Municipal Art Society Abruptly Ousts Its President

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Gina Pollara at the Municipal Art Society’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal event in Manhattan in June. The organization’s board approved her firing on Dec. 29.

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Clint Spaulding/Patrick McMullan, via Getty Images

The Municipal Art Society of New York, long a leading voice in efforts to preserve the city’s history and elegant skyline, has ousted its new president less than a year after her hiring and replaced her with a former city and state parks administrator.

Gina Pollara, the former president, said in an interview that she joined the organization last year with the belief that she had a mandate to increase activism in the face of criticism that it had not been as vocal a development watchdog in recent years.

“Even though I had only been there a very short while, we were getting really good feedback from the civic community,” Ms. Pollara said.

She said that the society did not make clear to her why she had been fired. Board officials said they could not comment on the specifics of Ms. Pollara’s departure, which was approved by the board during a special telephone meeting on Dec. 29, but that it came after months of deliberation.

“The leader needs a balanced approach to fund-raising needs and vocal advocacy,” Christy MacLear, a board member who voted to replace Ms. Pollara, said in a statement. “That’s our fiduciary responsibility.”

Like many civic organizations, the society, founded in 1893, has struggled to cover expenses in recent years and has had several board members — often a source of donations — depart in the last year.

The society’s new president is Elizabeth Goldstein, who has previously worked for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Most recently, she was president of the California State Parks Foundation, an independent advocacy organization. She will start in February.

“The Board believes Elizabeth’s extensive experience as a passionate and forceful advocate, as well as a results-oriented executive and successful fund-raiser, make her an exceptional choice to lead MAS forward,” the board said in a statement announcing Ms. Goldstein’s appointment.

The society’s most renowned preservationist campaign came in the mid-1970s, when it joined forces with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to block a plan to build a skyscraper atop Grand Central Terminal. More recently, though, there was an outcry in 2014 when the society gave its signature Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal, meant to recognize “an outstanding contribution to New York City,” to executives of Forest City Ratner, the company responsible for the controversial Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, which used eminent domain to pave the way for a basketball stadium and apartment buildings. (It also handled such notable projects as a downtown apartment tower by Frank Gehry and the headquarters of The New York Times.)

Frederick Iseman, the society’s board chairman, said it continued to play a strong watchdog role, leading the fight, for instance, to shorten the Penn Station lease so a transit hub could be built and calling attention to “supertall” construction. He said Ms. Goldstein would carry on that work.

“I want the MAS to be effective,” he said, referring to the society, “and make sure the public realm is beautiful and worthy of New York as a world-class city. Great public space is an enhancement to the life of everyone.”

Ms. Pollara had served as director of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, LLC, and on the South Street Initiative, an effort to steward the development of the lower East River waterfront.

She said she had told board members that she would work to bring in money but first had to show the preservation community that the society was ready to fight. She said she was pleased, for example, with having helped stop a bill in Albany that would have lifted restrictions on the height and bulk of buildings in New York City.

“We were able to ring the bell,” she said. “And the bill was pulled from the floor.”

In an unusual open letter to the society, dated Dec. 27 and published on the web, Michael Gruen, the president of the City Club of New York, a civic advocacy group, said that under Ms. Pollara’s leadership, the society had “resumed its rightful position as a leading voice in issues of design, planning, historic preservation and the public realm” and urged that it not dismiss her.

“We do understand it is unusual for one organization to involve itself in the internal affairs of another,” Mr. Gruen wrote. “But we believe the importance of MAS to the city and the negative impact of what is being proposed are of such magnitude as to override the usual organizational niceties.”

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