Members of the Museum of Arts and Culture board appear to be digging in for a protracted battle with other supporters of the financially strapped institution.
They gave little sign on Wednesday that they will reverse their controversial decision to fire its executive director as donors, museum members, volunteers and artists warned that they may withdraw support for the MAC without resignations from the board, reinstatement of the fired director or at the least an explanation for why he was fired.
Chris Schnug, president of the MAC board, told a crowd at Wednesday’s special MAC board meeting that the public will never get an explanation for why the director, Forrest Rodgers, was fired after less than a year on the job.
“I am going to repeat to you today, and I will repeat to you this over and over again: This is a personnel matter. It will not be discussed in public. (Discussing) it is absolutely something that is inappropriate in any terms,” she said soon after the board opened a public forum. “I apologize if you can’t deal with that.”
About 100 people attended the meeting, many of whom got up to leave after Schnug’s comments. Grumbling from the audience included, “This is a sham!” and “Why do you think we came here?” Most stayed, however, after others implored them to keep asking questions.
Despite a few more attempts to prevent the audience from talking about Rodgers’ firing, the board eventually gave up and those who testified roundly criticized the board and Rodgers’ termination, often to loud applause.
Some argued that as an institution supported by taxpayers, the public has a right to know more about the decision and noted that Rodgers had asked deliberations over his firing to be conducted publicly.
“I would ask the board of this museum how it would explain that it would have so little respect for those taxpayers and those donors and those volunteers and those ticket buyers that it would do its most important business in secrecy?” said Jim Price, a museum member and donor who is the former chairman of the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission.
The board scheduled the session in the aftermath of the controversial firing, but it labeled it a “special session,” scheduled presentations on museum funding, and told the audience that discussion was limited to the topics discussed in the presentations.
Anne Hanenburg, a city arts commissioner who helped a campaign to save the museum last year, said the controversy is eroding support for the MAC.
“I feel very passionate about this organization and I fear that we are going to lose it. We’re going to lose it because of the public image of what’s happening here,” she said. “I’ve had nothing but favorable encounters with Mr. Rodgers and what he represents here for our community, and if this isn’t rectified, we’re not going to exist.”
Nima Motahari, an architectural engineer and local musician, asked the audience not to abandon the museum, but to keep pressure on for a new board.
“This is an embarrassment to this community and it has nothing to do about Forrest,” he said. “The reason you guys (board members) are staying on is there is something else that you guys are not telling the public and one way or another we’re going to get to what that is.”
The museum’s separate foundation board and American Indian Cultural Council have both unanimously called on the board to rehire Rodgers. The foundation board also has called for the resignations of the executive committee. Schnug said after the meeting she had no comment on calls for her and other members of the executive committee to resign.
The executive committee of the MAC board violated its rules by terminating Rodgers late last month without conducting a vote of the full board. The full MAC board upheld the firing on May 2 in a 12-7 vote.
Rodgers’ attorneys sent a letter to the MAC board last week arguing that he remains the executive director because the termination was conducted illegally. They also said Rodgers would file a tort claim for more than $750,000 if the termination is upheld.
Jerry Dicker, a prominent local arts contributor who along with his wife, Patty Dicker, purchased the Bing Crosby Theater earlier this year, said if the executive committee has the best interest of the MAC at heart, they would resign. Patty Dicker is a MAC board member who opposed Rodgers’ termination.
“As a donor I would not contribute any more money to the MAC under its present circumstances,” he said. “The issue is you have, in my opinion, an arrogant, self-centered, jackass of an executive board.”
Local artist and MAC supporter Catherine Bergeron said trustees were being hypocritical and called for the board to be dissolved.
“You have a board of trustees who are breaking their own laws and say they’re going to abide by the law of keeping employee information private. You’re really throwing mud on your own face,” she said. “And I can’t wait to see the art that comes from this. It could be very embarrassing for the Board of Trustees.”
Craig Conrad, an architect who has been a liaison between the MAC and a proposed aerospace museum, said Rodgers worked hard to build relationships in the community.
“My wife is ready to burn our membership cards and send the ashes back,” he said.
The museum’s foundation board called on the MAC board on Wednesday to ask the American Association of Museums, which has accredited the MAC, to “investigate the issues and act as a neutral facilitator to bring all the interested parties” together.
MAC board member Jim Sullivan, who opposed Rodgers’ termination, tried to introduce a motion to deal with the foundation board proposal, but he was prevented by other members from doing so.
Schnug said after the meeting that she’s confident that MAC supporters only want what’s best for the museum, and in the long-term will continue their support, though she added: “The information that’s been in the media creates additional challenges for the MAC and I hope these are short term.”