In what might be a first in state government, a museum director who was fired has gotten his job back thanks to the intervention of the governor’s office.
H.L. McGill was fired as director of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in March after, according to his personnel file, the museum missed a grant deadline and he missed a meeting at which he was to speak, among other things. He will be back on the job Monday, June 6.
The Black Legislative Caucus, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center Advisory Board and the Friends of the MTCC, and community activists went to the governor after the firing.
Matt deCample, spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said, “The governor is generally reluctant to get involved in any agency personnel matters. In this case, we had a number of other parties reach out to us who were affiliated with the Cultural Center.” After meetings with McGill’s advocates and his supervisors at the Department of Arkansas Heritage, which operates the museum, the governor felt “Mr. McGill’s termination may have been hasty and an additional review and opportunity for him to carry out his duties would be the most prudent course.”
The $11.4 million Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, which has exhibits on African Americans in Arkansas, including the Ninth Street business district, the fraternal organization that was created there, and a collection of art made by black Arkansans, opened in 2008. It has had two directors since its opening; Constance Sarto, who left in March 2010, and McGill, who was hired in December 2010. Curator Heather Zbinden acted as director in the interim.
There have been many reports of friction between Zbinden, who has left the museum for another state job, and McGill. Zbinden is white; McGill is black, and in a speech prepared for the black caucus he wrote that “shocking things” happened at the museum “and would never have happened to a white director.”
When people say things aren’t about race, they usually are. But Deputy Director of Museums Trey Berry and DAH director Cathie Matthews says that is not the case. Matthews said she has “no concerns” about race-related issues at the museum. There is now only one white person on staff.
In “desk notes” by Berry in McGill’s personnel file, Berry writes that he informed McGill that his No. 1 goal was to complete the Institute of Museum and Library Services grant, one that the previous director had failed to submit, demoralizing the staff. In later notes, Berry said he was concerned that McGill didn’t answer e-mails and over McGill’s response that it wasn’t his work style to check his e-mail all day. After McGill’s dismissal, Berry found 252 unopened e-mails from MTCC and DAH staff on McGill’s computer.
In January, after the museum missed the deadline to file the IMLS grant, Berry put McGill on a two-year “disciplinary action.”
McGill, interviewed Wednesday, after his reinstatement was decided, said Berry’s desk notes were falsehoods and that it was Zbinden’s failure, not his, that the grant deadline was missed. He said she refused to get in touch with partners the Friday before the deadline, but an e-mail from Zbinden to McGill says that the partners were for an old grant, would not fit with the new grant proposal, and that she didn’t have any partnership ideas for the new grant.
Berry, who will be McGill’s supervisor until August, when he leaves to become the dean of liberal arts at Southern Arkansas University, has set goals for McGill to meet over the next few months. Among them are that the director meet with the staff the second week in June and hear their concerns, conduct a search for an assistant director and a finance director, and set the museum’s rental policies and fees at a price the public can afford, but that will cover wear and tear on the museum. “I’m all for second chances,” Berry told a reporter Wednesday.
Museum Advisory Board head John Cain, who worked for two decades to create a museum in the Mosaic Templars building (the original burned down in 2006; the museum is a near-replica of that building), said he wrote the governor asking him to rescind the firing. He noted that the Department of Arkansas Heritage had asked McGill, who worked for the Arkansas Arts Council since 2002, to apply for the job, adding that the director’s job description was “nebulous.”