Museums seek pizazz in marketing Executive director agrees to resign City Life post

'It was a leadership issue'

New exhibit center is open, but attendance lags

November 12, 1996|By Joan Jacobson and Marcia Myers | Joan Jacobson and Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Less than a year after appointing John W. Durel executive director of the Baltimore City Life Museums, the museum's board of directors has quietly pressured him out, saying it needs a leader capable of putting the museum in a brighter spotlight.

Durel agreed to resign Friday after meeting privately with board Chairwoman Marcella Schuyler. He was not offered another position at the museum, where he has worked for 11 years. The decision followed numerous private discussions among board members over the past two months.

"It was a leadership issue," said one board member. "There was a consensus among the board about this action."

Many worried that Durel's low-key style and curatorial background were inadequate for bringing the museum regional or national attention.

"We're in the position now of saying that we want a different kind of focus than John is providing," Schuyler said yesterday. "We want someone more marketing oriented. We want to position ourselves as the premier heritage museum.

"With all that is happening at the harbor and the Convention Center, we have a wonderful opportunity to capture both tourists and Baltimoreans."

The management turmoil at Baltimore's chief repository of local history comes at an awkward time, nevertheless. In less than two months, the city will launch a series of yearlong celebrations for its bicentennial.

Although attendance at the City Life Museums has doubled since the opening last spring of an $8.4 million addition, the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, it remains well under the museum's goal of 100,000 annual visitors. Last month, Durel laid off six of the museum's 46 employees to avoid exceeding the museum's $2.8 million budget.

Yesterday, Durel said he agreed to resign because the board "has undergone a leadership change and clearly they were looking for a different kind of director, somebody with a marketing background."

"I clearly felt like my skills are as an historian and as a professional, working with the interpretation side of things," said Durel, who has a doctorate in American history.

The board can shoulder some of the blame for a year that has not been as successful as envisioned, Schuyler said. The opening of the new exhibit center distracted many from attending to routine business, she said.

"We opened in April a 30,000-square-foot building -- everything we had been about in the past year was about opening that building," she said. "After the building was open, there was a lot of catching up to do."

Attendance figures were two-thirds below the goal. "Baltimore didn't know we were there," Schuyler said. "We missed the entire peak tourist season."

John H. Ott, executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum on the city's west side, said steering the City Life Museums toward success had to be a formidable challenge.

"You talk about city life -- it doesn't say train, it doesn't say Civil War," he said. "People can't grasp it. History is a very tough thing. I think he was handed something that was very difficult.

"He could be a good executive director, but as a No. 2 person you couldn't have anybody more faithful, working staff, dealing with programs," Ott said. "He has those skills. He's a very quiet person, but very broad-reaching in what he can oversee and manage."

Durel stepped into the job in February in the unenviable spot of following a vibrant predecessor, Nancy Brennan, who had headed the museum of 12 years. During her tenure she saw the City Life Museums grow from two buildings to eight sites.

Schuyler acknowledges that the board failed to sit down and identify the traits that members wanted in a leader after Brennan abruptly resigned to take a new job. Durel, the museum's assistant director, seemed a logical choice.

"He could hit the ground running in picking up projects," she said.

With his departure, Sally Zinno, a museum consultant based in Wilmington, Del., has been hired as interim director until the board chooses a permanent replacement. That search is expected to take about six months.

The board has also created a marketing and management oversight team to get board members more closely involved in museum operations.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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