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Thursday, January 31, 2013 / 3:47 PM

Whose Museum Is It, Anyway?: Archibald saga is a history lesson in public accountability

Whose Museum Is It, Anyway?: Archibald saga is a history lesson in public accountability

Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts

Nobody gets to quit a job in this way.

On December 21, a joint committee of 15 Missouri History Museum trustees met in executive session to receive the resignation of their embattled longtime president, Robert Archibald.

He and the museum board had been under fire for months over a scandalous real-estate deal and an eye-popping $566,000 “vacation plan” that he was getting from the museum, atop his handsome $515,000 annual compensation package—among other issues.

I’ve obtained a copy of the minutes of the meeting (which are public record, albeit not intended for public consumption), and they reveal that the trustees’ loyalty to Archibald far eclipsed any concern on their part about guarding History Museum coffers.

Behind closed doors (and presumably on the assumption that they could let their hair down a bit), the trustees made no pretense about their desire “to be certain that Dr. Archibald is being treated fairly, particularly in view of the disappointment with his resignation, which was felt by the entire group.”

There was no mention in the minutes of the need to balance such fair treatment against fiduciary responsibility to the museum, which on this day at least wasn’t voiced as a concern felt by the entire group.

No, this was a day for trustees to vent emotions about an unwanted departure, and vent they did:

“Certain trustees indicated that unless it was made clear that the Committee expressed formal regret with the resignation, they would consider resigning from the board.” They would go on to accept the resignation “with deep regret.”

The minutes indicated that the trustees discussed rejecting the resignation, only to be reminded that it was final on the part of Archibald—who earlier in the meeting had couched his departure as an act of selflessness:

“Dr. Archibald said that his resignation was made both for the good of the Institution, and secondarily, for him and his family. He said that as long as he is at the helm of the Museum, he believes that the attacks coming from the press, some of the Directors of the ZMD and certain political figures will not cease. He said the most important thing for the trustees is to secure the uninterrupted continuation of ZMD funding of the museum.”

That assertion was supported by board chairman John Roberts, who cited a public-relations expert’s advice that “until Dr. Archibald leaves the museum, the political problems both at the ZMD and in the city cannot be favorably resolved.”

If there was a single moment of introspection, even a fleeting thought that the museum woes might have been caused by something other than hostile media scoundrels and politicians (say, auditors?), it was missed in the minutes. Archibald’s narrative of a noble man and museum under siege by tireless enemies carried the day.

All of this said, had the trustees stopped at an outpouring of emotion for an old friend, it would have been more than understandable. But the financial largesse given to an employee who was resigning of his own volition was truly something you don’t see every day.

As was widely reported at the time, they voted to provide Archibald a six-month, $270,000 consulting contract, presumably to help with transition, fundraising, and the selection of a new president.

But the minutes provide fascinating insights, with Roberts telling fellow trustees “the Museum would get more than its money’s worth by ensuring Dr. Archibald’s transition assistance and with fundraising, particularly considering the two-and one half years of compensation that Dr. Archibald has agreed to forgo.”

That emphasis was added by me. If your job is to protect the museum’s resources, why would you “consider” the value of a new deal in the context of what someone had agreed to forgo in the past?

And there was more: The trustees accelerated a retirement plan and even agreed to pay up to $5,000 in Archibald’s legal fees incurred while negotiating all these agreements with themselves.

Archibald came into the meeting to quit his job and left like a winning contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Lost in all of this was a simple fact: Unless there’s more to this story than we know, Archibald had not needed to resign. All that he and his board needed to do—but apparently could not endure—was to conduct their business as if the Missouri History Museum was a public institution and not a private one.

Even as recently as October, after an independent audit of the ZMD sharply criticized the awful 2005 land deal, and after the details of the extravagant “vacation plan” prompted widespread disapproval for pretty obvious reasons, Archibald had a very simple path to keeping his job: Just take your medicine.

At worst, this would have meant accepting the same level of public oversight for the institution that is given the Zoo, Art Museum, and Science Center. And, yes, passing on that big check.

The ZMD board has eight members, and four of them were rightly appalled by the financial excesses of Archibald and his Board of Trustees. They are Gloria Wessels, Charles Valier (who as a young legislator spearheaded the creation of the ZMD more than four decades ago), Robert Lowery, and Jerome Glick.

The four are the unlikeliest of teammates, widely divergent in their politics and backgrounds, and only united by their revulsion to how the History Museum came to become a piggybank for Archibald. But they did come to the same, obvious conclusion: Either the museum needs to treat its funds as a public trust, or it no longer should receive public support.

The four have warned that they might block all or part of the museum’s tax-dollar allocation if it refuses to accept full financial oversight by the ZMD sub-district commission that is charged with that role. The private Board of Trustees—which has even argued that sunshine laws don’t govern it as a public body—could no longer control a budget that was more than 70 percent funded by taxpayers.

That’s it. No one was interfering with the work of the museum or its collections or telling Archibald how to do his job. His resignation was not demanded in the context of the museum receiving its funding. He and his board just had to accept public oversight of public funds—just like the other ZMD institutions.

Had he been willing to suffer such an indignation, Archibald would still have had his $500,000-plus job, sitting atop the world of history museums. Life couldn’t have been that bad: Not only was Archibald one of the highest paid people nationally in that job, earning more than double what counterparts at similar-sized museums made and nearly as much as the director of the Smithsonian—but he enjoyed widespread respect in his profession.

In the same month that brought him down, Archibald received the Award of Distinction—essentially a lifetime achievement award—from the American Association for State and Local History. In his industry, he was, as one colleague described him in the Post-Dispatch, “a rock star.”

Archibald was admired for his passion for history and as a champion of race relations, disability rights, public education, and many other good causes. There were critics within the museum—the controversy had prompted a fair number of present and past employees to allege to the ZMD members that he ran the institution with arrogance—but none of that was proven or, in the end, even relevant to his departure.

Archibald appears to have resigned in revulsion at the notion of greater public accountability. Or perhaps he was just ready to resign.

What’s most important now is the way forward after Archibald. It’s rather fascinating, because when you remove him and his compensation issues from the picture, what you’re left with is pleasantly boring.

St. Louis has an outstanding history museum with some of the best funding of institutions of its kind. The trustees themselves represent the best of St. Louis, coming from all walks of life and all sorts of resources, with an unusual amount of diversity and a great commitment to history. They have much to offer.

Structurally, there are tedious governance issues remaining: If the public is funding more than 70 percent of an institution, it can’t cede control of those finances to any group that doesn’t have 100 percent transparency and accountability. It’s pretty clear that this is the role of the ZMD sub-district commission, as is the case for the other institutions.

But the trustees still are the custodians of the museum’s historical contents and should maintain full control over the disposition, display, and management of the museum’s property. With 51 members, the board is unwieldy for management but critical as a “friends” group supporting private fundraising and the essential connection of the museum to the community.

I’m not sure how things got the way they are. My best theory is that Archibald was a big personality who stayed long enough—and with enough success—that he dominated his own board. And that eventually got out of hand.

Privately, trustees have told me that the big compensation payoffs for Archibald were the result of deals made with him up to a decade ago, when it was feared that he would depart for another city. They concede that the “vacation plan” was a creative phrase for “deferred compensation plan.”

In retrospect, the trustees had quietly made a deal with their key employee that they shouldn’t have made, especially given the amount of public funding that was coming to the museum. As a process, and in the amount of dollars, it could not be justified at the end.

So it came to pass that we had the spectacle of the past six months. And if we’re going to avoid more of the same, there has to be a realization that it’s not the people on the inside of the museum organization who matter.

It’s the ones on the outside.

The museum is theirs.

SLM co-owner  is a panelist on KETC Channel 9’s Donnybrook, which airs Thursdays at 7 p.m.

 

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