After nearly 10 years as director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, Bill Arning resigned last Wednesday, in a surprise move that was first reported in the Texas publications Glasstire, Houston Chronicle and PaperCity Magazine.
“I was feeling I wasn’t making progress, and I wasn’t getting done what I needed to get done,” Arning said in a phone interview this afternoon, adding that it had been a “tough fundraising year.” “I’ve watched directors stay too long, and I think I stayed a year too long,” he said.
In a statement issued by the museum, Jereann Chaney, CAMH’s trustee chair, said, “Bill has been a force since he joined the museum nine years ago. He brought vibrancy, energy, and extraordinary vision to CAMH and in turn to Houston.” She added that “his leadership has been greatly appreciated and he will be missed.”
Arning arrived at CAMH in 2009, having served as curator at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts since 2000. Prior to that, he organized exhibitions independently and, between 1985 and 1996, served as director of the New York alternative space White Columns.
Next year, CAMH is set to show “Stonewall 50,” a group exhibition curated by Arning that marks the half-century anniversary of that uprising, but his last day at the museum was Wednesday. “I love the CAMH, I love the board, I love the Texas art community,” Arning said. “I will support the museum in its efforts in perpetuity.” But, he said, “They need a new leader, and I need a new life.”
News of Arning’s departure first broke because of a post he made on Facebook on Friday about being able to take long lunches and gym sessions while he was “between jobs.” That night, the museum was scheduled to have a 70th-anniversary celebration, which he did not attend.
“You know, he put us on the map,” Chaney told the crowd that night, according to PaperCity. His leadership of the last nine years has been extraordinary. He will be missed.”
“I didn’t show up for the birthday party because I didn’t want to steal that moment,” Arning said, explaining that he thought the press release announcing his departure had gone out by the time of his Facebook post.
Though the past few days have been a big transition, Arning sounded as energetic as ever. “It’s feeling really empowering,” he said. “Not thinking about who I’m going to ask for money today feels really good.”
Arning said he has enjoyed living in Houston and “getting to know that it is one of the best art cities on the planet.” As to where he will go next, he said, “With the midterms coming up, everyone’s asking if I’m going to stay in Texas.” The Senate contest between Democrat Beto O’Rourke and Republican incumbent Ted Cruz is playing a role in his thinking about future jobs: “If Beto loses, leaving Texas will be more appealing,” he said. “If Beto wins, staying in Texas will be a lot more fun.”