It’s been a bipolar year for the History Museum of Mobile. Never up for long, but never staying down, either.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson eliminated the museum’s entrance fee in fall 2014. Attendance is higher than it’s been in five years, up 60 percent at this point.
The flip side is Director David Alsobrook being placed on leave May 22 and Senior Curator Jacob Laurence handling many of his duties until July 6. Its tie-in, the loggerhead between the museum board and mayor’s office, is no secret and has spawned copious rumors.
To cut the fog with more specifics, Artifice sat down with Stimpson Chief of Staff Colby Cooper. After redlining the Cultural and Civic Development Department in late 2013, Cooper became overseer of the History Museum of Mobile, the Mobile Museum of Art and the Mobile Film Office.
Cooper began with a known tale, of Alsobrook’s 2014 purchase of staff perks — massages and meals — with board money. He characterized it as the “tipping point” of a brewing conflict between board and staff over financial roles, and produced emails, credit card receipts and other meticulous records.
The administration first notified Alsobrook of its concerns, then the City Council. Disagreements unveiled a morass.
“You have city staff or merit-system employees under the Mobile County Personnel Board, so they are a department of the city of Mobile,” Cooper said. “You have a board that also had some employees that were also reporting to employees of the city of Mobile and a board who had independent spending authority outside the city of Mobile, where you had city of Mobile employees spending the money of an independent board with independent spending authority.”
Cooper said overlap is impermissible, as the mayor is the only authority to direct city employees. They sought to delineate function and finance, getting rid of board credit cards, gift cards and a laundry list of property.
“We returned a warehouse facility, a box truck, a pickup truck, a 12-foot trailer, a riding lawnmower, a tiller, a push mower, a blower, an edger, a desktop computer, a digital camera and the city employees relinquished access to a Wells Fargo account that had $512,000 in it,” Cooper said, reading from a list.
The 53-year-old ordinances governing the museum gave the board a degree of independent financial leeway. The mayor’s office insisted they were making administrative decisions without being qualified to do so.
Before long, the museum board retained its own counsel. As so often happens when everyone “lawyers up,” relations were guarded and nearly fractious. Board members fell away like autumn leaves.
What does the board want? It would seem it seeks to manage the facility using city funds, to set admission prices and to manage property, but the mayor’s office doesn’t agree since the board owns no lease for the property.
Negotiations continue through the City Council and on June 17 the board delivered an ad hoc committee recommendation. A board member told Lagniappe reporter Dale Liesch the recent proposal is similar to the autonomy afforded the board of city-owned Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Is all of this progress?
“Because the matter has not decided which direction he wants to go, we can just say that ideas toward a resolution are being readily discussed,” Cooper said.
So beyond the statement of “needing a change in dynamic,” why specifically the administrative leave for Alsobrook? After all, Cooper admitted the director initially attempted to help them in bridging the divide with the board.
“This is a very sensitive personnel matter. David is protected by the Mobile County Personnel Board and he holds employee rights. He’s also retained individual legal counsel,” Cooper said, with no further elaboration.
Why was museum Assistant Director Sheila Flanagan not bumped up into Alsobrook’s slot upon his leave? Why did the curator get the nod?
“Sheila runs the visitor center and Sheila has not been involved in the day-to-day operation of the history museum in several years, and Jacob Laurence has been,” Cooper said. “Jacob assumed the duties of the director so that the history museum could continue with the continuity we expected. He’s not acting director.”
Was the eliminated admission fee a move to spite the board or force its hand as rumored?
“It’s a model that great museums across this country have used, like the Dallas Museum of Art and the Smithsonians, that when you have these incredible public stories to tell, they should be accessible to all people, especially in a city with as much abject poverty as we have,” Cooper said.
Aside from the tiresome delineation — not of “function and finance” but of “my side against yours” — Artifice finds it disappointing ostensible adults can’t grasp a bigger picture. They are all stewards of public trust, not feudal lords, so their better selves should rule.
Also, the board roster contains accomplished individuals from a variety of professions, most doing their best to support their community. But among the retirees, lawyers, financial advisers, doctors, public relations executives, entrepreneurs and arts patrons, what you don’t see are historians.
That falls on the City Council, as nominations are their choice. Is it oversight or coincidence our area’s noted history professionals aren’t in the mix? Or is quid pro quo patronage afoot?
Mobile adores its history. Have we yet to learn it’s best as a tool for the future, not just an escape from the present?