Maryland Historical Society taps Mass. museum head as new executive director

January 15, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Dennis A. Fiori, director of the Concord Museum in Massachusetts, has been named executive director of the Maryland Historical Society and will assume the post March 14.

The new director called the society "a great place with a tremendous potential" that can be improved by "leadership coordination and a better operating agenda." The society will become a first-rate educational institution with "a good reputation in terms of public service, outreach and a genuine interest in all the people of Maryland," he said.

The appointment comes after an eight-month search that began when former director Charles T. Lyle resigned abruptly in April. -- At the time, MHS board president Jack S. Griswold denied Mr. Lyle was forced out. He indicated the society was planning a substantial capital campaign and needed a more aggressive fund-raiser as director.

"He [Mr. Fiori] has fund-raising skills which we feel obviously are very important in going forward," said Mr. Griswold. The society, in this its 150th anniversary year, will have a special $150,000 fund campaign. This is in addition to the regular annual giving campaign aimed at members and friends which, with membership fees, brings in about $430,000 of the $1.4 million budget, Mr. Griswold said.

Farther ahead is a major capital campaign for facilities and endowment that will probably be launched before the end of this year. But Mr. Griswold said the amount has not been decided.

Mr. Fiori, 44, will take over an organization in need of work. It needs more exhibit, storage and library space as well as renovations to the West Monument Street facilities. It also is trying to shed its image as a tradition-bound elitist institution and become more outreaching.

"The major thing," said Mr. Fiori, "is to bring to it a sense of mission, establish some obtainable goals, come to some agreement about what is best for the institution."

Mr. Fiori has overseen tremendous growth at the Concord Museum since he went there in 1982. During his tenure, the budget increased from $80,000 to $900,000, annual attendance rose from 17,000 to 50,000, there was a successful $3.7 million capital and endowment campaign, and a building was added to the museum's complex.

"The man is immense in his ability to keep a myriad of balls in the air and not drop one of them," said Peter Woll, a member of the Concord Museum's board of governors.

"The driving force behind the educational emphasis was to get the community more involved," said Mr. Fiori. "When I arrived at the Concord Museum it was a decorative arts museum that had very little to do with Concord's history." The emphasis was changed to create a history museum "to teach about Concord's past," in part by reinstalling, reinterpreting and relabeling the collection, he said, adding that they also made the museum self-guided rather than tour-guided.

Assessing himself, the director designate said, "I have thorough training and experience in American history and American decorative arts, but those are not my strengths." He called himself "primarily a manager, administrator and fund-raiser."

Mr. Fiori said the MHS has "a superb collection with an excellent staff and a board willing to work to improve the institution." But he added it needs to be "more broad-based, with a wide range of programming to deal with more aspects of Maryland's history."

He said he'd like to see the society present shows that, for example, reveal "the impact of sports on Maryland's life, and the contributions of ethnic and religious groups on Maryland's history." But, he added, he was not yet familiar enough with state history to be more specific.

He also mentioned the possibility of working with county historical societies and other local museums.

Mr. Fiori praised several of the society's recent exhibits. "Of all the exhibitions I've seen in the last 10 years, it made the most impression on me," he said of "Mining the Museum," New York artist Fred Wilson's ground-breaking installation on museum collecting and African-American and American Indian history. "It was very brave of [the society] to do; it showed a willingness to take a different look at artifacts and it's something we should do."

Mr. Fiori acknowledged the need for facility expansion, but said he doesn't want the society to move from its present Mount Vernon area location. "I would like to see it be a catalyst for a revival of that whole area, making it a place people want to come to."

Mr. Griswold said that the society's board has been too large and interfered too much with the day-to-day operation, making the director's job difficult.

But the process of recruiting a new director has brought about some changes. The society's by-laws have been rewritten, reducing the size of the board and making the director the chief executive officer. The changes were approved unanimously by the present board at its meeting Thursday, Mr. Griswold said. This was the same meeting that approved Mr. Fiori's hiring.

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