Newark Museum bids farewell to longtime director with gala

By Dan Bischoff/For The Star-Ledger
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on January 23, 2014

Karen Nichols, left, one of the architects of Newark Museum, left, and her husband John talk to Mary Sue Sweeney Price in the beginning of the evening. The Newark Museum Board of Trustees will honor recently-retired Mary Sue Sweeney Price with the institution's highest honors on Tuesday evening, January 21, at a fundraising benefit event. Wednesday January 22, 2014. Newark, NJ, USA.



NEWARK — For nearly four decades, Mary Sue Sweeney Price has been among the Newark Museum’s best acquisitions.

Sweeney Price was hired as a public relations official in 1975. She was promoted to a succession of posts, culminating in her appointment in 1993 as director. She retired in May.

Wednesday night, in a ceremony during the museum’s annual fundraiser, about 200 friends, employees and socialites gathered in an indoor courtyard at the Washington Street institution to drink sparkling wine and listen to violinists while swapping stories about the longtime director, who was also the museum’s CEO.

Sweeney Price, 62, was only the sixth director of the museum, the state’s oldest and — with 80 galleries of American, African and Asian art, a planetarium and science exhibitions — its largest.

Known as the grand dame of the region’s arts community, she is credited with strengthening the museum’s offerings and collections, despite severe budget cuts and staff layoffs.

"Her policies set up the foundation for future strength," said chief curator Ulysses Dietz.

She oversaw significant advances in the museum’s holdings in African-American, Asian and Native American art, including new works in folk art and additions to the museum’s collection of American quilts, both historical and contemporary. Museum acquisitions under Sweeney Price underlined the institution’s commitment to a broad-based concept of American art — like the Alexis Rockman’s "Red Hurricane," a fusion of contemporary American art with the natural sciences.

During her tenure, the museum opened the interactive Victoria Hall of Science and completed the restoration of the Ballantine House, next door to the museum, as a home for the city’s arts collection. The building, a National Historic Landmark, is also the setting for Victorian Christmas displays and special contemporary art projects.

In 2012, the museum dedicated the Horizon Plaza, an outdoor space and garden that serves as the museum’s new entrance. Sweeney Price also conducted a $12.5 million endowment and capital campaign.

"That’s where the new director will pick up," Dietz said.

And Sweeney Price built on Newark’s long history of serving the city’s growing artistic community.

"You only need to hear (Newark artist) Willie Cole talk about the importance of the museum to his development as, first, a student, and then as a teacher, to realize how important the Newark Museum has been to the arts in this state," Sweeney Price said before the gala.

As a writer and adviser to national museum groups, Sweeney Price, who lives in Newark with her husband, Rutgers historian Clement Price, is known for pushing to improve diversity and educational outreach for contemporary museums.

But cuts in funding required layoffs over several years of more than 40 staff members and comparable reductions in programming. Still, she said, the museum thrives.

"We are operating at two-thirds or less of the budget we enjoyed during our 2009 centennial celebration," said Sweeney Price, who was awarded the museum’s Medal for Meritorious Service and its Commemorative Medal.

"Yet I’m very proud of the way the curators have managed to work across categories to create truly groundbreaking, cross-cultural exhibitions in that time. They’ve performed so well, I think you’d have to be at one of the top five national museums to find exhibitions of equal scholarship and popular reach."

Steve Kern, until recently the executive director of the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y., will replace Sweeney Price as director in February.

"It will never be the same," said Sheila Anderson, a public programs consultant for the museum. "It doesn’t mean it’s not going to be good."

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