After five years at the helm of the second-largest museum of British art in the world, Yale Center for British Art Director Patrick McCaughey is stepping down from his post.

McCaughey announced March 9 that he will leave his position when his contract runs out in June. Since his appointment in 1996 McCaughey has helped drive the art center to attract record crowds, totaling nearly 120,000 a year. The center’s panels, visiting fellows and conferences also flourished under his charge. Current deputy director Constance Clement will fill in as acting director in June and will serve until Yale selects a replacement.

Members of the Yale and New Haven art communities were startled by the news of McCaughey’s departure and said that they were sad to see such an effective director go.

“It’s a terrible loss,” New Haven Arts Council Director Bitsie Clark said. “I was delighted when he was originally hired. It was heaven.”

McCaughey’s term as director saw flourishing relations between the museum and New Haven arts community, as well as New Haven schools.

“When Patrick got the job, he invited all of the Chapel Street business owners for lunch to tell them about the museum,” Clark said. “He also became quickly involved in the New Haven Cultural Plan.”

Clark also said McCaughey was a driving force behind the recent success of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, because he established exhibits to run concurrent with the event.

“He started having a major show every June for the festival,” Clark said. “No major museums can normally support a show in June.”

McCaughey also opened the center’s doors to Elm Shakespeare, an educational program that helps public high school students perform Shakespeare plays. The center participates by helping students find contemporary art and providing posters and slides of artwork to be used alongside performances.

Yale President Richard Levin said one of McCaughey’s most important projects was simply bringing more people through the doors of the museum.

“He made significant effort to bring New Haven people into the museum,” Levin said. “Attendance in the museum rose enormously during his tenure.”

Levin said he will soon appoint a committee to select a replacement. In the meantime, Clement will serve as acting director, a position she has held before.

Before arriving at Yale, McCaughey had garnered national attention for adopting a controversial Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit for his previous museum, the Hartford Wadsworth Atheneum. The artwork caused an uproar and was banned by officials in its original show in Cincinnati. McCaughey immediately brought the pieces to Connecticut, a move that quickly put the Atheneum on the map. When he took up the reigns of his new post at the British Art Center, he brought that same energy and daring along with him.

“[Former British Art Center director] Duncan Robinson did a wonderful job,” Clark said, “but what Patrick did was ratchet it up and put the museum on the map immediately.”

As well as outreach, McCaughey’s work inside the building will leave its mark when he leaves. During his term, the center underwent an ambitious renovation, which improved the building’s structure and altered the layout of exhibit space.

“He oversaw the renovation of the building because the roof needed repair,” Levin said. “He shut the museum for nine months, during which time the staff carried out needed repairs. He and curatorial staff also did a brilliant reinstallation of the Paul Mellon collection.”

McCaughey was not available Sunday for comment.