed for a separate motion to set up a board subcommittee "to re-look at our employment and human relations policies." Some board members said they worried that the new committee might usurp the authority of the executive director to hire and fire.

"You're going to start mucking around," trustee Bob Joyce said.

But that motion also passed when Luria assured his fellow board members that the intent was for the committee to look at broad policies, and not to "micromanage."