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Museum of Discontent 

Rehiring Forrest Rodgers didn’t end chaos and frustration at the MAC

click to enlarge Young Kwak
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Wearing one of his signature bow ties, Forrest Rodgers, executive director of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, stands before a crowd of board members at a special Aug. 16 trustee meeting and unfurls his vision for the museum’s future. To him, it’s adapt or perish.

“We really, I believe, are at a reckoning point in the history of the museum,” Rodgers says. “We’re going through a period of loss. We’re going through a period of change.”

For years, the MAC has suffered from deep budget cuts, chronic uncertainty, serial layoffs and tepid attendance. But this year, there’s an additional challenge: An independent state investigation into Rodgers’ leadership, spurred by a staff complaint, revealed a divided museum full of unhappy employees.

After more than a dozen pages of witness testimony — detailed in public records obtained by the Inlander — the investigator concluded it was more than likely that Rodgers’ “leadership and communication since August 2012 has had a significant and detrimental impact on the MAC, including museum programming, education, community outreach, staff morale, staff retention and the staff’s ability to perform as required by their position description.”

Uncertain Homecoming

It’s never easy to gauge how much an executive director, especially a new director in an uncertain climate, can be blamed for the struggles of an institution. But these numbers are clear: This past fiscal year has been one of the grimmest in the MAC’s recent history. The museum had the lowest number of paid visitors, member visitors and membership revenue in at least a decade.

That dismal year began without Rodgers at the helm. In April 2012, the executive committee broke board bylaws to fire Rodgers, who’d been on the job less than nine months, then repeatedly refused to tell the public why. Rodgers threatened to sue the museum for $750,000 if he didn’t get his job back.

Donors revolted, bow-tie-clad protesters packed heated meetings, board members resigned, new board members were hired. In July, after more than three months of turmoil, Rodgers was asked to return.

“I walked back into that building knowing there were people who were very disappointed that I was returning,” Rodgers says. “[And] knowing that there were people who were elated I was back. And not necessarily knowing who was who.”

During those first few months, a state human resources specialist recorded one staffer saying it was like the museum was “in a war.” One side for Rodgers, the other against him.

Nearly immediately, Rodgers clashed with the staff’s vision. They had proposed what they called the “Go For It” budget, which would have dipped deep into reserves in order to “invest” in the MAC and address flagging attendance. But Rodgers saw that budget as “naïve and irresponsible” and presented the board with something more conservative.

Museum staff spent months preparing to bring “Soulful Creatures” — a touring exhibition of ancient Egyptian animal mummies and sarcophagi — to the MAC. After all, the biggest driver of attendance, donations and net revenue in recent history was the museum-wide touring Leonardo da Vinci exhibit in 2011. But Rodgers angered some staff members by nixing the plans, believing the exhibit was too pricey and had little to do with regional history.

Programs Manager Laura Thayer, essentially the museum’s second-in-command, left the MAC after 20 years at the end of September 2012. She didn’t believe Rodgers wanted her on his team. “I didn’t see a way forward,” Thayer says.

Airing of Grievances

Starting in May of this year, state investigator Scott Nicholson began sitting down with employees at the MAC, inquiring about Rodgers’ performance after he’d been rehired.

Rose Krause, curator of special collections, had filed a complaint accusing Rodgers of gender discrimination, retaliating against those who opposed his rehiring and serious leadership flaws.

In her interview, she portrayed Rodgers as an “unprofessional,” “disrespectful” and frequently absent leader who gave little instruction, motivation or direction. With Thayer gone and Rodgers uncommunicative, she told Nicholson that program staff had little guidance. Big events would be sprung on program staff without much discussion or warning. Rodgers, she says, “does not understand how a museum works.”

Krause also claimed Rodgers showed favoritism toward certain staff members, mostly males or those who supported his rehiring, meeting frequently with them and practically ignoring others. Nicholson’s investigation cleared Rodgers of the gender discrimination and retaliation charges, but also identified serious leadership and communication issues.

Of the 34 current and former staff members interviewed, 11 believed Rodgers had showed favoritism toward men or discriminated against women. Seven felt he’d retaliated against certain employees who hadn’t supported him, while 11 said he had disregarded museum procedure. And 21 employees reported communication problems.

Thayer called Rodgers’ communication “divisive” and “duplicitous.” Chief Financial Officer John Drexel said Rodgers wouldn’t share critical information, “causing staff not to have a clear vision and begin speculating on what is going on.”

The frustration pervaded practically every level of the museum. Communication problems, the facilities custodian said, had put staff on “pins and needles.” Marketing and Communications Director Rebecca Bishop said Rodgers “had a victim mentality,” blaming his leadership team instead of taking responsibility.

Even employees who Krause claimed Rodgers had favored had problems with him: Exhibit designer Ryan Hardesty said Rodgers “wavers even on small decisions.”

Rodgers isn’t without his supporters. Though many were recent hires, 10 of the employees interviewed by Nicholson had no criticism for Rodgers. Some of his fans call him “professional,” inclusive” and “welcoming.” In their eyes, Rodgers has faced resentful staff members.

“[His] hands are tied and I fear if he makes changes it will look like retaliation,” Confidential Secretary Linda Queen told Nicholson.

In a sprawling, two-hour interview with the Inlander last Friday, Rodgers took responsibility for some of the communication failure. He agreed some employees have reason to feel he’s been discourteous. But he also said he didn’t have the time for the same sort of discussion-oriented leadership as Thayer. He was focused on meeting with concerned donors and preparing for the Legislature, trusting program staff could operate without his day-to-day influence. “They’re professionals,” Rodgers says. “They know what they need to do.”

He blames staff for some of the tense atmosphere, arguing that some employees were inflexible, overly sensitive and resistant to evidence of the museum’s flaws. To Nicholson, he defended his right to selectively share information, and criticized the museum’s “culture of unnecessary interdependence which has created a license for knowing about everything.”

The New Landscape

Unlike before he was rehired, Rodgers now has the board’s unanimous support.

Board President Al Payne says he is a big fan of Rodgers’ business plan. “We asked the staff to come aboard and support it,” Payne says. “They have a lot to lose if it doesn’t work.”

Rodgers is at his most animated elaborating on his plan for the MAC: He says he wants to tear down the barriers between the art, history and American Indian sections.

Over the next two years, don’t expect any blockbuster exhibits like the da Vinci exhibit, or much changeover in exhibits. Expect a museum that uses speakers, programs, events — maybe even actors portraying “living history” — to drive admissions. And expect a push for more state revenue and a new fundraising initiative to begin this spring.

But some worry that what the board hears about the museum is filtered through Rodgers.

“While they have good intentions, there’s this huge, huge disconnect between the daily operations and what happens with the board,” says Ginger Ewing, former curator for cultural literacy who left in December for another job and was not interviewed for the report. “It’s jaw-dropping that the board is still going to do nothing about [the investigation]. That leaves the staff totally voiceless, totally invisible and totally helpless.”

Rodgers says he plans to sit down with his critics and a state-assigned human resources consultant this week. He says he’ll start giving employees more one-on-ones, performance evaluations and long-term plans.

Not all of Rodgers’ detractors still work at the MAC. Some have retired or quit. Two of Rodgers’ harshest critics in the reports, Bishop and Museum Services Manager Lori Bertis, recently saw their positions eliminated due to budget constraints.

But morale issues persist. Two staff members have filed two more complaints, one of which has been dismissed; the other is being investigated.

Rodgers is aware of the challenge. “There are some people who are still mad at me … and are feeling as though this new direction is an explicit criticism to all they’ve done in the past,” he says.

Even as the museum seeks supplemental state funding, Rodgers wrote to the board in his response to the investigation, “we still will have to address the intransigence and resistance of staff unable or unwilling to embrace the changes required to move forward.” 

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