Christina Cox, director of the National Museum of Catholic Art and History, with an exhibit of bronze angels by Salvador Dalí in 2003. Photo by Marilynn K. Yee / The New York Times

New York, New York - In many ways, the opening of the National Museum of Catholic Art and History in East Harlem was a kind of miracle. It was founded by a single mother without a college degree, much experience in arts administration or any affiliation with the New York Archdiocese. But the woman, Christina Cox, had a deep passion for the project and a number of powerful friends. Over the years, her friends helped the museum take in more than $9 million in revenue, almost half of it in grants from New York State, which predicted that the institution would bring tourists, jobs and vitality to East Harlem.

But after five years in operation, few visitors and mounting debt, the museum quietly closed last year. The building, on East 115th Street, is for sale, with a list price of just under $5 million, and Ms. Cox said she hoped to use any proceeds to relocate to Washington. “The museum is not over,” she said, “so the money is not wasted.”

The Catholic museum was never a prominent cultural attraction. But its short life in New York is a parable of what can go wrong in the distribution of public funds for the arts. From the outset, the museum was an improbable pursuit. Its collection was spotty, Ms. Cox’s training was slim, and the chosen site, in an old parish school building, was far from the culture world’s beaten path.

Nonetheless, Ms. Cox’s supporters included prominent people. Alfred E. Smith IV, the chairman of St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers, sat on the museum board. The developers Donald Trump and Jerry Speyer gave it money. Bill Clinton and Regis Philbin attended a fund-raiser for the museum. Rao’s, the famous Italian restaurant around the corner, often did the catering.

Chief among Ms. Cox’s benefactors was Edward J. Malloy, a labor leader who, until recently, led the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, which represents more than 200,000 workers. Mr. Malloy has long had relationships with mayors and governors alike, and it was he, as chairman of the museum, who pushed for money to renovate the old school.

New York City provided $173,000 in operating subsidies over the years. The federal government gave $260,000 in empowerment zone grants. The big boost, though, came from Gov. George E. Pataki, who arranged for $2 million in financing in 2002 and another $2 million in 2003. The first state money to Ms. Cox’s museum came just months after the attorney general’s office found that she had made $86,000 worth of “inappropriate and extravagant expenditures,” including on personal travel, furnishings and entertainment, with museum funds, a sum she agreed to pay back.

The museum opened in 1995, occupying temporary space in several Manhattan office buildings. In 1998 it moved to East Harlem, where it began leasing and renovating the former Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, a rundown building that private donations, government grants and donated labor from unions helped transform into a state-of-the-art exhibition space. The museum’s Web site, nmcah.org, values the renovations at $15 million, though Ms. Cox said the cost may have been less.

The closed National Museum of Catholic Art and History in New York.

After the building opened to the public in 2003, visitors found an eclectic collection held together by its mission of illustrating Roman Catholic influence on art and history: bronze angels by Salvador Dalí; a portrait of John F. Kennedy; a collection of 17th- and 18th-century Latin American paintings; a gallery of works that depicted nuns, including one of Sally Field as the Flying Nun.

The pride of the collection was “The Betrayal of the Christ,” one of four painted depictions of Christ’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane that have been attributed to Anthony Van Dyck, the Flemish master. It was lent in 1994 by Charles R. Walters, the owner of a medical supply company, who said he had no room for the large painting in his home.

But even this part of the museum’s story is not without its complications. Three months ago a lawyer from California sued the museum in federal court in Manhattan, asserting that the painting was really his. The lawyer, Barney Shiotani, said he had been awarded it in 1992 as a creditor of a bankrupt company. The suit contends that the painting disappeared, apparently from storage, through the actions of “unknown third parties” who obtained it through “theft, conversion or fraud.” Mr. Walters and Ms. Cox said the suit took them by surprise.

Mr. Walters said he bought the painting sight unseen from the Gallery Rodeo in Beverly Hills, Calif., and had it shipped directly to the museum. The former owner of the gallery, Stephen M. Thompson, said he got the painting from a dealer in the Netherlands. “I’m sure we vetted the provenance on it extensively before we represented it,” he said.

The museum, though, presented it unequivocally as a Van Dyck. Ms. Cox said the museum had researched the painting and decided it was not a copy. Van Dyck or not, the collection did not draw in East Harlem, though Catholic school groups were regular visitors. In 2005 the museum ran up a nearly $1 million deficit, according to its tax returns. In 2006, the last year for which the museum has filed a return, it reported losing $434,000.

Ms. Cox’s said she  traveled to Rome and secured Pope John Paul II’s blessing. But officials of the Archdiocese of New York later tried to block her use of the term Catholic in the museum’s name because it did not want people to think it was affiliated with the church.

Her previous experience in the visual arts was as a sales representative at Dyansen Gallery in Trump Tower and what she described as additional work arranging exhibits for embassies. She had also worked as an actress and a model after leaving Rockland Community College in 1970 without her degree. In 2001, a year before the state began aiding the museum, The Village Voice published articles that questioned her credentials. But she defended them in an interview several weeks ago.

Ms. Cox, who received more than $100,000 a year in salary for several years as director, said she now earned nothing for her work for the museum. The building, which the museum bought from the parish for $725,000 in 2007, was put on the market more than a year ago.

The building is priced at $4.9 million, down from $7.9 million, and is under contract. The prospective buyer is a school, Ms. Cox said. Mr. Ciacci estimated that, after paying off the mortgage and other debt, the museum would, at best, clear several hundred thousand dollars from the sale. Ms. Cox said she would use what was left to relocate the museum to Washington, where the organization was putting on three exhibitions this year. “I want to be national,” she said.

State Senator José M. Serrano, a Democrat who represents East Harlem and is chairman of the Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation Committee, said the plan to relocate was disappointing.

“I believe the government should be involved in helping arts organizations and naturally occurring arts communities to thrive, because they do generate revenue, but,” in this case, he said, “it does not sound like we got a huge return on our investment.”

By KEVIN FLYNN and ALISON LEIGH COWAN  / NY TIMES

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