Chapel Hill News

Ackland, Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill to get new leaders

Two of UNC-Chapel Hill’s major community attractions – the Ackland Art Museum and the N.C. Botanical Garden – will have new leadership in the months ahead.

Emily Kass, who had been director of the Ackland since 2006, was notified in June that she was fired, she said. She left in July.

“It came out of the blue,” Kass said. “The only thing I could really get from anyone was that the university wants to go in another direction.”

Carol Tresolini, vice provost for academic initiatives, said she couldn’t speak to the details of the leadership change but added that the Ackland’s mission had not changed.

Tresolini said a search would be underway soon for Kass’ replacement.

Another search will commence for a successor to Peter White, director of the N.C. Botanical Garden for 28 years, who will step down at the end of the year.

White, 66, a biology professor, said he wanted to return full time to the faculty and concentrate on several book projects. He notified staff in July of his plans, which were prompted in part by the university’s decision – at his urging, he said – to make the director a full-time position.

Tresolini said the scope of the 1,000-acre botanical garden had grown dramatically since the 2009 opening of a large education center on the property.

“The number of programs that they’re able to accommodate now has just exploded,” she said. “The garden has become much more of a complex organization to run. We’ve been thinking for some time that it probably requires a full-time director.”

New director, new energy

White said the garden has graduated to needing a leader who can devote 100 percent of his or her time.

“I have several books to write. I have five grad students. At heart, you know, I’m an academic,” White said. “In some ways I felt like I was a holdover from an era when faculty members were appointed to administrative positions.”

Now, he said, the garden is in “a fabulous place,” positioned for new directions. “It’s time for a full-time director and new energy, too,” White said.

Along with the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, the Ackland and the Botanical Garden draw thousands of visitors each year and rely partly on fundraising to thrive.

The university posted a statement on the Ackland’s website in late June, calling Kass’ eight-year tenure a success. It said annual attendance had grown from 33,000 to 80,000. The museum has a 17,000-piece permanent collection.

“The museum has done incredible things,” Kass said in an interview. “I’m really proud of that. I’m proud of our staff.”

Kass said she had recently received a positive five-year review and remains puzzled by the university’s decision to replace her. She left the Tampa Museum of Art in 2005, resigning shortly after a $76 million plan to build a larger museum failed to win support of city leaders.

The university had once considered expanding the Ackland, but that plan was put on hold before Kass arrived, in part because of the difficult economic environment. That idea has not been revived.

Fundraising to be a focus

The university is about to embark on a major fundraising campaign, and that will be a focus for the Ackland.

“I think that will be a big challenge for the incoming director,” Tresolini said of the museum. “That is something that will be important going forward, but it has always been important.”

Tresolini said the leadership changes were not connected to recent legislative scrutiny of centers and institutes within the UNC system. The state budget included language that allowed the system to reallocate money from those entities to its strategic plan or other priorities.

The searches for new directors for the museum and the garden will have a national scope, given the importance of their missions to educate and connect with the community, she said.

“These are really cornerstones of our outreach efforts to the state,” Tresolini said. “These are institutions that both literally and figuratively stand at the edge of campus and form a bridge between the university and the community in really wonderful ways.”