`Risk taker' put in charge in St. Mary's

Museum heavyweight hired to jump-start outpost of tourism

April 02, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Three decades of archaeology at Historic St. Mary's City -- the site of Maryland's vanished 17th-century capital -- have produced some extraordinary glimpses into the lives of Maryland's first settlers. But tourists and their dollars remain scarce.

Except for a reconstructed statehouse and tavern, and a small museum, most traces of the Colonial village remain buried in the ground, or in the imagination.

In its latest bid to jump-start the state-owned tourist outpost with new money and leadership, the Historic St. Mary's City Commission has hired a museum heavyweight to be its next executive director -- its third in five years.

He's Martin E. Sullivan, 55, executive director of the Heard Museum, in Phoenix, Ariz. The Heard is a world-famous museum of Native American art and culture. It has a budget of nearly $5 million, 90 employees, a $10 million endowment and a quarter-million visitors a year. It recently completed a $20 million capital campaign and built a 50,000-square-foot addition.

When he starts in St. Mary's City on June 1, Sullivan will inherit a taxpayer-funded budget of $2.4 million a year, a full-time staff of 38, no endowment and less tourist traffic in a year than the National Aquarium in Baltimore sees in a week.

"I guess in my whole career in the museum field, I have been kind of a risk taker," he said. "I like to do start-ups and turnarounds."

That kind of language is typical of Sullivan, who believes nonprofit organizations -- and the communities they serve -- can benefit from a more entrepreneurial, growth-oriented style of management. "And Historic St. Mary's City is ready to grow," he said.

Yet he said he agrees with 1997 legislation that made tourism and economic development secondary to Historic St. Mary's City's educational responsibilities and that affiliated it with St. Mary's College of Maryland.

"That appeals to me a lot," he said. "The archaeology and historic research that has been the strength of the museum has not been fully translated into the educational arena."

Sullivan does not come cheap. Historic St. Mary's City (HSMC) spokeswoman Karin B. Stanford said he'll be paid $125,000 a year, a big advance over his predecessor's $70,000 salary. Sullivan was the commission's overwhelming choice.

Sullivan has a doctorate in U.S. social and cultural history. He has served as director of the New York State Museum in Albany and as director of public programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was chairman of the President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property and represented the United States at the 1998 Museum Summit of the Americas in Costa Rica.

Impressive credibility

His professional stature should give Historic St. Mary's City access to badly needed private-sector donors, said Jeanne Chandler, a member of the commission and president of its fund-raising and membership arm. "His credibility in his field means a lot to us. The fact that he would choose to come to us is very impressive," she said.

Sullivan said he expects to spend a lot time bringing in money.

Henry Miller, HSMC's research director, said, "Resources have long been a key difficulty, both to make the discoveries and to build exhibits about them."

A $5 million campaign to rebuild the Great Brick Chapel -- the first Catholic Church in English America -- on its original foundations has begun. Miller also wants to build 15 "ghost frames" to show visitors the location and scale of the vanished buildings whose remains have been found in the soil.

"With each passing month, fascinating new discoveries are being made about the city that lies buried here," Miller said.

But, of the thousands of recovered artifacts that could be displayed, the tiny museum exhibits fewer than 200. A bigger one is badly needed, officials say.

Archaeologists say they will be watching closely to see whether Sullivan can create a more engaging attraction without damaging the fragile archaeological resources that are in the ground, or misinterpreting those that have emerged.

"They need to balance tourism against science," said Richard Hughes, Maryland's chief archaeologist. "They must be extremely sensitive to the unique resource they have down there."

The post that Sullivan is filling has a turbulent history. Sarah E. Patton, who took the job in May 1994, resigned in frustration two years later, complaining that the state had failed to properly fund and manage the work at HSMC, a National Historic Landmark.

Her successor, Candace Matelic, quit last May after 11 months on the job. She left after a still- unexplained clash with commission chairman Benjamin C. Bradlee, a prominent St. Mary's County resident and former Washington Post editor.

Matelic was well liked by community groups, and they were upset by her departure. They were not consulted during the six-month search for her successor, but they do support the commission's choice.

"What we need is a really strong, good, professional person, and he [Sullivan] seems to be like that," said Polly Barber, a member of the Historic St. Mary's City Coalition. "I hope this man can make it into a very visible park."

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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