The Chrysler Museum of Art Board of Trustees has announced the selection of Dr. Erik H. Neil as its next director and president. The board unanimously approved his appointment on June 26, 2014. Neil, 50, is director of the Academy Art Museum in Easton, Maryland, where he has served since 2010.
“Erik Neil comes to us with a strong sense of the essential role a museum plays in its community and a history of deep personal engagement in each place he has served,” outgoing board chair Peter Meredith said. “He is a perfect fit for the Chrysler, given our focus on serving the Hampton Roads area.”
“Through our incredible collection, curators and staff, board, and donors, the Chrysler Museum has always been an active participant and leader in the national conversation about art and museums,” said Lewis Webb, head of the Museum’s executive search committee who now chairs the board. “Erik Neil is a leader who loves art. He is the just the right person to continue to nurture and coordinate our efforts for even more impact,” Webb said.
Neil will assume leadership duties at the Chrysler on October 6 as part of a seamless transition plan. Last fall, current director and president Bill Hennessey, 66, announced his plan to retire from the Museum on October 3. He has served as director of the Chrysler for 17 years, the longest standing director in the Museum’s 81-year history.
“With his strong art history background and solid management experience, Erik Neil is an inspired choice to lead the Chrysler into its next chapter. I eagerly look forward to working with him to ensure a smooth transition,” Hennessey said.
“I am very excited to come to the Chrysler and build upon the great work done by Bill Hennessey, the trustees, and the Museum staff,” Neil said. “The chance to work with such an outstanding collection and to be creative with it, to open up doors to new audiences is very appealing,” he added.
“I am looking forward to living in Norfolk. It’s rare to have an institution of the Chrysler’s stature in a community of this size. I hope to be able to leverage that stature to see that the Chrysler Museum has both great local impact and a broader stage of influence.”
Neil is known in the museum world for the breadth of his artistic interests, strong management skills, a genial personality, and a collaborative approach to work and leadership, with a common goal of making the good even better.
Having worked in both large and small museums gives Neil a broad base of experience. “I will have the opportunity to work with some immensely bright and talented people here,” he said.
Past and present colleagues laud his intelligence, his transparency, his ability to build community, and his visionary pragmatism. “As much as I like to be ambitious and adventuresome, I appreciate sound fiscal responsibility as well,” he said, “and the Chrysler is known for all of those hallmarks.”
Neil’s accomplishments in the profession demonstrate the common threads that others praise. Neil began his museum career in 1999 as director of the Newcomb Art Gallery of Tulane University in New Orleans, where he also served as an adjunct art history professor. Among his accomplishments at the Newcomb were acclaimed in-house and traveling exhibitions, including the commissioning and national tour of a new work by Carrie Mae Weems. He also was praised for improved strategic planning and growth; deficit reduction; funding and budget growth; and assuring the safety of the collection in the face of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In 2006, after a short stint as director of exhibition and programs at the American Federation of Arts in New York, Neil became Executive Director of the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, N.Y. There he led a nine-month, $1.5 million complete museum modernization and initiated its reaccreditation process with the American Association of Museums. He also revamped the exhibition program to focus on modern and contemporary art, with spotlights on regional artists, photography, and design. Fiscally, he expanded the Heckscher’s financial capacity through new grants, donations, and fundraising events.
Since 2010, as director of the Academy Art Museum, Neil has been credited with revitalizing a small but solid institution. Under his leadership, the museum reorganized its staff and prioritized strategic planning. Neil focused exhibitions and collection accessions on both known and new artists, including those deemed regionally important. The museum acquired works by Picasso, Mondrian, Hockney, Ingres, and Goltzius, as well as new holdings in 19th-century photography. The Academy commissioned a site-specific installation by James Turrell at the same time the artist had new work on view at venerable institutions such as the MFA Houston and the Guggenheim. Neil’s passion for community partnerships, especially with Talbot County’s African-American leadership, led to the establishment of an annual Juneteenth celebration in the birthplace of the great civil rights leader Frederick Douglass. The museum also has seen a significant increase in annual appeal giving, membership, art travel, and new grant sources, and a successful $2 million challenge of gifts, pledges, and planned gifts has grown its endowment.
Neil’s education includes a B.A. (1986) in modern European and American history from Princeton University, and both a Ph.D. (1995) and M.A. (1991) in the history of art and architecture from Harvard University. His key academic focus was Italian Renaissance and Baroque architecture, though his scholarship, fellowships, writing, lecturing, and university teaching include modern architecture, the history of photography, and contemporary art. He also earned a certificate in museum management (2003) from the prestigious Getty Leadership Institute in Berkeley, Calif., and has pursued leadership and professional development opportunities through the American Alliance of Museums.
Neil has been married for nearly 25 years to Luisa Adelfio, a sculptor and an exhibiting artist. The couple has four daughters and two dogs. Among his personal interests are classical and rock music, running, and films.