Ex-heads of NY’s Queens Museum ‘misled board’ over Israel blunder — report

Ex-heads of NY’s Queens Museum ‘misled board’ over Israel blunder — report

In canceling and then reinstating event with US vice president, former director and her deputy showed ‘poor judgment,’ probe finds; director issues immediate rebuttal

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The Queens Museum (Leo Chiou/Wikimedia Commons)
The Queens Museum (Leo Chiou/Wikimedia Commons)

The former director and deputy director of New York’s Queens Museum “knowingly misled the board” after they canceled an Israeli government-sponsored event last year and then, facing accusations of discrimination, reinstated it, an independent probe found.

The two have since left their positions.

The former director, Laura Raicovich, immediately hit back, telling the art market website artnet on Thursday, “I did not mislead the board.”

The event was organized by Israel’s mission to the United Nations to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the UN vote in 1947 to partition Palestine and establish a Jewish state in one part of it.

The General Assembly made that decision in the building that now houses the art museum.

Originally scheduled for June, the event took place in November, still with Vice President Mike Pence as its star guest.

The museum board’s independent investigation, carried out pro bono by law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman, found that the institution’s “president and executive director, Laura Raicovich, and deputy director, David Strauss, exercised poor judgment” and “knowingly misled the board, and otherwise failed to comport themselves with the standards consistent with their positions.”

In this February 1, 2018, photo, US Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Republican National Committee (RNC) Winter Meeting in Washington. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

It found that Raicovich “showed immediate hostility to hosting the event at the museum even before consulting with the board and then, together with Mr. Strauss, sought reasons why the board should not agree to the event.”

The report, which the board said was based on three months of research, also zoomed in on a book — “Assuming Boycott” — which Raicovich edited, and which included essays supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

“Ms. Raicovich did not disclose her involvement in the book to the board,” the report said, “even though (1) the book prominently identifies her as director of the museum, (2) the foreword she co-wrote states that the goals discussed in the book are ‘complemented by programs, exhibitions and educational initiatives’ at the museum, (3) she paid one of the co-editors for his work on the book with museum funds, (4) she placed the book for sale in the museum’s gift shop.”

Furthermore, the report said, Raicovich gave permission for the museum to be a “fiscal sponsor” of a crowdfunding campaign for a new Palestinian cultural center in Bethlehem in the West Bank “without the approval of or disclosure to the board, and without putting into place proper controls for the solicitation or use of such funds.”

The crowdfunding site gives “special thanks to the Queens Museum” under its section on Partners.

“In light of the results, the board offered both Ms. Raicovich and Mr. Strauss the opportunity to resign,” the report went on. “The board has accepted the resignation of Ms. Raicovich and terminated Mr. Strauss.”

Posted by Laura Raicovich on Saturday, 3 December 2016

Raicovich, who resigned last month, denied to artnet that she and Strauss had “knowingly misled” the board by telling it that the museum’s written policy was not to rent space for political events.

The inquiry report stated that Strauss had added this to the museum’s standard rental contracts only after the board was already considering the request to hold the event and that Raicovich knew this but failed to correct Strauss’s “misrepresentations to the Board.”

She said there was no written policy but there had been a de facto one against political events, which is why the museum had turned down approaches by US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

The report charges that Raicovich and Strauss played up security worries about an Israel event with Mike Pence, misrepresenting a New York police assessment that a weeklong museum closure to prepare for it would be required, when in fact, police said this would be a “worst case possibility.”

Raicovich said it was Strauss who told her and the board that a week’s closure would be needed.

In all events, she said, it was the board that made the decisions about events. “They voted on the event. I did not have any vote in making that decision,” she said.

She said that she had never hidden her work for the book “Assuming Boycott,” which looks at the involvement of artists in economic, political, and social debates regarding oppressive governments, and that she had started working on book-related public events six months before taking up her post at the museum and promoting them on Facebook, which everyone could see.

Raicovich’s decision to step down prompted directors, curators and staffers from other cultural institutions to sign an open letter, dated January 30, in her support.

The letter said, “Art institutions must respond to pressing issues facing our communities.

“We call on the boards of our cultural institutions to embrace the civic role of our institutions by supporting and empowering courageous and caring leaders such as Laura Raicovich.”

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