In surprise announcement, the Walters Art Gallery said yesterday that it has canceled plans to hire Michael P. Mezzatesta as its new director, less than three weeks before he was to have started work.
Mr. Mezzatesta, a highly respected art administrator at Duke University, called the decision by the museum's board of trustees to withdraw their offer "astonishing." His appointment was announced with great fanfare at City Hall on June 29.
In a prepared statement, Jay M. Wilson, president of the Walters board, cited "irreconcilable differences between Dr. Mezzatesta's mission and values, and those of the Walters Art Gallery" as a reason for the decision. He also said the gallery and the prospective director had not been able to agree on compensation.
"Since he has not accepted the offer, the board has withdrawn it," Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Mezzatesta, 45, who was to have assumed the Walters post on Nov. 29, said the trustees reached their decision without consulting him.
"On the eve of the planned assumption of my duties," he said in a statement, "it is astonishing that the board has changed its mind about my vision without any discussion or dialogue with me.
"Jay Wilson's public statement that I had never accepted the Walters offer is equally astonishing," he added. He said he would continue as director of the Duke University Museum of Art, where he has been since 1987.
Mr. Mezzatesta said that Mr. Wilson and Adena Testa, board vice president, asked him on Oct. 21 to withdraw as nominee to be Walters director, one of the most prestigious cultural posts in the state.
He said he had since asked repeatedly for an explanation without getting one.
"I clearly and consistently articulated my vision to the search committee and to the full board, which unanimously approved my appointment," said Mr. Mezzatesta, who was curator of European art at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, before going to Duke.
One reason behind the withdrawal request, he said, may have something to do with his desire to introduce contemporary art into the context of the Walters, one of the city's top public cultural institutions. Although the Walters is nationally recognized for its wide-ranging collections, it has no contemporary collection.
But, Mr. Mezzatesta said, "One of the reasons I was offered the job was because of my desire to do just that. I made that crystal clear at the board meeting of June 28. I said I would not take the job unless they allowed me to do that."
Mr. Wilson yesterday declined to be more specific about the terms of the rupture. "We're dealing with areas that I regard as private and personal," he said. "I know that it's extremely important that trustees, staff and director share a common vision including values, goals and objectives, and without getting into specifics there are fundamental differences in our respective visions and values."
He added, "There were museum issues, professional issues, fundamental issues dealing with the governance of a museum, and I don't want to get more specific than that."
Mr. Wilson did say the board thought the matter of compensation was agreed to at the time Mr. Mezzatesta's appointment was announced. "We of course had discussed compensation, and there was an understanding on our part that the compensation was acceptable, but apparently Dr. Mezzatesta did not believe it was and made his disagreement with compensation known to us at a later date," Mr. Wilson said.
He said Mr. Mezzatesta had written him a letter in October "requesting substantially more compensation." He would not say how much the Walters offered or how much Mr. Mezzatesta requested.
While speculation about the cause of the split swirls, the search for a new director resumes. Mr. Wilson has already assigned the board's committee on the gallery to begin a new search for someone to fill the director's position. It has now been vacant for six months, since former director Robert P. Bergman left to become director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in May.
Mr. Bergman announced his decision to leave the Walters in September 1992, and the museum took nine months to name a new director. Mr. Wilson said he expected the process to move more quickly this time. around. He refused to characterize the first process as flawed, despite the falling out with Mr. Mezzatesta, but said that more care will be taken this time around.
"As a business person, I measure performance through results. If you have to measure the performance of the search committee, we have not been successful in finding a new director for the Walters Art Gallery, and we hope resumption of the search will reach that objective very quickly," Mr. Wilson said.
"I can't speak for the committee, but it's a logical conclusion that we will be careful next time to assure that there is a strong sense of shared mission, values, standards, goals and objectives."
Mr. Wilson said that he didn't think the results with Mr. Mezzatesta would necessarily make it harder for the Walters to find a director.
"The state of the Walters today is extremely strong. It should be considered an excellent institution from the standpoint of financial stability and commonly shared values and mission among trustees and staff. I don't anticipate any trouble attracting highly qualified new candidates for the position."
But Mr. Bergman said from Cleveland that finding the right person might be difficult because of the number of directorships currently vacant. "I think there are maybe 15 significant museums now looking for directors," he said, "including Los Angeles, Boston, the Walters and Cincinnati."
Since Mr. Bergman's departure in May, Kate Sellers, head of the museum's development department, has been acting director.
The Walters has no one in mind for the position, Mr. Wilson said. Asked if some of the candidates considered in the previous search might be looked at again, he said, "There is always that possibility."
Among those spoken of as possible candidates during the last search were Maxwell Anderson, director of the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta; Paul Tucker, art historian at the University of Massachusetts at Boston; Jay Levenson, consultant curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington; Glenn Lowry, director of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto; and Peter Sutton, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.